I'm just going to say it: I feel like so many people are on drugs when they talk about poetry--drugs, drugs, drugs. The New York Times published an article saying we have more poets today, thanks to a proliferation of MFA programs, but we don't actually have more great poets, and once John Ashbery dies--morbid thought imbedded there--we might not have any great poets. This whole category of an established--and therefore defined--greatness, seems nuts to me. That critics are able to act like Ashbery--or any other "great" poet--writes in a void of greatness is insane. Great poets don't come out of nowhere. Ashbery would not be the poet he is without the other poets around him. Ashbery may have read the greats--Shakespeare, Eliot, Bishop and whoever else you want to shove into that elusive, yet rigid and dry category--but he also admitted to, when he was stuck, reading minor poets, poets he thought weren't very good. He thought about what these poets were doing, he thought about why he thought they failed, and it freed him up. Having fewer poets writing might make a critic's life easier, but I don't buy the argument that it would actually lead to more "great" poets. The place where it seems to me this argument is headed is--you shouldn't write poetry unless you know you're going to be great. That's ridiculous. (Link to the Times article in top right hand corner).
The article in the Times says that Lowell wasn't a great poet, but Bishop was. Now, I'm a bigger fan of Bishop than I am of Lowell, but Lowell has several poems that I love. I think the world would be worse off without his poetry. What's more, Lowell and Bishop may never have had a romantic relationship (as the article points out), but they did have a poetic relationship--they wrote to each other, they discussed their poetry, and they dedicated poems to each other. Bishop would not be the poet she is if it wasn't for Lowell. Their friendship had an effect on her, and on her poetry. All poets have some kind of dialogue with other poets. This dialogue is important to producing good work.
Poetry has a long and rich history. Now, there are more literate people than ever before, and there are more poets than ever before, writing away. It makes a critic's job a lot harder. It makes a reader's job a lot harder. I am sorry it is hard to wrap your head around the poetic canon as a whole. Maybe the poetic canon has gotten so big it's impossible. Tough. But it is one canon, not two--great and not great. "Great" poems don't get produced without other poems--and not just the other "great" poems--they aren't separable that way.
Poetry defies easy categories, and all easy measures. THAT is what is so great about it. We've gotten so bad at talking about things we can't quantify--in dollars, in percentages, in graphs. Poems ask us to talk about them without quantifying, and that is what gives us so much trouble. Categories (such as great and not great) are a lame end-run around this problem. Don't get me wrong--greatness does exist in poems, in poets, but letting someone else, or even a group of someone elses, assign it for you is dangerous.
Interactions with poems should fire your imagination. The imagination is what we use to peer into the future and problem solve--big problems and small problems. What am I going to have for dinner today? You use your imagination making that choice. How am I going to get a better job? You use your imagination. How do we stop genocide? No one has answered that one yet, but if they do it will be an act of the imagination. This is how we bring things into the world before they are there, in the world--we imagine them, then we see what we can do about it. You read a poem and it does something for you, or it doesn't; it excites your imagination, or it doesn't. I know it is more difficult, but that is what we should be talking about. The word great is trivial compared to the discussions we could be having.