by Dean Radar
Anthony Tommasini’s fascinating project to identify the ten greatest composers has generated a shocking amount of publicity and an impressive level of participation. In mid January, Tommasini, the affable classical music critic for The New York Times, embarked on a two-week project in hopes of galvanizing a list of the greatest composers of all time. He sent out queries, wrote about the project, and fielded over 1,500 responses from readers before ultimately publishing his own list (the top slot goes to Bach).
This morning, as I was watching coverage of the celebrations in the streets of Cairo, I began thinking about the connection between literature and revolution, poetry and civic engagement. At times of social crisis and political milestones, historians and commentators often turn to writers (especially poets) to help encapsulate the emotional tenor of the event. Great moments need great language.
In was Martin Heidegger who said “In the time of the world’s night, the poet utters the holy.” Indeed. But, who are those writers we tend to gravitate toward? Who embodies “greatness?”
This was what motivated Tommasini in regard to music, and it’s what interests me in regard to poetry. As a teacher, a scholar, and a poet, I always ask myself what makes greatness, but even more often, I wonder what (and who) others think of as great.
Since there is no poetry critic at the Times, The Gray Lady is unlikely to take on this project. But I’m not.
Taking a cue from Tommasini, I’ll spend the next two weeks taking suggestions, lists, nominations, and justifications for the ten greatest poets.