Friday, September 16, 2011

Lament for the Long 20th Century

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. 


At 9/16/2011 9:00 AM, Blogger C. Dale said...

For Bishop, I would say Geography III. I love the fact that my list and your list are almost exactly the same. I would list Erosion for Jorie Graham instead of Materialism. But such is life. I would also include Merwin's The Lice. And I would include Hecht's The Hard Hours.

At 9/16/2011 9:36 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I would cite Peter Davis' Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! as an important book in the 21st century. At least one that is very much examining what has been happening in the arts and seems to posit we are at some kind of crossroads.

Speaking of MJ Bang, I'm going to see her tonight at Pete's Candy Store. I wasn't aware until I saw the whole bill for the inaugural Multifarious Array series, but it looks good: Alex Dimitrov, MJ Bang, and others.

At 9/16/2011 9:42 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


That's probably what I'd choose as well, though really for all these poets I'd probably opt for selecteds and collecteds. Especially Bishop, who didn't write that much. I like that our lists (though mine here is incomplete, as I got frustrated) have so much overlap. perhaps there is more agreement onthe core texts than I thought. Nice.


Yeah, that's a book that goes full force at the mountain. There's some Catherine Wagner that does a similar thing in a different mode, full force.

I havent' seen Mary Jo Bang read in several years. I wish I lived somewhere that such a thing were possible.

At 9/16/2011 12:35 PM, Blogger Whimsy said...

I'm with you on this list, though I'd probably pick Louise in Love for MJB . . . Elegy is terrific, but is very un-MJB.

At 9/16/2011 1:30 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

A few not mentioned yet: Hart Crane, Koch, Spicer, Roethke, Jackson Mac Low, Bukowski. No doubt others could be mentioned. How about Merrill and Wilbur?

A few I happen to like: Padgett, Lamantia, McClure, Knott, May Swenson. (Et al., of course.)

Selecteds would do for a lot of these.

If we opened this up to the British Isles, we could add Hughes and Heaney, D.H. Lawrence, Auden and Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Larkin, Stevie Smith. And others. Wilfred Owen was important.

At 9/16/2011 1:32 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Which is the problem with lists, and therefore, my frustration when someone asks. So we tend to keep it small and personal, but that's not much of an answer either.

At 9/16/2011 6:02 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


Robert Frost?

Robert Creeley?

Gary Snyder?

Denise Levertov?

Weldon Kees?

James Dickey?

Jeez...we're completely outnumbered and outflanked.

At 9/16/2011 6:05 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Indeed. That is why the list fell apart. As soon as I would think of one name, then another, then it was dozens. Jeffers, say. And what about A.R. Ammons? See?

But still, we can't just say whatevs, either.

At 9/16/2011 7:12 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

I suppose some would claim that Bob Dylan was one of the most important American poets of the 20th century, though his only book of poetry, as far as I know, is Tarantula. Back in the 60s Leonard Cohen told a group of poets that Dylan was the most important poet in America, and when they objected, he said, "Are you going to keep writing old-fashioned poetry?" I.e., poetry on pages of books? I'm sure many would resist this idea. Maybe it made more sense in an era when Ginsberg and McClure hung with Dylan and Jim Morrison and Robbie Robertson. Well, people like Sonic Youth, David Berman, and Jeff Tweedy are maintaining the connection between poetry and song lyrics, poets and musicians. Lydia Lunch is still doing spoken word. And poetry continues to drift away from books--though perhaps more into cyberspace than into music.

A list of the most important nonacademic outsider poets would be interesting. Would it include some musicians (broadly defined)like Richard Hell and Henry Rollins?

At 9/16/2011 8:19 PM, Blogger Jeremy Stewart said...

Where are my Canadians (other than Cohen way at the bottom)? Where are bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, George Bowering, Erin Moure, Lisa Robertson--and in the 21st c., the rather important Eunoia of Christian Bok? (nationalist drum beats on, etc.)

At 9/16/2011 8:21 PM, Blogger Jeremy Stewart said...

(I get that this is an American list).

At 9/16/2011 9:19 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Cohen wouldn't be at the bottom of my personal list. I've always liked him.

How about Ern Malley from Australia? That's important.

At 9/17/2011 12:04 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

In fact, re: my friend Peter Davis and Poetry! Poetry! Poetry!-- he and I have a lengthy and contentious exchange about his book, The BAP, and other related issues in Sous les Paves #2, which you can find by going here:

At 9/17/2011 5:35 PM, Blogger Jeremy Stewart said...

Hi David, I just meant he was at the bottom of the comment stream up to that point. Not at the bottom of my list, either.

At 9/17/2011 7:30 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Hi Jeremy.

I think The Book of Longing is really good. But I like all of Cohen's poetry, even stuff that was lacerated by critics, like The Energy of Slaves.

At 9/18/2011 9:41 PM, Blogger Jeremy Stewart said...

Hello David,

critics should rightly have no say in what you enjoy. My favorite Cohen is the Book of Mercy. I could forgive him anything after Songs of Love and Hate, but I don't think it will be necessary.



At 9/19/2011 3:46 AM, Blogger MASchiavo said...

I'll second Peter Davis's Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! For so many reasons, but because it speaks both to the preconceived notions of poetry from both sides (poets, readers) as well as the currently conceived notions held by poets themselves.

At 9/19/2011 4:51 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! is perhaps the most overtly neurotic book of poetry I’ve read. At least, I can’t think of another contender. Perhaps Tao Lin’s You Are A Little Bit Happier Than I Am. (Not sure if I’m getting that title just right and I’m in a hurry so I’m skipping looking it up.)

I don’t’ mean this as a positive or negative assessment. Just that in the canon of the neurotic, it’s way up there.


Post a Comment

<< Home