Here’s a list of poets and poems, along with the year they were written:
OK, you probably already read the title of the post, so you know what they are.
This list comes from an article I bookmarked this summer that intrigued me, and today I returned to it because I’m thinking a bit about “The Canon”—those poems and poets that are judged by some generalized panel of experts as being worthy.
The whole The Canon thing is full of controversy, with complaints that it doesn’t include enough of what some favor in terms of poetic expression, or that it’s too-much a dead white man’s club; but part of what makes that discussion worthwhile is that The Canon is how almost all of us got introduced to poetry as an adult practice. Somewhere in our school years, we will be asked to open a textbook, and there on the pages will be some “great poems” that we will be asked to grapple with. Some of us will be puzzled that we can’t figure out how to do the sums of what these poems mean; and some of us will want to emulate them, to steal a little of their vision of existence, and some will hope to someday gain for ourselves something like that esteem in the eyes of others, to be, in our words, on a page in an anthology.
Sure, we may have already encountered nursery rhymes, Dr. Seuss, and perhaps some song lyrics, but these poems are the adults, writing the adult things. Poetry sections of literature classes can be as fraught with adolescent frisson as sex ed.
The article I was intrigued by was written by Emily Temple and posted on Lithub. It’s a painstakingly counted-up list, collated from twenty anthologies of poetry. The selection of anthologies has some problematic focus: half of them were specifically focused on American poetry, and nearly half (eight) were anthologies of modern or contemporary poetry. Still, the work to make this list must have been considerable, and I don’t know any similar, but better, efforts to use instead. For this post, I’ve decided to take even more shortcuts, over and above relying on Temple’s work, so bear that in mind.
I’m going to focus on the “Top 20,” the poems that appear in nine or more of the twenty anthologies. While this doesn’t eliminate the anthology-weighting to modern Americans, I think it means that these 20 poems and their authors are safely in “The Canon” as constituted in our current century. Here are a few scattered, short, observations about these most of the most anthologized modern American poems.
I had read and/or remembered reading all but three of the poems. (“Musee des Beau Arts,” “Skunk Hour,” and “Love Calls us to the Things of This World”). I suspect anyone who’s been interested in American poetry for a few decades would come in around that.
I sometimes worry that I’ve concentrated here too much on works from the first quarter of the 20th Century, and particularly those connected to the “Imagist” revolution in the center of that time. From this list, I shouldn’t. Nearly half the list (nine) is from this period, and if one was to play the “Kevin Bacon game” with Ezra Pound concerning these, your number is always zero to one, or you’re Wallace Stevens. I use so much from this era because I have trouble even finding the time to seek the rights to present a piece still in copyright, but also because I happen to find that era fascinating—and it turns out as far as modern American poetry is concerned, it’s still the core of The Canon.
However, even though the Parlando Project is closing in on 140 pieces, we’ve only done two of these top twenty poems (“The River Merchant’s Wife,” and a small portion of “The Waste Land.”)
What era other than the Teens and Twenties of the 20th Century was over-represented? The Fifties, four selections, and you could consider Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1960 “We Real Cool” sneaking in as a fifth.
Dead White Man’s Club? Not as bad as it was when I was in school. Not Dead White Males: 7 out of 15 authors if I count William Carlos Williams’ second-generation Puerto Rican heritage and don’t count that Richard Wilbur, though white and male, and still alive. The Canon is always historical, always trailing the contemporary. It’s not 7 out of 20 because five authors had two works in the Top 20. If someone does this article in 2117, or even 2067, I wager the pale dead males will be less than 50%. This is an easy bet (I won’t be around to collect from after all) but also because if we take the short-term acclaim of literary awards for new work in the past few years, I informally believe we’re already at that level. I know some will object to even mentioning these distinctions for various reasons. That’s a big topic, another time. If one wants to make an argument for tokenism from either side of that debate, that only the white males got double selections in the Top 20 would be your data point.
UPDATE: not to belabor the White Males count, but as I pointed out when we presented “The River Merchant’s Wife” back in July, the authorship of that poem in a complex subject. It is a translation of classical Chinese poet Li Bai. Pound’s Chinese translations are acknowledged to be of the looser variety however. If we split that one 50/50 we’re halfsies on White Males.
Here’s one that was interesting to me as I think about another issue: how old were the authors when the wrote their “Top 20 poem?” Go ahead, guess….
You didn’t look ahead, did you?
I guessed low. I was of the impression that poetry was a young person’s game, and many of the poems I’ve used here were written by authors below the age of 30. Turns out the average was a fraction over 40 years old, with Elizabeth Bishop at 65 and Wallace Stevens for his second selection at 75 making appearances for the Medicare set. The youngsters? Eliot at 27, Pound at 28 and 30, Auden and Moore at 32, Dickinson and Plath at 33. One oddity? Despite the average of a bit over 40, no one wrote a Top 20 poem in their 50s. If you’re under 30, don’t despair, as I did, thinking “John Keats died at 25, and what have I accomplished.” If you’re a poet in your 50s, consider a career in the insurance industry and plan on being Wallace Stevens.
This is another of the posts here that I’m tagging “About” that are not occasioned by a new Parlando Project audio piece. For those who can’t wait for the next piece mixing various words (mostly poetry) with original music, here’s that “included in 10 out of 20 anthologies” hit “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” done up Parlando Project style. Use the player below to hear it.