Can Great Poetry Escape Our Detection?
This is an interesting question: can excellence fly under the radar due to sheer numbers?
Example 1: Could the greatest athlete exist somewhere without anyone knowing it, or soon knowing it? I doubt it. Even though the number of athletes dwarfs the number of poets, the objective detectability and worth of a great athlete would make it impossible for greatness in this category to go unnoticed.
If a 7 foot tall monster basketball player, for instance, existed anywhere on the planet, hiding among 7 billion humans, he would be found. If a woman who could run a mile in 3 minutes existed somewhere–anywhere–she would come to light.
Example 2: Then there’s stuff like physical beauty: rather easy to detect, but there is too much of it for all the beautiful specimens to be ‘counted.’ Super models or actors or any beauties that get national or international attention represent a millionth of a percent of all the really attractive people in the world, so here, in this case, it is due to sheer numbers that human beauty cannot possibly be accounted for, on any sort of global scale.
Is poetry closer to example 1 or example 2?
Three things must be considered: 1) the amount of objective worth displayed in the subject, 2) the number of subjects and 3) the ability to detect the objective worth in the subject.
If there is no objective worth, we can put an end to the issue at once.
If there is objective worth which can be detected, we must ask ourselves how much excellence in terms of numbers probably exist? For instance, if we take a random group of 1,000 poets or a random group of 1,000 poems, how many are likely to be excellent enough that we shouldn’t want to miss it?
And thirdly, how likely is it that a really excellent poet or poem will fly under the radar?
There are many, many people who couldn’t name one poet. These people obviously don’t count. This is another issue altogether which has nothing to do with the ‘new math’ problem, and, in fact, mitigates it.
So, of the people who care for poetry, how many of them are missing, because of numbers alone, great poetry? Numbers are one thing, but the super-sensitive system of detection and communication among like-minded people in modern, civilized society may more than make up for the large numbers. If a great poem is more like a 7 foot monster of a basketball player and less like a pretty boy or girl, then we can say with pretty good certainty that great poets and poems are not escaping our notice. There are no more Billy Collins’s hiding somewhere. Billy Collins, because he is good, was discovered. I believe that good poetry is discovered and that if it is not, it is because it is ubiquitous like human beauty, not because of the numbers which makes it invisible. My hunch is that excellent poetry is more like the 7 foot basketball player than the merely attractive person.
The problem with saying that a great poem is more like a 7-foot monster of a basketball player is that it’s got to be written by someone who is a pretty good poet, and those people, for the most part, just stop writing poems after their encounter with the PoBiz — and if they do keep writing, they don’t bother the PoBiz with it.
More importantly, though, if there are no objective standards such as “7-foot” is in basketball (and even that is no guarantee) by which to measure any poem or poet. The subjective standards aren’t standard. I imagine that 100 judges of a 1000 poems would have only slight, if any, overlap as to which were the best poems, and the overlaps would not be dispositive — they’d be scattered all over the 1000-poem landscape. No poem would appear on the list of every judge, and no poem would appear on more than 20% of the lists, or so I suppose.
It’d be an interesting experiment. Where can we get some grant money to try it? We’ll publish all the poems that appear on 5 or more judges’ lists in — a chapbook, probably. I don’t think we could get enough for a book. I volunteer http://www.vanzenopress.com to publish the book if we can get the money together to pay the judges.