The Most Anthologized American Poems of the Modern Era

Here’s a list of poets and poems, along with the year they were written:

Top 20 Poems List

 

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.

The Lie

There are so many ways to introduce the words used in this piece. I could say it’s an OG rap written in prison by a two-time ex-con who was executed for violating his parole. I could say it’s a piece by the poet who did more in his career outside of writing poetry than any other poet besides than the teenager who wrote “Frances.” I could say it’s the testimony of a soldier who had seen enough of war to cause PTSD many times over. There will be occasion to talk more about its author’s life later, so I’m going to ask your indulgence, and tell instead of how I first came upon this poem.

Oscar Williams

Oscar Williams lived until 1964, yet there are exactly as many photos
on the Internet of him as of Emily Dickinson, and hers aren’t grainy half-tones!

 

At the beginning of the 20th Century a boy was born in the Ukraine, and as a child he emigrated to New York City. Like many immigrants, he changed his name to sound more “American,” becoming Oscar Williams. His career was originally made in marketing/advertising, but he was also a poet. Then shortly after WWII he began to publish poetry anthologies in inexpensive editions, including very cheap paperbacks. Did he know from his marketing work that these would strike a chord in the post-war world of soldiers who became the first in their families to go to college on funds provided by the “GI Bill?” Did he suspect that the experience of the greater than “The Great War” war, and the Korean, Cold, and Vietnam wars that followed would create an audience wanting some human writing more varied than propaganda? Was the spreading middle-class of the post-war years creating a new, broader audience for poetry, like it did for hi-fi symphonies and literary novels? Who knows? Perhaps it was only Williams’ personal passion for poetry that motived him, but his inexpensive anthologies sold in the millions, a much greater number than anyone expected.

Master Poems of the English Language Cover

$1.45. An education one doesn’t need to take out a loan for.

 

In 1968, in a college bookstore, I purchased a chunky paperback of one of these Oscar Williams’ anthologies: “Master Poems of the English Language.”  About a thousand pages, over a hundred poems, each introduced by an essay on the worth of the poem by another poet or critic, cover price $1.45. I purchased it because I was writing poetry and I wanted to know more about what it could do, and how it did it, and this seemed the best value on offer at the store. And it was. I don’t want to put-down teachers I’ve had, or other reading and face-to-face examples that have instructed me in those things, but that book, taken in at that time, gave me a firm starting point in writing poetry.

Raleigh Sports 2
In 1951 when this bike of mine was made, Raleigh was more of a house-hold name

Written in 1618, today’s poem, “The Lie”  by Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the poems in that anthology, and one of Williams’ selections that I liked the best. Unlike some other poems I’ve featured here, it’s not widely anthologized, and Raleigh himself seems to have nearly fallen from the common British pantheon over the years. In 2002 the BBC conducted a poll on the 100 greatest Britons ever, and Raleigh snuck in at 93, just behind intricate fantasist J.R.R. Tolkien and 50 places behind that other great anthologist, John Peel.

When I first read “The Lie”  I was struck by how modern it felt. Yes, there are a few antique words and terms in there, but it’s remarkably plainspoken—and the speaking it’s plain about is the bane of hypocrisy, lack of principles, and double-dealing—all things Raleigh’s life taught him a lot about. After all, since Raleigh wrote this while in prison awaiting his execution, he did have the ultimate license to say what he really thinks.

To hear what Raleigh had to say and my performance of it, click on the player below. Warning, there’s a Mini-Moog solo partway through, which is not as bad a fate as a 17th century beheading, but it will not make you forget Keith Emerson’s on “Lucky Man”  either.