Searching for Greatness and Finding It

David Orr raised the question in Sunday's Times Book Review of what constitutes “greatness” in poetry, writing, “our largely unconscious assumptions work like a velvet rope: if a poet looks the way we think a great poet ought to, we let him or her into the club quickly—and sometimes later we wish we hadn’t.”

But why not take Orr’s analysis of, as it were, The Principles of Admission in the Poetry Game, and apply it across the board—to bankers, Presidents, Oscar nominees and their couture? It's almost axiomatic.


That nagging sensation of it’s all gone to hell and why can’t we read Robert Lowell rather than US weekly is not only how it works, it’s what we need. Obama knew this. We need Greats, and we need the idea of greatness. Robert Browning put it well: “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” 

So, while we might have taken Orr’s piece and thought this analysis of greatness could be applied broadly but not to our elected officials— Let’s. 

As America needs her Obama, Obama needs his Lincoln. The key is in choosing wise models and in retaining models a bit out of reach. Recently, the man from Hope, Bill Clinton, reminded the campaigner of Hope, Barack Obama: we need more hope and optimism! Even as, intellectually, we see its risks, it’s a far better choice than all the options—especially in a time of crisis. Hope is the opium of the masses and we like it.

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