The Great Poem Series: Bill Kushner’s “Great”

Born in New York in 1931, Bill Kushner, now deceased, dedicated his time to poetry and playwriting. He received a poetry fellowship for the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1999, and has published five poetry books. He caught my attention for his poem “Great” which appeared in The Best American Poetry of 2002, and is one of my favorites from the volume.

Kushner strategically complicates everyday simplicities in life taking us through his stream of thoughts, which similarly to most people, jumps around without a clear connection between each idea to the next. He addresses the impulsivity of humanity, acknowledging that sometimes acting on those impulses works just as well as when your actions are planned. He has a very lax tone, indicating a “go with the flow” way of being. To me this meant he wanted to express and underlying meaningless to everything as to say that life goes on either way, so not to stress too much on minute details.

I felt like Kushner had grabbed my hand and pulled me into his poem, as he began “we cross into the great,” instantly indicating that I, the reader, should have experiences that somehow bring him and I together to become a “we.” However he breaks our connection in the following lines as he delves into personal, disjointed ideas. Despite my confusion when explains, “there’s a voices stream, she/ and I can fly up, holding one to air,” I am intrigued to read further and make sense of his thoughts. I find that introducing this air of mystery heightens a poems potential to provoke thought in a reader, as it gives them right to creative interpretation.

He continues with deceptive poetic language that carries the leader through the rest of the poem, distracting them from realizing they arrived to an elusive conclusion of the poem without understanding how they got there.  I don’t understand exactly what “sd Art is Forever” means but he ends the line rhyming with “I wrote back Whatever,” making me too say “whatever” and keep reading. He further uses poetic devices that lead me to believe I might still be following this poem’s process even though he says, “There, & my cockles & mussels, & I hunger for love, or what passes for.” Though I can’t pin down what every word means exactly, I can’t help but feel a connection to the exhausted beat in using the “&” making me sympathize for Kushner who seems tired of the same old “cockles & mussels” and love, as neither succeeds in satisfying his hunger.

Much to my disbelief, Kushner is able to bring me back into the poem with his powerful imagery. I feel like I’m sitting beside him on a train watching  “These great/ cities, as they pass before me, all/ shiny & swoony.” Finally, I get the sense that there may be a theme with his random thoughts. His tone illustrates he is in reflection mode of the past, one he may be leaving behind. As he explains, “Impossible/words become worlds, as we round a mountain/ where the blue air’s hung” I am put at ease knowing the impossible can be achieved if we just look around the corner.

It is important for artists and authors alike to leave their audience with something to think about. I didn’t find much to think about from the middle of the poem where he jumps around as nothing in particular seemed significant. However, he ends the poem with some repetition, “Somewhere sometimes I’ll think before I squeak, & somewhere sometimes/ why I simply leap, as towards you, I just leap.” This makes me do a double take on what he is saying and emphasizes what he wants the final message to be. He wants his readers to do the same as he has done, coming to terms with their way of being and commission us all to “leap” towards our ambitions.

Provoking emotional and intellectual thought in your readers is a must need to be a great poem. If you can’t impact anyone than your words will become insignificant and forgotten. However Kushner’s complicated sentences, imagery, and repetition bring me back to certain words that linger in my mind long after the poem is in front of me. Some people would be turned off by the level of mystery in this “Great” poem. Yet, it is this mystery that empowers us as readers to develop a sense of creative responsibility. This makes Bill Kushner’s poem great, attracting readers to exercise their curiosity, continuing to read over the poem multiple times, unlike a poem that hands you an explanation so you can put it down and move on with your day.

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