Because the charming secretary of my primary physician is called Althea, I read her the last stanza of Richard Lovelace’s “To Althea, from Prison.” I quoted from the old Everyman Library’s Minor Poets of the Seventeenth Century, though I could have from several other of my anthologies. It contains, after all, the famous lines, “Stone walls do not a prison make,/ Nor iron bars a cage,” and what gloriously follows. But that “minor poets” set me thinking: What exactly is a minor poet? What significance, if any, have the epithets minor and major outside musical scales? Do those presumptive categories have any real meaning in the arts?
Well, in some places, alas, they do. When I was teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle, I casually remarked to someone that Theodore Roethke was a good minor poet. MINOR?! All hell broke loose. Roethke, in those days, was the English department's, the university's, perhaps the entire state's, superstar. He taught the celebrity course that yielded some well-known poets, my favorite among them the sadly underrated James Wright. Roethke, who had at times been quite condescending, wrote me an enthusiastic fan letter about a villanelle of mine published in the Paris Review. But, at that time, he was in the elegant loony bin where he periodically, self-depreciatingly stayed.
So what makes a so-called minor artist in poetry? Who determines the classification? If we stick to English poetry, Auden, Eliot, Yeats, Pound, and my favorite Robert Graves have, or ought to have, major status. Many would argue for Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams, not on my list, though nowadays even such an obvious phony as John Ashbery may pass for major. On the other hand, many of my choices--E.E. Cummings, John Crowe Ransom and Louis MacNeice--may be considered minor. I think Richard Wilbur ought to make major as well, but not Robert Lowell.
Let's examine some criteria. Quantity surely is not it. Eliot's main oeuvre can fit into a very slim plaquette, yet clearly registers major. Conversely, such esteemed polygraphers as John Ashbery, who never wrote anything I would call a poem, or Allen Ginsberg, who wrote at best one dubious rant, would probably get enough votes for major.
Innovation may make majors. But only backed up by poetic quality. Otherwise Louis Zukofsky and H.D. might pass for major poets. Surely not. Others may be teetering on the edge. I would seriously consider Dylan Thomas; but what about a poet like Geoffrey Hill, adored by the academy and many fellow poets, but, except for his earliest poems, most obdurately obscure and esoteric, and incomprehensible even to intelligent readers--can that be a major poet? Yet innovative he certainly is.
Popularity might be a criterion, but is it truly? I myself, like thousands of others, cherish the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, but does that make her a major poet? Hers is essentially love poetry or nature poetry (another kind of love poetry), or elegies for transience and mortality. All perfectly good subjects, but perhaps the least bit too facile, too heart-on-the-sleeve, too modest in scope, too--damn it--accessible. Does speaking simply and directly and without any innovation downgrade the work? I confess I'd rather reread a Millay sonnet than an Eliot "Quartet."
I think it would make much more sense to speak of major poems rather than major poets. Individual poems by so-called minor poets can be every bit as good as the best of a major poet, only probably fewer. Take the case of John Pudney. When I was associate editor of the Mid-century Book Society, whose editors were W.H. Auden, Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling, I happened to bring up Pudney in an editorial meeting. "Great guy," exclaimed Auden, who had been friends with the slightly younger Pudney since their school days. "He stood for Parliament while he was drunk." He may indeed have been a helluva fellow, although that may not show clearly from his rather too modest memoir, "Home & Away," subtitled, even more unassumingly, "an autobiographical gambit" in lower case. Yet the man has written at the very least one major poem.
Pudney (1909-77) had a rich and varied life, and published a slew of assorted verse and prose; and, also, as publisher, the verse and prose of many others. In the Royal Air Force during World War II, he held diverse positions. (Google him!) While squadron intelligence officer in Cornwall in 1941, during an air raid, he wrote his most famous poem, "For Johnny." I would group it with a somewhat later trilogy--as I would call it--"Smith," "Missing in Action" and"One Country-Bred," similar RAF poems. Johnny and Smith, after all, could have been the same person. Here is "For Johnny", immensely popular in wartime Britain:
Do not despair
He sleeps as sound
As Johnny underground.
Fetch out no shroud
For Johnny-in the-cloud;
And keep your tears
For him in after years.
Better by far
To keep your head,
And see his children fed.
I won't quote here the abovementioned trilogy, though it too is splendid. But just look how fine this poem is, of which I'll point to only one superb feature. Note how the dead flyer first appears in-the-air, which is rather generalized. But presently he is in-the-cloud, which is much more specific: every time we look at clouds, we may lovingly summon up Johnny flying in them. Finally, he becomes the-bright-star: a permanent, shining memory.
If this isn't a major poem, I don't know what is.