So writes Helen Pinkerton in an email, pointing out something I’ve often thought but never articulated. Even mediocre, middling, inept, fashionable and over-inflated poets can pull off noteworthy lines or phrases. Consider the conclusion of “To a Dead Journalist” by William Carlos Williams: “beneath the lucid ripples / to have found so monstrous / an obscurity.” And Whitman, in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “I too knitted the old knot of contrariety.” And Pound, from “Canto XXXVI”: “He draweth likeness and hue from like nature / So making pleasure more certain in seeming.” In each case, sound and sense are pleasing and memorable, counter to their authors' customary practice, though one must grope through the surrounding murk to find such illuminations.
This shouldn’t surprise us. With mathematics and musical composition, no human endeavor is so difficult, no gift so rare, as the poetic art. (Prose is a little more forgiving.) Two or three first-rate poets per generation represent a bumper-crop, as do two or three first-rate poems per poet across their lifetimes. Dreck is the default mode, genius the scarcest of exceptions, a reality aggravated by the standards of an age in which anything goes. Art is the least democratic and most ruthless of masters. It doesn’t recognize sensitivity, fairness or anyone’s good intentions – writer’s, reader’s, critic’s. Nothing else, only the work, counts.