The periodic discussions over who should or should not be granted a memorial in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey have parallels with the annual debates about who should or should not be granted a place in major league baseball’s Hall of Fame. This year’s debate over the baseball players has already begun, with Houston’s former great first baseman Jeff Bagwell likely to get in on the next vote, while the merits of players like Montreal right fielder Vladimir Guerrero and Cleveland left fielder Manny Ramirez are still being argued. As far as the writers are concerned, Philip Larkin will be awarded a place on December 2, but his admission, to some, only highlights that other writers like Seamus Heaney and Louis MacNeice are not yet there.
Baseball fans can sympathize. Strictly by the statistics, whether those numbers are the traditional ones of batting average, home runs, and runs batted in or the newer ones of sabermetrics, Guerrero and Ramirez both merit places in Cooperstown, NY. But baseball’s criteria for selection includes a briefly-stated requirement that an honoree be a person of good character, and Ramirez was once suspended in his career fifty games for using performance-enhancing drugs. Even the hint of using such drugs can be enough to prevent an otherwise deserving player from making it into the Hall, which explains why Bagwell, who’s been eligible for several years now, is not yet in.
Among the writers, perhaps Heaney’s Irishness or his politics explains his absence. I know of no one, however, who doubts his talents as a poet. I do know some people who doubt MacNiece’s gifts. I am one of those doubters, just as I have slight doubts about Guerrero or former Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, whom I absolutely loved as a player, regarding him as the lynchpin of some of the deadliest Yankees’ lineups of all time, the guy who’d kill you the moment you thought you’d pitched your way around New York’s latest Murderer’s Row. His numbers, however, are not quite up to the Hall Of Fame standard, even though his team won several championships during his career. The Hall recognizes the individual accomplishments of a player, leaving team accomplishments to be recognized in other ways. The question that doubters like me have to answer in regard to Posada is, does he merit a place in the Hall of Fame, or simply a place in a fictitious entity like “the Hall of the Very Good”? I’m inclined to think the latter.
By the same token, there’s a level of international appeal, respect, and influence that Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney reached that Louis MacNiece hasn’t reached. Hardly any of us go around remembering lines from a MacNeice poem, but we do with Heaney, and we do with Yeats. This isn’t to say that MacNeice’s poems are not good ones. They are. He’s in the discussion we all have about “the poet’s poet,” in the same way that Richard Hugo, David Wagoner, Sharon Olds, Laurence Lieberman, and Dorianne Laux are in that discussion on this side of the Atlantic. But greatness requires more than the production of a solid body of work. It requires, at least once, that we express in memorable language something fundamental about the poet’s art or the human condition that could be written by no one else. “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” wrote Auden of Yeats, and so it did. Yeats himself sought a quieter place away from the tumult of his days: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,” the poet melodiously told us, and he took us there with him.
Auden reminds us that the best poetry comes from the pain of living; Yeats reminds us that we can often find the safe place we long for deep within ourselves. In both cases, the poet has risen to the occasion of the moment, and said something, written something, we didn’t think it was possible for a writer to do. As ephemeral and subjective as this criterion is, it is nonetheless the standard which separates for many thoughtful people good work from that which is truly great. We can admire the solid play of a Ben Zobrist in leading his Cubs to a World Series triumph over the Cleveland Indians, if we wish. But no one who saw it will ever forget the sight of the injured Kirk Gibson, barely able to stand, limping his way up to home plate from the Dodgers’ dugout to bat against Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, and then hitting a home run into the right-field stands to give Los Angeles the victory–arguably the single most electrifying moment in baseball history since the advent of television.
The charge for writers is the same one we give to athletes: we require that they rise to the occasion. We require that they show us what we are and what we can be. Only in these ways will writers, men or women, ever be remembered vividly enough to be included in the memorials we make for them in this world, or included in the memory of such people we carry in own minds.