The long 20th Century? Well, maybe?
I was asked the other day what I thought the most important (not just that I liked) books of poetry of the 21st Century were, and I was caught rather flat. The first thing that I realized is that we have yet to come across anything in the arts (fiction, poetry, drama, music, visual art) in the 21st Century that changes the game the way the game was changing by 1911. So, in my mind, we’re now in what literary scholars of the future will call the long 20th Century, which makes a question about the most important books of the 21st Century much less obvious. It also makes me go back to my shelf of 20th Century books of poetry.
What were the most important books of poetry of the 20th Century? Is that just another list when we’re supposed to be post-list? But even so, nearly every poet I come across says that poets should read in their tradition. So there must be some books that everyone should have read.
So I begin to make a list of what books of American poetry everyone should have read:
Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems
Wallace Stevens, Harmonium
William Carlos Williams, Spring & All
Robert Lowell, Life Studies
Sylvia Plath, Ariel
John Berryman, 77 Dream Songs
Robert Bly, Silence in the Snowy Fields
James Wright, The Branch Will Not Break
George Oppen, Of Being Numerous
John Ashbery, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror
Lyn Hejinian, My Life
Michael Palmer, Notes for Echo Lake
Jorie Graham, Materialism
Mary Jo Bang, Elegy
And then it quickly breaks down. There should be books by E.E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, H.D., Rae Armantrout, Elizabeth Bishop on it, but which ones? And I skipped the Beats! And, oh, yes, the Black Mountain poets. Where’s O’Hara? I love O’Hara! And what is “important” anyway? Does a book have to be good to be important? A book of poetry can be good without being important, right? “Important” is saved for books that add something to how poetry works, right? Has Matthew Zapruder done that with Come on All You Ghosts? Has Zachary Schomburg? Dean Young? And then what about poets who have changed things slowly, without one book standing out? Poets like James Tate, perhaps, or Russell Edson? Or poets who are in the news a lot lately, that I don’t think of much, but certainly seem to be important, poets like Kay Ryan and Tony Hoagland? Terrance Hayes? Mark Doty? D.A. Powell? Sharon Olds? (And I don't even like her poetry! What am I doing this for?)
And then I’m back to just books that are important to me. But I’m continually frustrated when I meet poets and we’re talking about poetry, especially contemporary poetry, that we have so little text in common. I’ll mention Martha Ronk, say, and they’ll mention Brian Turner, and then we’ll go our separate ways.
Perhaps that’s for the best, but I still like seeing people’s reading lists. I’m always surprised when I find a new book or a new poet, or I come across a book I don’t know that is excellent by a poet I’ve not cared for before.
So we continue on. The Long 20th Century.