Thursday, February 17, 2011


One of the cornerstones.

A friend and I constructed a first draft of this list as a means of passing time, when returning from the MLA Conference in Los Angeles, more than a month ago. We originally called it "The Twenty Most Important Works of American Poetry (+5)" and I posted it as a 'note' on Facebook, in order to elicit some (heated) criticism. It was also (hotly) debated at DC Poetry Happy Hours (at The Reef) and via several (volcanic) email exchanges with people who reside without the District. Good points were made about (1) some of the works (i.e., we had foolishly listed the wrong collection for T.S. Eliot) and about (2) the title -- that, in the end, we could not necessarily be arbiters of "most important", since "importance" means different things to different people, but instead could put forward the list as a set of "relevant guideposts" for anyone who might wish to comment on the broad sweep of American poetry. Perhaps we were thinking as teachers; perhaps, we reasoned, these works should be read by students of ours who aspire to study American poetry or enter the "po' bidness" themselves. The list is not perfect, and I welcome a continuation of commentary and (broasted) debate. Please remember that we chose "works" as opposed to poets, but that said, the major poets do, more or less, seem to be here, on this list. Without further ado, and in A-B-C order, the relevant 'Mericans is:

Ted Berrigan // THE SONNETS (1964)
Robert Creeley // FOR LOVE (1962)
Emily Dickinson // COLLECTED POEMS (written ca. 1858 until ca. 1886?; first collected 1955)
T.S. Eliot // THE WASTE LAND (1922)
Robert Frost // NORTH OF BOSTON (1914)
Allen Ginsberg // HOWL AND OTHER POEMS (1956)
Lyn Hejinian // MY LIFE (1980)
Langston Hughes // MONTAGE OF A DREAM DEFERRED (1951)
The Last Poets // THE LAST POETS (recording, 1970)
Frank O'Hara // LUNCH POEMS (1964)
George Oppen // OF BEING NUMEROUS (1968)
Sylvia Plath // ARIEL (1965)
Edgar Allen Poe // COMPLETE POEMS (written between 1827 and his death? 1849?)
Ezra Pound // THE CANTOS (1917-1969, unfinished)
Gertrude Stein // TENDER BUTTONS (1914)
Wallace Stevens // IDEAS OF ORDER (1936)
Walt Whitman // LEAVES OF GRASS (1855)
William Carlos Williams // SPRING AND ALL (1923)

(+ 5)

H.D. // TRILOGY (1946)
Jack Kerouac // MEXICO CITY BLUES (1959)
Lorine Niedecker // LORINE NIEDECKER: COLLECTED WORKS (Written before 1970; published 2002)
Charles Olson // THE MAXIMUS POEMS (written 1940s to 1970; unfinished; first published 1983.)
Jack Spicer // THE COLLECTED POETRY OF JACK SPICER (Published 2008.)



I wanted to write the first comment, only to address two final, tormenting issues. One comment about O'Hara had been to list the relevant text as THE COLLECTED POEMS, but at nearly 600 pages it seemed a bit too cumbersome, and instead, I thought that either LUNCH POEMS (the one I kept) or MEDITATIONS IN AN EMERGENCY would be sufficient for someone to "get the drift". Second: I left off Charles Reznikoff from (+ 5) because I could not settle on a text for him. My own personal favorite, FIVE GROUPS OF VERSE, might be a bit obscure and short. TESTAMENT (1965), though a plaint, though plaintive, though plaintiff grit, nevertheless derived from courtroom proceedings, as opposed to the tenement grit of the earlier self-published stuff, and I found the the COMPLETE POEMS too cumbersome. So, explanations in advance for O'Hara and Reznikoff.

Anonymous said...

My stab at making the list more gender balanced:

In: Elizabeth Bishop, Geography III. Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck. Marianne Moore, Selected Poems (1935). Muriel Rukeyser, US 1. Susan Howe, Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979. Denise Levertov, The Sorrow Dance. June Jordan, Things That I Do in the Dark.

The 1980 cutoff makes it hard, because I really want to include Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee, Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands/La Frontera, Leslie Scalapino's "that they were at the beach — aeolotropic series"

Out: Poe, Eliot, Ashbery, Kerouac, Frost, Olson, Last Poets.

Hugh Behm-Steinberg said...

I'm not Gloria Frym -- not sure how that happened. I'm Hugh Behm-Steinberg!

Susan M. Schultz said...

the list is fun, good, but it's not just gender that's out of whack. There are a couple of African Americans, but no Asian Americans or native Americans or Pacific Islanders or or or. But the conversation is with you, so that gives you an out, yes?


Hugh, I like it when people say who they are. Kind of like Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, right before he gets started on "Folsom Prison Blues." Who on earth is Gloria Frym? I thought for a minute that I'd gotten lucky!

No, thanks for your comments. I like how you added and dropped -- and Susan, I'd invite you to do the same, if you wanted. I mean, I'm hardly some "conservative" but it is a very specific kind of list, and I wonder whether your instincts to add and subtract might also be the guiding force behind a different kind of list about American poetry.

I might also add that the greatest poet in the world is not on this list -- he wasn't American; his poems were not written in English; and he wouldn't have fit, anyway, if he had been American.

An American example -- Robert Hayden. Great poet; "Those Winter Sundays" is one of my favorite poems. But he just doesn't fit the particular way in which I constructed this list. (Do my students read him in class? Absolutely, and in fact, "TWSs" is the first one they get.) As for having an "out" -- I mean, I'm not looking to escape anything; I don't quite know what to say about that.

In any event, after midnight on a worknight, so good night and thanks again for writing.


Susan M. Schultz said...

I didn't mean "out" in a bad way. We all have our lists. Looking at this from Hawai`i, it looks like a "white poets" list, but then again, they are poets that shaped me as a writer and critic and I adore many of them. So long as we're aware of what we're leaving in and out . . . like your Hayden example.


Hi Susan,

Thanks for the follow up comment. The title of the blogpost also, to some extent, is being said "tongue in cheek" -- but it's also coming from the standpoint of, all right, go back and read at least 10 or 12 of these people, and then let's sit down and have a conversation. Let's get the ball rolling -- kind of a thing. No, it's not trying to be "balanced" but it's trying to represent major/giant texts through a certain "swath" of American literary history. It stops at 1980 on purpose -- but any list I'd have, say, from 1945 through the present would almost certainly have fewer "white guys" in favor of texts that I love as well -- and see as having a different but equal kind of importance -- and might include some of who Hugh mentioned, but also people like Joy Harjo, Anne Sexton, Carolyn Forche, Li-Young Li, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Adrienne Rich, Lisa Jarnot, Linh Dinh, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Harryette Mullen, and so forth. Two different kinds of lists; equal importance; my students get both, and all my other lists, too! And oh, this 20 +5 list -- not necessarily my favorites; thought I'd say that, too.

All righty, and thanks again for the input, BA


In other words -- some of the point may be -- Learn who these people are. Some of them, like Ginsberg -- you'll probably read and re-read all your life, but maybe you'll come to move beyond some of these figures, too. Still, you would be "moving beyond" these figures in an informed way. And I think that's how all of us -- Hugh, Mark, Susan, me -- are rolling. We're certainly informed about all of these writers.

If someone were talking to me about art, and didn't know who Giotto was -- I mean, like those paintings or not (and I love them, personally) -- you've Gotta know Giotto. I can't have a student talking about American music who hasn't listened to Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane or Robert Johnson or Bessie Smith or Roy Brown's "Boogie at Midnight". So, a list with artists and musicians would do the same thing -- and a list of influential American musicians would have many African American figures, men and women, for example. Far more than "white dudes" I bet.

Composers --- agh! But I'll shut up now.

All righty,


JS said...

Gloria Frym is an important, Bay Area poet.

Hugh, how did you get Gloria's handle?


I know who Gloria Frym is -- I was kidding when I said, I thought I got lucky. But thanks for the comment. Weird how her name got used, then. Twilight zone -- "doo doo doo doo / doo doo doo doo." BA

charles said...

Curious about your "greatest poet in the world" who is not on the list, who did not write in English -- is this Dante? or Homer? or Li Po? or Basho? or . . .?

But as to the Americans, I agree with all the comments about expansion or change to favor more balance, more points of view, not only of race and gender, but sexual orientation, etc (though there is some of all these balances). Yet have to admit, some of the first names I think of as missing include more white guys, like Louis Zukofsky's "A" or Jack Spicer's "Language."

charles said...

oops. Spicer is there, in the "plus 5" -- so good one there, though some of your plus 5 (Olson & HD, certainly, would be in my 20)


Thanks for writing, Charles. I appreciate your comments, although I think that some of what you're saying is present in the list. Zukofsky and Reznikoff -- two very tough omissions for me; also, the list isn't necessarily in order. The +5 is also kind of a jokey thing for me, and certainly H.D. could rank higher, for instance. I'm also leaning toward another +5 in which I add some of the texts that people have suggested. --BA


As for greatest poet in the world -- purely subjective, of course, but I'll maybe reveal my opinion on that in a separate post. Someone who wrote in the 20th century though. --BA

ITV said...

Is your super secret greatest poet re: to our recent conversation ala translaciones ? Cause if so, agreed, cause theres the dude who shook my organs more than any one on the list, save maybe the first time I read Tender Buttons, and the first time I heard a reading of Sonnet 2 by Theodore Alfred Ransack Berrigan.

ITV said...

^Fitz btw, didn't realize how i was logged in, or as whom.


Hey Fitz, thanks for writing, and then thanks for clarifying that it was Fitz. I was worried that I had another Gloria Frym imposter. We may very well be on the same wavelength, and I shall promise to elaborate in a future post. On the one hand, how can there be a "best" but on the other hand how can this writer not be the best? I respect the other examples you gave, and don't disagree -- I guess I have favorites on a day-to-day kind of scale, week-to-week, etc., but the overarching favorite that I return to, again and again, with all three tranlsators opened at once, is [this poet]. There are reasons; oh, there are reasons. There are lambshanks; oh, there are lambshanks. There is coffee and there is STOUT; oh, there is coffee and there is STOUT. May be a get-together tonight. You and Maria around?


All, another point that comes to mind -- again up the alley of (American) jazz -- is the notion of there being The Big 6. Not my definition; but that put forward by one of the big guides, maybe The Penguin Guide. The Big 6, in jazz, by nickname, are Louis, Duke, Bird, Dizzy, Miles, and Trane. So, I would say to anyone who hadn't listened to much jazz -- start with these guys, and then I could probably give them some steering on particular recordings: Hot 5s & 7s; Blanton-Webster 39-42; Complete Dial; Complete Musicraft; Kind of Blue; and A Love Supreme, respectively. These are arguable perhaps by themselves but if it weren't the Complete Dial for Bird, let's say, then it could be the Live Savoy material, instead. Either way, the person would've heard The Big 6, and then the conversation could begin. After which, someone might start listening to Monk, Mingus, Pepper, Lacy, Prez, Sonny, etc., and find out that he or she really preferred one of these as his or her favorite, but I think the conversation probably needed to begin with The Big 6. I mean, one could not talk with any modicum of authority about jazz if one had not listened to at least one recording of The Big 6. And it's not a perfect example; and it doesn't correlate perfectly, etc., but still. "Not a sermon; just a thought." ------------BA

Anonymous said...

dued i liked it better when you were being funny. whats uuuuuuuuuup? my teacher made us read howl. it ws allright. gina


Regina, it's been a long time. If you're reading HOWL then you're in what grade? 11th? 12th? Are you in college? Have you left the C.O. yet? Do you have Cuyahoga River gang symbols? If so, do they involve lighters, as in for the flames that used to dance in the very waters themselves. Your typos rock my world! BA