I love lists. Lately Newsweek has had a weekly box with an author's list of "Five Important Books" and such.
This "conceptual anthology" began as my attempt to create such a list.
I quickly gave up on trying to create a list of important works of prose. Bob Woodward's State of Denial kept making the list along with all this literature, Genet and the like.
So I turned myattention to poetry, something I've more experience and interest in. "I'll make a list of the five most important poems," I began. And immediately I was filled with questions:
Important to me? Important to recommend to fellow poetry readers? to novice poetry readers?
My answers to those three questions became the first fifteen poems on this list, all different of course.
After compiling my list of 15 poems, I immediately could see a list of "Five Poems That Should Be On the Above List" and that list was added to the others. All the poems on the list were from the 20th Century, so I created a last list, "Five Important Classics".
Jumble the list and you get the following conceptual anthology of poetry, my recommendations and favorites from the perspective of a non-academic reader of poetry.
All good anthologies start with a good introduction by the editor. This, then, is my introduction.
I've chosen to start the anthology with my list of five poems I'd recommend to someone who has no experience at all with reading poetry. I imagined an alien come into my living room, sitting on my couch, and my task is to go upstairs five times, returning each time with a poem that shows some facet of the potentials of poetry.
I think I'd first come downstairs with some playful e. e. cummings. The first poem to come to mind was the playful but serious "anyone lived in a pretty how town". The poem speaks for itself so I don't have much comment on it or connection to it but a fond memory of reading a lot of cummings when I started exploring the wonders of poetry.
Another early favorite was the next poem I'd bring downstairs to show the alien, Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird". I have other Stevens poems I since love as much or more but it's still a good introduction and mini-exposition of several ways words fall into something that's more elevated than prose.
Philip Larkin's "Church Going" is a remarkable poem and has long been one I have memorized. Its precision, the way Larkin makes some very tight rhyme a very natural part of his poem make this a masterpiece.
The first version of these five lists included a book-length poem on each of the lists. In an actual, as opposed to conceptual, anthology, I'd have to whittle those book length poems down to "From" selections. So, in this first of five sets of five poems, we get the only selection from T.S. Eliot, "From 'Four Quartets'." Eliot should be represented on this list at least one more time, I'd suppose.
As it is only Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams are on the list twice. And neither yet.
The last poem on the first group of five, the last poem I'd bring down to show an alien the power of poetry would be something by Bukowski to ward off any stuffiness that might accompany my other choices. I've not yet chosen a Bukowski poem to include but I'll be sure it includes at least a bit of sex or drink or depravity.
The next group of five will dispose of whatever other stuffiness might remain in the selection, the "Classics". First off I'd include the only Andrew Marvell poem I know, "To His Coy Mistress", because it does have a timeless message.
"Ozymandius" is a nice poem by Percy B. Shelley. I haven't read a lot of his works.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee" is some powerful poetry, can't be forgotten. I've only read it once or twice but I know its power and beauty.
Last on the classic list from England is my favorite, John Keats, who I fell in intellectual love with at an early stage in my interest in poetry. I have other favorites but for this list would include his excellent "Ode on a Grecian Urn".
The last classic is an American, the book-length poem in this set of five, Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself". This was a difficult choice because I've only recently read the poem in its entirety, thirty years after my affair with poetry began. I appreciate the poem's importance, its strength. But it bores me too much too often. I'd like to see everyone take the poem and chop it down into a personal-sized mantra of favorite lines.
The next set of five would be the most personal, the five most important poems to me. The first poem on this list appeared on several other of the other lists in the first draft of this conceptual anthology. It is certainly a poem I would recommend to novice readers of poetry. It is also a poem that I recommend to those who are already readers of poetry. It is the poem that turned me from my fascination with Keats and rhyme to a closer understanding of poetry's potential and role in modern literature. Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" is one of the three most important poems of the 20th Century. (The other two: the next poem on this list, WIlliam Carlos Williams's "Paterson", and one that didn't make this list, Eliot's "The Waste Land".)
"Paterson" is the book-length poem among this group of five, achieving a "From" in an actual anthology. I include this work because it is a wonderful mountain, maze and puzzle in one, an important work by an important theorist and poet master of the century.
E.A. Robinson's "The Man Against the Sky" is the only poem by this author that I like and yet would be one of the last poems if I had to whittle this list down to one or two poems. It may have saved my life, a story that doesn't belong in this text, an important poem to me on a personal level and a technical beauty.
The next entry on the list, Rimbaud's "H" (as translated by myself) is a short poem to represent more than a book, the entire man, Arthur Rimbaud. If Williams's "Paterson" is a mountain to climb, Rimbaud is Everest or its equal on a foreign planet. A fascination with Rimbaud is a fascination that has no end.
And so the selection I'd choose from James Merrill's "The Changing Light at Sandover" would be the part that deals with a claim made by spirits narrating this poem through a Ouija board that Rimbaud wrote T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land".
The next section of five poems are those poems I'd recommend to someone who already reads poetry, not to a novice reader, lost gems or esoteric finds I've found in my eclectic reading.
First on the list is Gertrude Stein's "Lifting Belly", a long poem that will have to do. I'd rather have had a shorter piece by Gertrude somewhere else on this list but it just wouldn't fit. So the delightful lost gem "Lifting Belly" will suffice. Nicely.
James L. White is a very little-known poet but one whose presence is very significant to me as a co-founder of a gay men's literary review named for him, The James White Review. To quote Ben Folds, "It wasn't my idea." It was another co-founder's idea, Phil Willkie's, to name the review after someone, almost as a publicity gimmick or way to get possible funding or at laest attention. White's few books contain some wonderful poems, including "Making Love to Myself". It was one of the first to include his sexuality in an open an upfront manner.
Paul Monette's "Eighteen Elegies for Rog" is better known and the book-length item in this group of five. Monette elevates language and emotion both in this moving book.
J. M. Regan's "Teratogenesis" first appeared in The James White Review and then in the anthology by Carl Morse & ___, Gay & Lesbian Poets in Our Time. As editor of the JWR, I pushed for inclusion of his poetry every time it arrived in the mail. He is one of three poets on this list I personally met but only for a short, silent, not quite awkward time, a party held after a New York City reading in the late 80s not long before Regan's death from AIDS.
Last on my list of unknown gems is a frequent interest of mine, French poet and novelist, memoirist and genius, Blaise Cendrars. Included is my translation of his "found poem" taken from a newspaper.
The last list of five is works that slipped through the cracks, poems that seem missing when I contemplate the list as it exists so far.
Ginsberg makes a second appearance with "America", another poem I have burned onto memory plates in my brain for those times when the physical presence of a book isn't possible. Compiling this list is the first time I've realized that "America" might be the most likely poem I use as a model for my own writing. I know that title does not belong to "Howl" though "Howl" made a bigger imipression on my life. Again, it's probably not a subject for this essay, but Ginsberg's making this list twice should not imply that he has more poems to study than, say, T. S. Eliot, oh, no. It's the nature of making lists that some worthy things will get dropped off the list and other things stay on the list to make the list most inclusive.
Next on the list of poems I feel are masterpieces but didn't make the list as yet is the spare, idyllic "Flowers by the Sea" by William Carlos Williams. It's the most nature-centric poem on the list. It's also a favorite of mine, such a chiseled gem, a finely wrought sculpture. So much more than the sum of its parts.
Harold Norse is a favorite poet, like Regan and Monette I've met him briefly, that has not yet made the list. And so I'll recommend his collecte works, "The Hub of the Fiery Force". It's hard to pick one for inclusion here, there are several styles and favorites to pick from. I'll include an erotic one, "Gas Station Attendant".
Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice" could have been on either of a few of the early list parameters: Poems to Recommend to Novice Readers, especially. And so it is included here.
The last poem, the only pre-20th Century poem, is included because it also fell off the list of "Poems to Recommend to Novice Readers", "To a Windhover", a great romp of language.
And there it is, a list of twenty-five poems in answer to "What do you consider Five Important Books?"
--- Greg Baysans 4/25/07
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