In two recent posts at the Poetry Foundation’s blog, “Inspired to Last“ and “Poems that Last Take Two,” Kwame Dawes tackled the very difficult subject of literature and longevity, or to put it in the form of the interrogative, what makes a poem, play or novel memorable? Besides the quality of the work itself (which is the only thing over which the writer has any control) memorability resides within the community.
Of course, the a priori assumptions of memorability are that the community has the interest and confidence to believe that it can produce something memorable and that there is a strong sense of continuity. In other words, are there citizens who are committed to the preservation of cultural artifacts? Are they asking questions such as, should this work be preserved? Who is currently producing memorable work? What makes this work worthy of preservation? What are the qualities in the work that warrant preservation? The criteria for preservation should grow organically out of the community’s sense of identity and its desire to extend that identity into the future. If these conditions are not present, then the questions are moot.
But without extending the dialogue into the future, what makes a work of literature memorable right now? If the writer has done her work (interesting characters, startling imagery, excellent word choice—a combination of sound and sense that engages the emotional and intellectual centers), then the quality that must be present within the community is empathy—the ability of the readers to be able to say, this is me or this could be me. The ability to empathize or to put oneself in someone else’s place arises from the imagination and compassion.
You’ll notice that Geoffrey’s concerned, as I am, with the relation of the work to the community, not with the importance of the work to the individual creator.