Loose canon: 20th century poetry in English

In a recent post at The Vernacular Body discussing favorite novels, reference is made to Nabokov’s notion that “there aren’t really any great authors, only great books.”

I have always felt this to be true about poetry. Some of my favorite poets, such as Louise Glück and Sandra McPherson, have written only one book I really like. And for me, the book-length collection is the highest expression of the lyric poet’s art.

So this morning, I decided to try compiling a brief, annotated list of my favorite books of poetry in English from the 20th century. I went through my shelves, being careful to pull out only those volumes that I would want to have with me on the proverbial desert island (which is not so far from my reality here, when you come right down to it). As I did so, I was reminded of the agony my friend Jo has been going through over the past two years as she attempts to give away all but her most essential books in order to complete a long-distance move.

The pile at my left elbow is now close to three feet tall, and teeters dangerously. In the interest of brevity I’ll skip the usual bibliographic information in favor of links to Amazon. (I am not endorsing Amazon.com, they just happen to have the most complete information of any on-line bookseller of which I’m aware. Though for some of the older volumes here, they don’t give much, and you’d be better off using Google.) I have rather arbitrarily limited myself to one book per favorite author. I will not – probably could not – rank them in any way, other than to mention in passing which one might be my favorite of all.

American Primitive, by Mary Oliver. A difficult choice, since every one of Oliver’s books is worth its weight in gold. She is in my opinion the finest nature poet in the English language – ever.

A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, by Wendell Berry. I remember not thinking too highly of Berry when I was in my late teens and twenties, but either he changed or I did. This book is unified both by theme and method of composition: each poem describes a walk he took on a Sunday morning in lieu of going to church. Other people write about sacred time; Berry lives it.

Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. I love books in which the dead speak; I think this was my first.

The Folding Cliffs, by W. S. Merwin. If I’d compiled this list a year or two ago, I probably would’ve included The Lice instead. But Merwin’s lyric poems are beginning to wear on me, whereas this book-length poem about 19th-century Hawaii is, I think, one of the most satisfying narrative poems I’ve ever read.

Praise, by Robert Hass. Hass has equally mastered the line, the poem and the book-length collection. Each of his books contains an argument of sorts, though it’s less logical than ecological – not something that one could spell out in a review. (It’s in the nature of a poem that it can’t be summarized, Cleanth Brooks maintained.) I haven’t yet read all his books, so my selection of this volume is highly provisional.

Selected and Last Poems, by Paul Zweig. Normally I wouldn’t include a “selected poems” in this sort of list, but C. K. Williams has done a marvelous job of editing Zweig’s incandescent deathbed poems and matching them with the best from the three books published during his lifetime. The Last Poems by themselves make a satisfying, chapbook-length cycle.

Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, by William Carlos Williams. The last and most beautiful poems of a poet who didn’t always practice what he preached, in my opinion. Perhaps it took until the end of his life before he found a place in his plain poems for the luminosity that had always suffused his prose.

The Poems of Wilfred Owen. Like Zweig’s Last Poems, a posthumous collection that coheres better than most books whose authors were alive to cull and augment and rearrange. Owen would probably make most people’s lists of the greatest poets of the 20th century, on a par with Rilke, Neruda and Lorca.

Song of Napalm, by Bruce Weigl. Some of the best wartime poems since Wilfred Owen. (Yusuf Komunyakaa has written Vietnam poems that are equally searing; I simply haven’t read enough of him to include one of his books on this list.)

North of Boston, by Robert Frost. “Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” “The Mountain.” ‘Nuff said.

Even in Quiet Places, by William Stafford. Why not Traveling Through the Dark? Actually, it was a toss-up between his last and first books. (There aren’t many poets you could say that about!) I simply prefer the effortless quality of his late work to the more obvious craftsmanship of his earlier poems.

The Branch Will Not Break, by James Wright. Another tough choice. One of the first books of American poetry to fully assimilate the lessons of 20th century Spanish-language poetry and translations from classical Chinese and Japanese.

Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints, by Pat Mora. So much better than Eliot’s stupid cats! Manages with unpretentious virtuosity what few novels ever could: to create a well-rounded and likable character (Aunt Carmen) entirely from the idiosyncratic prayers she addresses to her santos. So well crafted, you might not even notice how many of the poems rhyme on the first read-through. Beautifully illustrated with full-color photographs, this book also functions as an authoritative reference on Sonoran folk Catholicism.

Red Suitcase, by Naomi Shihab Nye. Nye is always making such exquisite music out of the silence between direct statements!

The Colossus, by Sylvia Plath. When I was a kid, I really hated the melodrama and narcissism of Ariel. So it was a susprise to discover a few years back how much I liked this book (and Crossing the Water, too). Not too many modern poets do grotesque as well as Plath and Ted Hughes did.

Crow, by Ted Hughes. An invented myth cycle with all the inconsistency and variety in tone of the real thing. The Amazon reviews call it violent and nihilistic, but to me it’s just a fun book.

Montage of a Dream Deferred, by Langston Hughes. Jazz poetry is its own category now, but this was the original bebop masterpiece. Very close to oral poetry in the way it’s put together, reminiscent of the dance cycles of the Piman and Yuman-speaking Indians of the southwest.

Butterfly Effect, by Harry Humes. Very understated yet enormously affecting poems by the unofficial poet laureate of Pennsylvania’s hard coal region.

Winter News, by John Haines. If Alaska didn’t exist, John Haines would’ve had to invent it. Actually, I’m not so sure he didn’t. I love the shamanic/prophetic tone, at its freshest here in Haines’ first book.

Monolithos: Poems, 1962 and 1982, by Jack Gilbert. A first masterpiece is followed by twenty years of silence, then matched with poems equally pure but twice as wise. On the one hand, it would be great if more poets were this severe in their determination to write only necessary poems. On the other hand, I myself aspire to be like William Stafford, writing a poem a day.

Radio Sky, by Norman Dubie. I’ve only read this twice, but I was very impressed both times. He does religion very, very well: Jacob Boehme, Thomas Merton, Philip K. Dick and the Aztec Lord of the Near and Close are all here.

Passing Through: The Later Poems, by Stanley Kunitz. A master and a mage. Kunitz has written more perfect poems than anyone else I can think of. And though a “Selected and New” volume, this has a very pleasing shape to it.

Elegy, by Larry Levis. A posthumous collection for which Philip Levine deserves much credit. Possibly my favorite book in this entire list – which says more about me than about the book, I suppose. I don’t care how short your attention span might be, once you start this book, I promise you will not be able to put it down. And when you have finished it, you will drink yourself into a stupor.

The Jacob’s Ladder, by Denise Levertov. The prophet of “holy presence” at her best.

Radiation, by Sandra McPherson. Erudition without irony; a bracing work. Few books are titled so aptly.

Cathay, by Ezra Pound. Barely long enough to qualify as a chapbook, I suppose, and not the translation it purported to be – more like original poems based on borrowed outlines. But what vivid poems they are, what a satisfying cycle!

You Can’t Have Everything, by Richard Shelton. Shelton does for the Sonoran Desert what Humes does for eastern Pennsylvania and Haines for Alaska: “we are here we cannot turn back/soon we hold out our hands/full of money/this is the desert/it is all we have left to destroy”

The Lost Son and Other Poems, by Theodore Roethke. The Far Field is the more obvious choice, but this book edges it out in my opinion because of the short cycle of greenhouse poems. Roethke really had a gift for writing about plants.

The Wild Iris, by Louise Glück. The best way to describe this is: a book of hours from a fallen Eden in which the poet addresses a God in whom she does not believe – and God and the plants in her garden talk back.

Flamingo Watching, by Kay Ryan. Ryan is the quintessential thinking person’s poet, and can turn word play into an extreme sport. A tortoise “lives/below luck-level, never imagining some lottery/might change her load of pottery to wings.” An osprey’s nest is “a spiked basket/with hungry ugly osprey offspring in it.”

City of Coughing and Dead Radiators, by Martí­n Espada. My favorite political poet, populist in a way Carl Sandburg could only dream about. Makes one wonder why more lawyers don’t write poetry.

Fragments From the Fire: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911, by Carolyn Llewllyn. Though others, such as Mary Fell, have put poems in the mouths of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company workers, none had the vision and the audacity to make them complete human beings and reconstruct the contexts of their tragically curtailed lives. What’s astonishing is that this was Lllewellyn’s first book.

Riffs and Reciprocities: Prose Pairs, by Stephen Dunn. One of our wisest living poets at his most inventive. Few books of poetry satisfy so completely Mina Loy’s definition: “Poetry is prose bewitched; a music made of visual thoughts; the sound of an idea.”

The Gathering of My Name, by Cornelius Eady. Kind of Espada meets Langston Hughes: street-wise, jazz- and blues-inflected poems exploring the intersection of the personal and the political. (Which sounds awfully darned cliched, doesn’t it?)

BioGraffiti: A Natural Selection, by John M. Burns. Who knew doggerel could be this good? I suppose it helps to know something about nature, though. Chock-a-block with outrageous puns and illustrated with hilarious old engravings.

Loterí­a Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives, by Juan Felipe Herrera with linocuts by Artemio Rodrí­guez. A Mexican artist and one of the foremost Chicano poets collaborated on this reinvention of the card game known as Loterí­a, which is similar to bingo. Herrera’s hip improvisations are the closest thing on this list to “beat poetry.” I don’t know if I’d like them half so well without the linocuts they’re reacting to, though.

Next: New Poems, by Lucille Clifton. Clifton has remained in my personal top ten list of favorite poets longer than almost any other, aside from Emily Dickinson. Next edges out her other books for me because of the sequence about her husband’s death from leukemia, the “shapeshifter poems,” and the way the whole collection moves from outrage to something approaching acceptance.

Dismantling the Silence, by Charles Simic. The “so-whatness” that infects some of his later books is nowhere in evidence here. “I’m searching/For what my left hand/Hid secretly/From the right,” he writes, which is just about the best brief I can imagine for the method behind his abundant madness.

The Angel of History, by Carolyn Forché. The poet makes a virtue of fragmentation, acting as a spirit medium for “a haunting mosaic of grief,” as it says on the back cover. Epochal.

Cruelty/Killing Floor, by Ai. Actually two collections in one, of course, but better for it. Whether you like Ai’s work depends I suppose on how strong a stomach you have, and how much you value empathy. But she is a consummate wordsmith as well as a gifted seer.

Questions of Travel, by Elizabeth Bishop. If anyone knows of a better book of travel poetry in the English language, I’d like to hear about it.

O.K., that’s all! Kind of frustrating how few of your own favorites were included, isn’t it? If so, please feel free to leave a comment. I’m not averse to posting a list of favorites from Via Negativa readers, as well. Or post your own list and I’ll link to it. Let a hundred canons bloom!

UPDATE: Readers’ picks

(From Elck)

Handwriting, by Michael Ondaatje. “In my opinion, leagues ahead of his earlier poetry.”

North, by Seamus Heaney – “or, who are we kidding, just about any of his books.”

The Star-Apple Kingdom (earlier) or Tiepolo’s Hound (later) by Derek Walcott. “Omeros left me unmoved.”

Fredy Neptune, by Les Murray. “A bold book-length keen/narrative . . . Very Aussie, very colloquial, and quite accomplished.”

(From Susan Susurra)

It Catches My Heart in Its Hands, by Charles Bukowski. “I suppose what I appreciate in that one is his wry self effacement. He can be so dark and crass and ruthless, I guess I feel a bit more comfortable when he is aiming at himself.”

“For Heaney I’d pick Death of a Naturalist for you, and borrow it when I’m in a happy mood, North for me when I’m in a state of melancholy and want a walk with stories of death.”

(From Dale)

The Walls Do Not Fall, by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).

(From Butuki)

Turtle Island, by Gary Snyder

(From Siona)

Diving Into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich

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