The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus looms over the Modernist School
A poem is a philosophical song.
The poem’s hub may be mad hilarity or too grim, or secretive, for words, but a poem’s circumferance will always be a wordy border, patrolled by pedants indifferent to its passionate origins, scratching their graying heads, asking, “Is this poem great? Is it culturally relevant?”
In the year 2000, David Lehman, poet and editor of the annual Best American Poetry series (1988—present) graciously asked all of his previous guest editors up until that point (13 and all prestigious American poets) to name their top 15 poems of the 20th century—a pretty simple request, and, we think all would agree, an interesting assignment. The results were published in the back of The Best American Poetry 2000 volume.
Two of the Best American Poetry Guest editors—Louise Gluck and Adrienne Rich—refused to play.
One—Richard Howard—didn’t follow the rule, and listed books instead of poems.
Three—Howard, Mark Strand and Donald Hall—limited themselves to dead poets.
David Lehman added his list as well—so a total of 12 important American poets participated.
We are not here to impugn the results—only to analyze them. We might as well get this out of the way first: the VIDA score of “The Best American Poetry of the Twentieth Century” (as Lehman titled the section) was abysmal: 16% of the choices were by women, although 30% of the editors originally asked by Lehman were female. It didn’t help the women that two women editors refused to participate. And, if you remove Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore from the choices of the best poems of the 20th century by this distinguished panel, the VIDA score drops to 5% Not one poem by Edna Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton, Amy Lowell, Mary Oliver, or Sharon Olds was chosen.
The Best American Poetry editors all seemed to run in fear of the popular poem. The quality of the choices can be disputed, but there was a glaring sameness about the choices, a definite lock-step approach by the group. Not only did the individuals within the group select the same authors and the same poems with great frequency, but poems with the same themes.
According to the nearly 200 poems selected by the group in the category: Best Poem of the 20th Century, the easy winner was: Elizabeth Bishop writing about an animal. Only Frost got more votes than Bishop.
Compiling all the votes, here’s how the Top 15 Greatest Poems of the 20th Century, according to John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Louise Gluck (Didn’t play), A.R. Ammons, Richard Howard, Adrienne Rich (Didn’t play), James Tate, John Hollander, Robert Bly, Rita Dove, and David Lehman:
1. The Waste Land -TS Eliot 1922
2. The Bridge -Hart Crane 1930
3. In Praise of Limestone -W.H. Auden 1948
4. Little Gidding -TS Eliot 1941
5. Book of Ephraim -James Merrill 1976
6. Voyages -Hart Crane 1926
7. Asphodel, That Greeny Flower -WC Williams 1962
8. 77 Dream Songs -John Berryman 1964
9. After Apple Picking -Robert Frost 1914
10. Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening -Robert Frost 1923
11. At The Fishhouses -Elizabeth Bishop 1955
12. The Comedian As The Letter C -Wallace Stevens 1923
13. Spring and All -WC Williams 1923
14. The Auroras of Autumn -Wallace Stevens 1950
15. Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror -John Ashbery 1974
The selections are all permeated by a similar theme and approach: turgid language; a restlessness of philosophical meditation; a singular, yet ever-shifting landscape; rhetoric far more descriptive than emotive; given to lyrical flights of prose, broadly metaphorical, using more frequently the ideas of Heraclitus, famous for his, “no man ever steps in the same river twice—it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same man.”
Number eleven on the list, “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, is pure Heraclitus. Her poem ends:
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
Auden’s poem, at number three, “In Praise of Limestone,” as you can see from the opening lines, is remarkably similar:
If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish
“The Comedian As The Letter C” by Wallace Stevens, at no. 12, is self-consciously Heraclitean in its prose-poetry:
gaudy, gusty panoply…
That prose should wear a poem’s guise at last…
Shebang. Exeunt omnes. Here was prose
More exquisite than any tumbling verse…
The bombast of Hart Crane was extremely popular with the voters:
How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty–
Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
–Till elevators drop us from our day . . .
I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;
And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,–
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!
Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.
Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.
And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.
O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,–
Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path–condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.
Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .
O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
They say the wind is sucked, not blown. Most poets and critics, even as they wear the gowns of culture and history, are pulled along by group-think, sucked into judgement without will, trapped by the tuggings of trends and fashions.
All of these choices seem to be driven by the same post-World War I, European Modernist sensibility. Gloomy meditations on the two world wars belong to T.S. Eliot’s English point of view in “The Waste Land” and “Little Gidding.” Since Auden was included as an American, it seems poets like Louis Simpson, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin and Stephen Spender should have been included, especially since the Modernism these Best American Poets so admire is very European.
The last quarter of the 20th century was almost completely neglected. Poets such as Billy Collins, Donald Justice, Robert Pinsky, and Jack Spicer got no votes at all. Ginsberg got only one vote—for “Howl” by Rita Dove.
Were the voters seeking to silence their contemporary rivals by focusing on the first half of the twentieth century?
Other poets getting more than one vote for their poems were Pound, Roethke, Robinson, O’Hara, Lowell, Creeley, Schuyler, Wilbur, Warren, Jarrell, and Ammons.