Back in 2009, Tony Barnstone initiated a game on Eratosphere that involved readers posting their choices for “the Best 100 Poetry Books of the 20th Century.” It was a great exercise because it was more than a list: each reader could choose only one book and had to write a brief paragraph explaining why that book belonged on the list.
Well, we’re almost a decade and a half into the 21st century, and the 20th “best books” lists have been done to death. So I’d like to adapt Barnstone’s game to our current situation. Let’s create a “50 Best Poetry Books published since 1950.” Here are the rules:
- You can choose only one book. Criteria for selection are up to you, but the book has to “wow” you for some reason. To make this clearly about individual books and not individual poets, Selected and Collected poems as well as anthologies are verboten.
- You must provide the title, author, publisher, and year of publication along with a short, pithy paragraph about what makes this book so distinctive.
- Books of translation can be included, but you must specify which translation “wowed” you.
- Since the aim here is to share some of our private gems and spur others to purchase these books for their own libraries, you must find a place on the Internet where this book is for sale and post a link to that Web site.
- Email your choice to me at joe [at] jhwriter [dot] com. I will add each entry to this first “seed” post as an update rather than risk it being lost in the comment stream. I will not edit it or alter your recommendation in any way and won’t correct any entry after it’s posted, so be sure to proofread carefully. Recommendations will be numbered in the order they are received, which means that the list itself will not represent a hierarchy of value.
- If you really, really need to put more than one book in the list, you can do so only once, following the same procedure described in rules 2 – 5.
- Once the list gets to 50, the game is over and no more books may be added.
I have turned off commenting because of the unique format of this particular post, but after we have reached 50 books I’ll restore commenting for those of you who wish to praise, kvetch, question, or offer alternatives to the listed books.
Above, I called this a “seed” post. That’s because I’m going to start us off with my own choice, as Tony Barnstone started the “100 Best” list off with his. Consider this just an example of one way these can be done. Here we go!
- The Rescued Year, by William Stafford. Harper and Row, 1966. I snagged a beat-up used copy of this collection in Greeley, Colorado, in the fall of 1970. I had read Stafford’s previous and National Book Award winning volume Traveling Through the Dark in the university library where I labored as a work study, but it didn’t quite prepare me for The Rescued Year. I loved the range of his subjects and the variety of voices he addressed them with. I loved what I didn’t understand at the time: not the poet’s famous “quietude” but his aggression. A sampling of opening lines explains: “All her Kamikaze friends admired my aunt, / their leader, charmed in vinegar”; “Mine was a Midwest home—you can keep your world”; “One of the lies the world is compelled to tell…”; “Your day self shimmers at the mouth of a desert cave”; “At noon in the desert a panting lizard / waited for history….” I was struck by the fact that these by-the-scruffs openings were warning signals that the lines to follow would offer some kind of fresh view of things, alerting the reader that the time had come to pay attention. The views Stafford offers are always exploratory, a little—and sometimes more than a little—strange, peculiar to a complex man who could be both a fan of Nietzsche and a conscientious objector during the Second World War. As for The Rescued Year, I return to it frequently because it rewards my attention, all these years and all these grateful readings later.
- The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, by Nikos Kazantzakis. Published 1938 in Modern Greek;, Kimon Friar’s English translation, Simon and Schuster, 1958. Illustrated by Ghika. Nikos Kazantzakis, twice a finalist for the Nobel Prize in Literature (which he lost by 1 and 2 votes respectively, to Camus and Jimenez), and also the author, most notably of the novels, Freedom or Death, The Fratricides, Zorba the Greek, St. Francis, The Greek Passion and The Last Temptation of Christ, considered his greatest achievement his sequel to Homer’s Odyssey. In this epic poem, exactly 33,333 lines long, Kazantzakis synthesized and reconciled the four great currents of his life: Buddha, Christ, Lenin … and Odysseus. The narrative beginning where Homer’s ended, Kazantzakis’s Odyssey follows Odysseus from his slaughtering of his wife Penelope’s suitors through his own death many years later. His Odysseus as fully human as Homer’s, is a man readily condemned and readily admired, and for the same reason: Odysseus is the culmination of Man, of Homo Sapiens, in all his ugliness and beauty. Kazantzakis pulls no punches. His English translator, Kimon Friar, who published The Odyssey a year after Kazantzakis’s death in 1957, had the remarkable advantage of working with the Greek master himself as he translated the poem. In Greece, The Odyssey was as controversial for its language as it was for its content, for NK shunned the formal Greek of the academy and wrote his Odyssey in the demotic Greek of several localities, making his language both authentic and idiosyncratic, something no translation, including Mr. Friar’s, could possibly duplicate. In English, however, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel welds together Buddhism, Christianity, Marxism … and the Paganism that gave rise to western civilization, with its arts and its democracy. Friar’s translation is breathtaking in its capturing of Odysseus’ psychological turmoil, his carving of the mask of God, which over and over again becomes his own face. [Post by Padma Thornlyre]
- Crow, by Ted Hughes. Harper and Row, 1971. Illustrated by Leonard Baskin. Ted Hughes, unfairly regarded in America not for his poetry but as the widower of Sylvia Plath responsible for her madness and death, was the Poet Laureate of England from 1984 until his death in 1998. Crow introduces a new character, Crow, into the the Genesis myth of the Old Testament. Crow must be related to trickster characters in other mythologies, too: to Hermes among the Greeks and Coyote among Southwest Native Americans. Crow, beholden to neither God nor Satan, antagonizes both, seduced Eve and wreaks general havoc in Eden. Reading Hughes’ poetry, especially this one, I can understand the fatal attraction between Hughes and Plath, for both are dark geniuses … the difference being that Hughes had a sense of humor, however disturbing, while Plath had none. Baskin’s illustrations are masterful. [Post by Padma Thornlyre]
- Death of a Naturalist, by Seamus Heaney. Faber and Faber, 1966. Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist (faber and faber: London, Boston. 1966) was as humble as the poet himself would be described over many years. Yet Robert Lowell declared Heaney to be “the best Irish poet since Yeats.” The pronouncement set off a chain reaction. Many chanted the word “Irish” without knowing the distinction Heaney would bring to the definition. He did not adhere to the Anglo-Irish reverie of Yeats. His is a distinct evolutionary path. In a 1983 foreword to the Macmillan paperback edition of Yeats’ Fairy & Folk Tales of Ireland, Benedict Kiely remarked on the many people to whom Yeats owed a debt for having borrowed their native tales. For all his immensity, Yeats (Lady Gregory, too) can be compared to American anthropologists and literateurs who journeyed into the southwest U.S. in the early part of the twentieth century, collecting and publishing Native American songs and tales—with little or no credit given to sources. Heaney had native predecessors, too; Patrick Kavanagh is one among many. But the voice in Death of a Naturalist is that of the native Irish countryman in a way no one had quite uttered it before. Not only was his “passport green,” as he would later say. So was his language. He had command of his native Ulster Irish as well as Latin and Greek. He didn’t need to collect mythologies; he grew up in them. He practiced established forms of poetry, but worked them with the heft of the mythological blacksmith Gobniu. And if the graceful breath of Oengus Óg, the old Irish god of love, is in them, so is the dark whisper of the Mórrigán, she who picks the field clean after battle. His originality holds. He led the way for Irish poets north and south of borders, real and imagined. All Heaney’s themes are alive in Death of a Naturalist: the practical updating of mythology (“The Diviner”) and its presence in hard-scrabble daily life; the “Centuries/Of fear and homage to the famine god” that linger around the work of a mechanical potato digger; the animosities of class and religion, “That fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic—“; love, continuity, tradition endured and then blasted apart. Each poem is a seed of “greenness” full of both light and dark. Seeds that grew a generation of Irish language and poetry. [Post by Kathleen Cain]
- The Journey and Other Poems, by Eavan Boland. Carcanet Press Ltd., 1986. Eavan Boland’s The Journey and Other Poems must stand as companion to Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist. Boland’s first work appeared earlier (1962). But The Journey is a volume in which we hear the poet’s voice as woman, wife, mother (personal and universal), and all the other attributes of the female perspective you can gather. Words that in 1980s Ireland seldom stood shoulder to shoulder. “Mise Eire” her survivor emigrant narrator proclaims: “I am Ireland.” But goes on to say: “I won’t go back to it/my nation displaced into old dactyls. . . .” Childbirth. Fever. A lacemaker going blind at her work. A woman staring out a window in a contemporary Dublin suburb. These are the seeds Boland scatters on the holy ground of the page. Flowers, shrubs, the tangled trees that followed include two who, in additiona to Boland, were early on known as “the Holy Trinity” of Irish women’s poetry: Medbh McGuckian and Nuala ní Dhomhnaill. The garden is lush, now. Too many names to include here. Some might choose the poetic gardens in full bloom that Heaney and Boland created. I’ll stick with the seeds, with which each planted a new world. [Post by Kathleen Cain]
- The Country of Marriage, by Wendell Berry. Counterpoint (reprint edition of the original 1971 volume from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). I first read it in my early 20s when I was writing some pretty sappy Catholic-schoolgirl poetry of my own. I thought at that time if I could write ONE poem like any poem in Wendell Berry’s book before I die, I would be a contented person. I still feel the same way. Three generations of my family have used poems from this book at weddings, anniversaries and funerals since 1975 — and we are still pulling the book out whenever we need a profound but accessible poem for some important event. [Post by Cheryl Loetscher]
- The Branch Will Not Break, by James Wright. Wesleyan University Press, 1963. It was 1959 and I was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa. A friend had introduced me to James Wright’s Saint Judas, delivering its opening lines — “My names is James A. Wright and I was born / Twenty-five miles from this infected grave, / In Martins Ferry, Ohio, where one slave / To Hazel-Atlas Glass became my father.” — with such iambic ferocity I was stunned. A fan, those years, of the Wesleyan poetry series, I bought Wright’s third book, The Branch Will Not Break, and was immediately wowed. Unlike its more formal predecessors, this book had fresh rhythms, images, and perspectives. Looking back, I realize now it contained many of the poems that have become permanent: “A Blessing,” “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry Ohio,” “Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” and, for me, the title poem. Indeed, so permanent have they become in the classroom and the canon that they have been, almost as a matter of the course of time, attacked and defended, shredded and sacralized. But for me, that book retains the feel of that new threshold in 1959, a view of a poetry un-loosened and set free into emotional and vivid images, a feeling I needed that year and years to come. [Post by Robert King]