Who would have thought so many people would have so many strong opinions about poetic greatness? The hundreds of passionate, articulate, persuasive responses proves that Americans think and care deeply about poetry. A shockingly low number of responses (perhaps three) tried to make the claim that poetry is dead. However, according to you, the reports of poetry's demise are greatly exaggerated.
Compiling my own list was an exercise in gleeful frustration. It was so much fun to see all of these names on one piece of paper and to relive the pleasure of reading their poems. Like so many of you, I hated that only ten could make my list. I almost caved and went to 15.
I rather informally carried three interrelated criteria in my head as I built the list--how thoroughly a poet's work has permeated our culture and become part of its fabric, the degree to which a poet has influenced other poets, fiction writers, artists, screenwriters, and critics, and the ability of a poet to make: to craft out of the chaos of emotion and language, something artful.
Sadly, I don't think my list is particularly controversial or revelatory, except perhaps my number one pick. Every name on my list was mentioned several times by readers. Saddest of course, are the names I had to leave off. Authors of some of my favorite poems did not make the cut.
But now, on to those who did:
10. Rumi. I have to confess that I didn't really know what to do with Rumi. He is still, I believe, the best selling poet in the United States, and according to the BBC (are they really experts on American poetry?), Rumi is "the most popular poet in America." I foreground the U.S. only because it means both cultural capital and book sales. As popular as he is in the West, his capital in the Arab world is even greater.
It is impossible to overestimate his impact. Embraced by scholars, poets, mystics, philosophers, new agers, and priests, Rumi's thoughtful poetics weds religion, science, and love. As my friend Jonathan Curiel suggests, in a post 9/11 world, Rumi has become even more significant.
I can't read Persian, so I have to rely on various translations, the most famous of which is by Coleman Barks. But across the dozens of Rumi translations, his ability to compress ideas into images remains singularly impressive.
One of my favorite Rumi poems stands as an example:
When I am with you, we stay up all night,
When you're not here, I can't get to sleep.
Praise God for these two insomnias!
And the difference between them
Something about his elegant simplicity speaks across centuries, religions, genders, and continents. He is everywhere.
9. William Butler Yeats. On your lists, Yeats and Wallace Stevens were the most frequent 20th century names, with T. S. Eliot a close third. If you have in your head lines or passages from a 20th century poet, it is likely from Yeats or Robert Frost. Yeats' poems like "Easter 1916," "No Second Troy," "The Lake Isle of Innesfree," "Leda and the Swan," "Sailing to Byzantium," "Among School Children" and especially "The Second Coming," will always be taught and always be relevant.
Lines such as "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, /
How can we know the dancer from the dance?" ("Among School Children) or "I must lie down where all the ladders start, /
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." ("The Circus Animals' Desertion") have set up shop in our consciousness. We know his lines without knowing we know his lines.
And then there is "The Second Coming," maybe the most famous poem in English from the 20th century. Who has not read and not puzzled over this opening?
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Back in 1996, National Public Radio did a funny story about a strange trend in American politics--quoting Yeats. Both conservatives and progressives like to claim Yeats' ideas. Indeed, his ability to appeal to such a wide demographic over 70 years after his death is pretty amazing.
Sure, he was sort of an odd dude. His invented symbolic system, his notion of the universe as gyres, his Jung-like ideas of the spiritus mundi, his adherence to automatic writing, would make him, by today's standards a little new-agey. But, he became the voice of Ireland. His best poetry was an articulation of the heroic character of his country.
8. Li Po/Li Bai/Li Bo. Pick your transliteration, it's the same guy. The most talented of the great trinity of Tang poets, including Wang Wei and Tu Fu, Li Po's influence is incalculable.
Overt references to Li Po appear in Ezra Pound, James Wright, and Charles Wright, and even Gustav Mahler composed a piece about him.
Though he did many things well, he remains the great poet of drunkenness. He could poem-drink Bukowski under the table. No contest. Of the roughly 1,000 poems attributed to him, about 998 involve wine. The other two are about how sad he is without wine. That's an exaggeration, but I'm not exaggerating when I say that the range of his poetry is unmatched: friendship, nature, death, trees, water, poetry, wine, walking, the passage of time, romantic love, and the human emotion evoked by all of these. He was also not afraid to write about war and to make his otherwise serene poetic spaces political ones.
Few poets have had the ability to write simply about complexity. Li Po was one of those. He lived a poet's life, and he believed in the poetic project as a way to make sense of one's relation to the world, as in this passage:
Chuang Tzu in dream became a butterfly,
And the butterfly became Chuang Tzu at waking.
Which was the real—the butterfly or the man ?
Who can tell the end of the endless changes of things?
Even in Yeats, one hears the echo of Li Po.
7.Emily Dickinson. I have taught Emily Dickinson for well over a decade now, and she is the one poet who, when I return to her, makes me feel like I'm starting all over. No major poet is more dense, more compressed, more elliptical, more elusive.
Dickinson was so far ahead of her time, it seems like we are only now learning how to read her. The great poet Paul Celan has described a poem as a message in a bottle--the poet flings it out into the world never knowing where it will wash ashore. Dickinson's bottle floated around a long time, but I think she knew, one day, her readership would grow into itself: "This is my letter to the world, / That never wrote to me--."
While she may not have had much impact during her lifetime, Dickinson has, since the 1930s, inspired legions of American writers and thinkers. She is now the major American female poet, and to me, the best crafstperson in English of the 19th century--regardless of gender or nationality. When taken as a whole, her body of work stands as one of the best explorations of the philosophy of being.
With over 1,800 poems, we still have not yet fully been able to comprehend the force of her poems, but like Yeats, a large handful of them will endure: "I heard a Fly buzz when I died," "Because I could not stop for Death," "The Soul selects her own Society," "I felt a funeral, in my Brain," and "My life had stood--a loaded gun." The latter is an allegory on poetry, parenthood, sexuality, the afterlife, and female possibility all at the same time.
The first line of the final stanza of "After great pain, a formal feeling comes," remains one of my all-time favorite poetic moments: "This is the Hour of lead--."
There is no official hour of lead, but we all know what she means. No adjectives. No verbal pyrotechnics. Just syntax simplified. We feel the weight.
6. John Donne.
Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
These opening four lines from "Holy Sonnet 14" still give me shivers. That combination of alliteration, assonance, heavy symbolism, and poetic conceit makes this one of the great sonnets. Donne was himself one of the great practicioners of the sonnet, right up there with Shakespeare and Petrarch. In fact, it seems that the sonnet's form with its problem/resolution structure, its voltas, its spatial limitations, and its possibilities for inventive rhyme, play to his strengths.
No poet's language is richer, except maybe Gerard Manley Hopkins, and no poet in English combined conceit, dislocation, and paradox better. Donne also enjoys some of the best first lines of any writer. He refuses to ease the reader into his lyrics, rather with his crazy unrelenting syntax, he beats us along into his words and his worlds.
One thing I love about Donne's poetic project is its ambition. He aimed high: god, the trinity, orgasm, salvation. He could be both raunchy and religious in the same line, the same phrase. Poetry is a discourse rooted in connotation over denotation, and Donne is among the most connotative. He can make meaning on many levels.
Donne is also one of the great love poets. No poet is better at demonstrating the relationship between the corporeal and the eternal, the erotic and the divine."The Flea" manages to conflate being bitten by a flea, having sex, experiencing orgasm, and becoming one with God, and "Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed," compares exploring his lover's body with exploring America. Take that Neruda!
5. Wallace Stevens. I was surprised how many people included Stevens on their list. I think he's the great poet of the 20th century, but I feared few share my high opinion of the Hartford lawyer. Many critics find him cold, aloof, and abstract, but they misread him. Stevens is the modern era's chief poet of desire--desire named, desire lost, and desire regained.
One reason Stevens is great is because he is the master of extremes. He can be wildly experimental, intimidatingly intellectual, heartbreakingly lyrical, and surprisingly comical. He has written more great poems than any other modern American poet, but unlike Yeats, Stevens' best poems vary in tone, style, theme, and scope. It seems impossible that the same poet wrote "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "Sunday Morning,""The Emperor of Ice Cream," and "The Snow Man"--and even more unlikely that all appeared in the same book, the now legendary Harmonium (1923).
Torn between writing an intellectually rigorous, aesthetically ambitious poetry and a poetry that could reach and move a wide audience, Stevens embraced overtly political poems, love poems, persona poems, poems about art and music, and most frequently, poems about the dual pulls of reality and imagination. He wrote movingly about the Spanish Civil War and World War II ("The Men That Are Falling" & "The Examination of the Hero In a Time of War"), the quiet intimacies of love ("Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour") and the relationship between poetry and the world ("The Planet on the Table"). His final collection, The Rock, which was published posthumously, shows depth, maturity, introspection, and a desire for connection.
He also has perhaps the best poem about finding beauty among the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary society, "The Man on The Dump." I'd take it over "The Wasteland" any day:
The dump is full
Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.
The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun,
And so the moon, both come, and the janitor’s poems
Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears,
The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box
From Esthonia: the tiger chest, for tea.
The freshness of night has been fresh a long time.
Days pass like papers from a press. That's strong work.
The freshness of Stevens' poems will themselves be fresh a long, long time.
4. Walt Whitman. I know, I know, both Whitman and Dickinson . . .sooooo America-centric. But, what can I do? Whitman changed poetry in English. He fused the expansive, encompassing narrativity of the epic with the subjective, internal, introspective impulse of the lyric. The we meets the I, the community marries the individual, the body loves the soul. Ralph Waldo Emerson saw in Whitman's raw, exploratory lines the poetic correlative of an inchoate America.
Song of Myself, Whitman's great lyric-epic, is the most American American poem. It's self-obsessed, rambly, gargantuan, contradictory, and radical. It thumbs its nose at tradition. It revels in its own self-revelation. It is what America hoped it would become and may yet one day be.
In a country founded on a sort of Us vs. Them mentality, Whitman brought a refreshing union of opposites. He was about reconciliation, consummation, connection:
The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of hell are with me;
The first I graft and increase upon myself--the latter I translate into a new tongue.
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man;
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man;
Ironically he is also a fantastic war poet, just as he is a great poet of equality, a great poet of homoerotic love, a great nature poet, and a great elegist. No American elegy is more emotionally or poetically wrought than "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"--Whitman's homage to President Lincoln, and to me, it rivals Milton's "Lycidas." How amazing that one person can be a country's great poet of mourning and its great poet of celebration.
Whitman's ability to speak eloquently and forcefully on so many levels has earned him countless followers--Allen Ginsberg, Federico Garcia Lorca, Vicente Huidobro, C, K. Williams, and of course, Pablo Neruda. His poetry will endure in part because formally and thematically it represents freedom. He accomplishes in poetry what people around the world want to do in any restrictive situation--seek liberation.
3. Dante Alighieri. Aside from my top slot, I predict this pick will elicit the most controversy. Dante did not appear on as many lists as I would have predicted, and indeed, he seems to be taught and talked about less and less. Perhaps this is because he's only well known for one poem (The Divine Comedy). Or maybe it's because this poem is overly Catholic. Or, it's possible people are turned off by the intense allegorical nature of the poem. Or, it could even be because the poem is just weird.
Think about it. Dante makes himself the protagonist in his own epic poem. He descends through Hell with Virgil, participates in every sin along the way, crawls across the frozen belly of the Devil, zips through space to Purgatory where he meets characters from the Bible, then sort of flies through the cosmos before chilling with God and getting reunited with his one true love, Beatrice. It's a hard poem to paraphrase and even harder to make feel . . .current. But, it's a phenomenal poem.
It's phenomenal in part because of its ambition. It takes on the great questions of life--death, loss, love, revenge, punishment, eternity, justice, and salvation. It's also one of the most technically complex poems ever written. Structurally, the whole book centers on the number three, which symbolizes the holy trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). The Comedy is divided into three books (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso). Each book is comprised of 33 cantos, but the poem begins with a one-canto introduction, making an even 100 cantos. But, that symmetry gets even more detailed in the verses themselves. The poem takes the form of what Dante called "terza rima," which is essentially interconnected rhyming tercets. So, terza rima is a series of three-line stanzas in which a chain-like rhyming pattern of aba bcb cdc ded and so on. So, that tripling effect, that trinitarian power gets encoded and re-encoded throughout. For Dante, it was a way to infuse his poem with God's order, God's symmetry.
But, Dante could also get nasty. For example, he put his enemies in Hell, he sent some competing poets to Hell, and he banished corrupt priests to Hell. Also, as he descends further down into the pit of the Inferno, his language becomes more guttural, more vulgar. He rips and tears at the Italian the way the demons shred the souls of those condemned. It's glorious.
Anyone who has written an epic since Dante has had to grapple with his legacy. Similarly, no one owns a poetic form the way he owns the tercet. He made the three-line stanza his. It is his brand.
2. William Shakespeare. According to my shockingly un-scientific measurements, Shakespeare's name appeared most frequently on your lists. In fact, for many of you he occupied the top spot and a few threatened me if I didn't rank him among my greats. I'm okay with this. I'm not sure if a poet in English has had more of an effect on language, culture, and poetic form than the Bard. He reinvented the sonnet in English, out Petrarched Petrarch, and introduced into our culture some of the most-quoted lines:
* Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? (Sonnet 18)
* So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee (18)
* Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme (55)
* Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end. (60)
* That time of year thou may'st in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,-
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang (73)
Not only did Shakespeare rework the sonnet, making it more facile for English, he also wrote excellent verse in other forms, like his narrative poems "Venus and Adonis" (funny) "The Rape of Lucrece" (earnest), and the strange "A Lover's Complaint" that, like "The Rape of Lucrece," is written in rhyme royal, an inordinately difficult poetic form.
What many of these poems share is a departure from what we might call the poetics of praise. So much of Western lyric poetry before Shakespeare was fairly predictably laudatory--a woman, God, nature. But, Shakespeare plays with that convention throughout, bringing a much-needed sense of humor and even an edge to lyric poetry. It is impossible to think of poetry in English without him.
Before I reveal my top pick, I should mention other poets who really should be on this list. It was not hard for me to narrow down to 14 or 15, but getting from 15 to 10 was excruciating. I am particularly sad to leave off Rainer Maria Rilke (who I adore), Gerard Manley Hopkins (who I also adore and who the president of my university had hoped would make the list. Sorry President Privett! At least we'll always have "The Windhover"), and John Keats (who everyone adores). I also wish I could have included John Milton, Anna Akhmatova, Langston Hughes, and Yehuda Amichai. On another day, they would have nudged out Rumi or Yeats or Li Po.
And so, the top pick goes too . . .
PABLO NERUDA. Why Neruda? Well, he has done everything poetically. He's written an epic (Canto General), he's authored the most popular love poems of the Americas (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair), he wrote some of the most imaginative and influential surrealist poetry (Residencia en la Tierra), he's published some of the best odes in poetic history (Elemental Odes), he's penned love sonnets that rival Shakespeare (100 Love Sonnets), he's composed some of the most biting and most effective political poetry, and he wrote an achingly beautiful book of poems comprised entirely of questions. In Latin America, Neruda was and is poetry.
The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes tells a story about visiting a seaport in Chile. One night, as the fishermen were reeling in their nets, he heard them singing, as a song, verses from Neruda's poem Canto General. He was amazed. So, he walked up to the fishermen and told them how pleased the poet would be to know they were singing his poem. Their reply: "What poet?" Neruda's poem had so thoroughly saturated Chilean culture that it had taken on the weight and significance of myth, folklore.
No poet has more passionately and thoroughly spoken for his people than Neruda. Canto General, for example, is a 15-part book, comprised of over 200 poems and 15,000 lines. It tries to map the entire history of Latin America. It is an insanely ambitious project that seemed to unify a country. His poems articulated hopes, dreams, desires, histories, protest, sexuality, beauty, and national pride like no one before or since. Because of his poetry he became an ambassador, a statesman, and even his party's candidate for president of Chile.
Think about this: a poet so popular, so beloved: a poet with so much cultural cache that he could be a viable candidate for president. And in 1970 no less. His funeral was a national day of mourning, so significant it's described in Isabel Allenda's The House of the Spirits. He's even had a movie made about him, The Postman. In Chile his houses are national museums, and his legacy is deific.
From a poetic perspective he is just as important. He influenced poets around the world. American poets like W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and James Wright read him in Spanish, and it changed their own poetry, becoming more associative, more surreal, which in turn altered British and American verse. One might also argue that Neruda helped democratize poetry by making the "poetic" less exclusive.
Neruda believed poetry could change the world, and he knew that well-crafted, passionate poetry could, under the right circumstances, create aesthetic, political, and cultural revolutions. Neruda's work is as close as we have in poetry to something like Uncle Tom's Cabin in fiction. It altered a political and cultural landscape.
We see this throughout his work but perhaps best articulated in the final lines of his famous poem "The Heights of Macchu Picchu," where the poet, history, and the reader become one:
I come to speak for your dead mouths.
Throughout the earth
let dead lips congregate,
out of the depths spin this long night to me
as if I rode at anchor here with you.
And tell me everything, tell chain by chain,
and link by link, and step by step;
sharpen the knives you kept hidden away,
thrust them into my breast, into my hands,
like a torrent of sunbursts,
an Amazon of buried jaguars,
and leave me cry: hours, days and years,
blind ages, stellar centuries.
And give me silence, give me water, hope.
Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.
Let bodies cling to me like magnets.
Come quick to my veins and to my mouth.
Speak through my speech and through my blood.