John Dryden, the first Poet Laureate of England


Exposition must be both literal and allegorical. To convey what this means, it is necessary to know that writings can be understood and ought to be expounded principally in four senses . The first is called the literal, and this is the sense that does not go beyond the surface of the letter, as in the fables of the poets. The next is called the allegorical, and this is the one that is hidden beneath the cloak of these fables, and is a truth hidden beneath a beautiful fiction. Thus Ovid says that with his lyre Orpheus tamed wild beasts and made trees and rocks move toward him, which is to say that the wise man with the instrument of his voice makes cruel hearts grow tender and humble and moves to his will those who do not devote their lives to knowledge and art; and those who have no rational life whatsoever are almost like stones.

The third sense is called moral, and this is the sense that teachers should intently seek to discover throughout the scriptures, for their own profit and that of their pupils; as, for example, in the Gospel we may discover that when Christ ascended the mountain to be transfigured, of the twelve Apostles he took with him but three, the moral meaning of which is that in matters of great secrecy we should have few companions.

The fourth sense is anagogical, that is to say, beyond the senses; and this occurs when a scripture is expounded in a spiritual sense which, although it is true also in the literal sense, signifies by means of the things signified a part of the supernal things of eternal glory, as may be seen in the song of the Prophet which says that when the people of Israel went out of Egypt, Judea was made whole and free. For although it is manifestly true according to the letter, that which is spiritually intended is no less true, namely, that when the soul departs from sin it is made whole and free in its power. In this kind of explication, the literal should always come first, as being the sense in whose meaning the others are enclosed, and without which it would be impossible and illogical to attend to the other senses, and especially the allegorical. It would be impossible because in everything that has an inside and an outside it is impossible to arrive at the inside without first arriving at the outside; consequently, since in what is written down the literal meaning is always the outside, it is impossible to arrive at the other senses, especially the allegorical, without first arriving at the literal.



To instruct delightfully is the general end of all poetry. Philosophy instructs, but it performs its work by precept; which is not delightful, or not so delightful as example. To purge the passions by example is therefore the particular instruction which belongs to Tragedy. Rapin, a judicious critic, has observed from Aristotle, that pride and want of commiseration are the most predominant vices in mankind; therefore, to cure us of these two, the inventors of Tragedy have chosen to work upon two other passions, which are fear and pity. We are wrought to fear by there before our eyes some terrible example of misfortune, which happened to persons of the highest quality; for such an action demonstrates to us that no condition is privileged from the turns of fortune; this must of necessity cause terror in us, and consequently abate our pride. But when we see that the most virtuous, as well as the greatest, are not exempt from such misfortunes, that consideration moves pity in us, and insensibly works us to be helpful to, and tender over, the distressed; which the noble consider the most god-like of virtues. Here it is observable that it is absolutely necessary to make a man virtuous, if we desire he should be pitied: we lament not, but detest, a wicked man; we are glad when we behold his crimes are punished, and that poetical justice is done upon him.

Euripides was censured by the critics of his time for making his chief characters too wicked; Phaedra, for instance. Shall we therefore banish all characters of villainy? I confess I am not of that opinion; but it is necessary that the hero of a play be not a villain; that is, the characters, which should move our pity, ought to have virtuous inclinations, and degrees of moral goodness in them.


Dryden is the more modern philosopher for saying that “example” (the flesh of fiction) is more “delightful.”

Dante says the “example” is simply a matter of what we experience first so we may comprehend the secret of the moral.

Dante has it right, for he sees morals correctly as a secret; for why bother to expound (in fiction or otherwise) what is self-evident?   Secrecy is loved for itself by the genius. Dante: “truth is hidden beneath the cloak of beautiful fiction.”  “The third sense is the moral that teachers should intently seek to discover…”  And just so we get it, in Dante’s example: “in matters of great secrecy we should have few companions.”  Dante “encloses” three levels of knowledge within a first level, the literal, and we can see if we try, in what appears to be a bit of pedantic prose, the grand design of the Commedia itself.

Dryden worries that “chief characters” not be “too wicked,” but Dante worries not: his “characters” can be as “wicked” as he wants them to be, enclosed as they are in the moral levels of Dante’s fiction, while the “chief character” is Dante, the poet himself.

Genius extends its fiction to the very form of the work itself, to the walls and passageways, where the poet and the poem walk through the mists of the moral plan.




G.W.F. Hegel. In the 20th century, his Continental Idealism lost to Anglo-American Pragmatism.


A work of art is a product of human activity, and this activity being the conscious production of an external object can also be known and expounded, and learnt and pursued by others. For what one man makes, another, it may seem, could make and imitate too, if only he were first acquainted with the manner of proceeding; so that, granted universal acquaintance with the rules of artistic production, it would only be a matter of everyone’s pleasure to carry out the procedure in the same manner and produce works of art. It is in this way that rule-providing theories, with their prescriptions calculated for practical application, have arisen.

But what can be carried out on such directions can only be something formally regular and mechanical. Being abstract in content, such rules reveal themselves, in their presence of adequacy to fill the consciousness of the artist, as wholly inadequate, since artistic production is not a formal activity in accordance with given specifications. On the contrary, as spiritual activity it is bound to work from its own resources and bring before the mind’s eye a quite other and richer content and more comprehensive individual creations than formulae can provide.

Thus, as it turns out, the tendency just indicated has been altogether abandoned, and instead of it the opposite one has been adopted to the same extent. For the work of art was no longer regarded as a product of general human activity, but as a work of an entirely specially gifted spirit which now, however, is supposed to give free play simply and only to its own particular gift, as if to a specific natural force; it is to cut itself altogether loose from attention to universally valid laws and from a conscious reflection interfering with its own instinctive-like productive activity. From this point of view the work of art has been claimed as a product of talent and genius.

A third view concerning the idea of the work of art as a product of human activity refers to the placing of art in relation to the external phenomena of nature. Here the ordinary way of looking at things took easily to the notion that the human art-product ranked below the product of nature; for the work of art has no feeling in itself and is not through and through enlivened, but, regarded as an external object, is dead; we are accustomed to value the living higher than the dead.

However: Human interest, the spiritual value possessed by an event, an individual character, an action in its complexity and outcome, is grasped in the work of art and blazoned more purely and more transparently than is possible on the ground of other non-artistic things. Therefore the work of art stands higher than any natural product which has not made this journey through the spirit. For everything spiritual is better than any product of nature. Besides, no natural being is able, as art is, to present the divine Ideal.


It is supposed, that by the act of writing  in verse an Author makes a formal engagement that he will gratify certain known habits of association; that he not only thus apprizes the Reader that certain classes of ideas and expressions will be found in his book, but that others will be carefully excluded. This exponent or symbol held forth by metrical language must in different areas of literature have excited very different expectations: for example, in the age of Catullus, Terrence and Lucretius, and that of Statius or Claudian; and in our own country, in the age of Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher, and that of Donne and Cowley, or Dryden, or Pope. I will not take upon me to determine the exact import of the promise which by the act of writing in verse an Author, in the present day, makes to his Reader; but I am certain, it will appear to many persons that I have not fulfilled the terms of an engagement thus voluntarily contracted. I hope the Reader will not censure me, if I attempt to state what I have proposed to myself to perform.

To choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended; and are more durable; and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.

Nature is beautiful and the products of Man are not—the exception being art, which finds its beauty in nature.  This sums up the Ancient Greek view of art and that whole range of Criticism with Beauty as its measure.

If it is ugly, it does not get a hearing in art. And this Greek ideal has not gone away. Moderns pride themselves on having richer, broader, and more varied views and appreciations when it comes to art, and Hegel and Wordsworth are typical examples of Art Criticism that makes human interest and variety, not beauty, the apparent concern.

No more cookie-cutter beautiful art! We are modern!

Not really.

Hegel insists art has an ideal/spiritual dimension which springs from “human interest,” and thus “dead” art is superior to “living” nature. But Hegel speaks abstractly and can be dismissed for that reason.

Wordsworth is cleverer and the more profound philosopher of art. W. understands the paradox: if one attempts to praise man-made products (the plain “speech of men,” for instance) as something superior to nature, one turns those very products into “art,” which is the one Greek exception in the simple aesthetic above. The modern attempt to escape the Greek Aesthetic proves impossible, for the simple reason that you become what you attempt to praise. Permit the ugly and you are only, in so many ways, including the ugly as art, not as the ugly.

The truly ugly always remains out of sight. Wordsworth’s “speech of men,” we are so often reminded, is rhyming poetry.

Despite Wordsworth’s ‘modern’ rhetoric, Wordsworth is finally Greek, not modern.

But… not quite.

And this is where Wordsworth’s cleverness enters and why he changed art, poetry, and the world forever. W. understood the challenge of getting out from under the Greek Aesthetic, and the key was Nature—not in the Greek sense, as in a beautiful human body, but in the modern sense: Wordsworth was poetry’s first environmentalist.  Nature becomes not the ideal, but everything.

Wordsworth said: OK, I’m not going to be a Greek; I’m not going to give a damn about Beauty; I’m going to write poetry that is the ‘speech of men.’  And here Wordsworth is betrayed by the paradox: the surface of his poetry is ideally beautiful; it does not really admit any ugliness (plain speech) and so, sorry, Wordsworth, you are Beauty-endowed.

But Wordsworth goes further.  After (and this is why we included that prior passage) laying the groundwork with his observation of previous poetry in history: “certain classes of ideas and expressions” are chosen and “others carefully excluded,” and after his famous pronouncement that he will replicate “language really used by men,” the dense passage runs on (like a mighty river) to add that he will select “low and rustic life,” in which are profoundly and passionately expressed “the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”

Wordsworth, in modern guise, says he will expand his “language” to include that “really used by men” (which was not true) but then announces “rustic life” will be the theme.  By “selecting” this theme, Wordsworth “carefully excludes” the ugly products of urban Man: Roman poets and their tawdry women, for instance; Roman poets Wordsworth explicitly cited in his previous ‘graph. Wordsworth understands that all poets, no matter how ‘modern,’ must always exclude what they find to be ugly.

Wordsworth is the first Modern Poet to consciously make concessions to the inescapable Greek Aesthetic: Wordsworth’s plain “rural life” is far less “modern” than the Roman poets and their urban floozies with foul language and sexuality and eye makeup—who are older than Wordsworth by two thousand years.

Wordsworth’s sleight-of-hand shows us “language” but gives us “rustic life.”

And “rustic life” is key for what it leaves out.

Sex is conspicuously absent from Wordsworth.  No beautiful Greek bodies in Wordsworth.  Wordsworth’s nature is—nature, the modern nature of environmentalism.  Modern critics may charge Wordsworth with being the environmentalist of “Romantic, Lake District, white males” (is the only ‘true’ environmentalist a black gay woman from New York City?) but the British Empire was in Wordsworth’s day global-conscious and the planet potentially to be managed by the British—interestingly enough, today the most urgent and prominent environmentalist is Prince Charles.  Qualifying Wordsworth’s environmentalism is a quibble we’ll leave aside for the time being.

All poets—no matter how modern—exclude the ugly.  Do contemporary poets, for instance, put ‘hate speech’ in their poetry?  No, of course not, and why?  Because it’s ugly.  The “language” of poetry, the selections of “ideas and expressions” made by poetry, is still limited.

Wordsworth broke through, and broke through, big time (Emerson and other early American liberals crossed the ocean to beat a path to his door) into a modern sensibility, by attaching himself to—what has become today’s secular religion: the Planet.





It is never possible to be sure that a dream has been completely interpreted.

Dreams reproduce logical connection by simultaneity in time. Here they are acting like the painter who, in a picture of the School of Athens or of Parnassus, represents in one group all the philosophers or all the poets. It is true that they never were in fact assembled in a single hall or on a single mountain-top; but they certainly form a group in the conceptual sense.

Every attempt that has hitherto been made to solve the problem of dreams has dealt directly with their manifest content. We are alone in taking something else into account: their latent content.

Oedipus Rex is what is known as a tragedy of  destiny. Its tragic effect is said to lie in the contrast between the supreme will of the gods and the vain attempts of mankind to escape the evil that threatens them. The lesson which, it is said, the deeply moved spectator should learn from the tragedy is submission to the divine will and realization of his own impotence.

It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first murderous wish against our father.

There is an unmistakable indication in the text of Sophocles’ tragedy itself that the legend of Oedipus sprang from some primeval dream-material which had as its content the distressing disturbance of a child’s relation to his parents owing to the first stirrings of sexuality.

Hamlet is able to do anything—except take vengeance on the man who did away with his father and took that father’s place with his mother, the man who shows him the repressed wishes of his own childhood realized. Thus the loathing which should drive him on to revenge is replaced in him by self-reproaches, by scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish. Here I have translated into conscious terms what was bound to remain unconscious in Hamlet’s mind; and if anyone is inclined to call him a hysteric, I can only accept the fact as one that is implied by my interpretation. The distaste for sexuality expressed by Hamlet in his conversation with Ophelia fits in very well with this: the same distaste which was destined to take possession of the poet’s mind more and more during the years that followed, and which reached its extreme expression in Timon of Athens. For it can of course only be the poet’s own mind which confronts us in Hamlet.



The poet can find material for his art only in his social environment and transmits the new impulses of life through his own artistic consciousness. Language, changed and complicated by urban conditions, gives the poet a new verbal material, and suggests or facilitates new word combinations for the poetic formulation of new thoughts or of new feelings, which strive to break through the dark shell of the subconscious. If there were no changes in psychology produced by changes in the social environment, there would be no movement in art; people would continue from generation to generation to be content with the poetry of the Bible, or of the old Greeks.

The only theory which has opposed Marxism in Soviet Russia these years is the Formalist theory of Art. The paradox consists in the fact that Russian Formalism connected itself closely with Russian Futurism, and that while the latter was capitulating politically before Communism, Formalism opposed Marxism with all its might theoretically.

The Formalists are not content to ascribe to their methods a merely subsidiary, serviceable and technical significance—similar to that which statistics has for social science, or the microscope for the biological sciences. No, they go much further. To them verbal art ends finally and fully with the word, and depictive art with color.

The quarrels about “pure art” do not become us. Materialistic dialectics are above this; from the point of view of an objective historical process, art is always a social servant and historically utilitarian, and quite independently of whether it appears in a given case under the flag of a “pure” or of a frankly tendentious art.


Freudian psychology used to be everywhere—it became a religion for 20th century intellectuals, and it still reverberates.  Freud conquered Christianity, manners, sex, art, pillow talk, literary criticism, and although the bomb went off several generations ago and the sound of its explosion has passed, its effects are still here; the ideas no longer need to be argued, they are in us.  But are they true?  Are they good?

Psychology occupies a privileged position between philosophy and poetry—with the withering away of both, Psychology has grown into a colossus.  Undergraduates study it, corporations manage people with it, and millions of people try and figure out themselves and others with it. Freud starts fires; Freudian psychology is a Dionysian force against religion, art, statesmanship and work, which orders and pacifies people.

Just look at what Freud does to not only Hamlet, the play, but to Shakespeare himself, just from the brief excerpt above:

Freud is certain that Hamlet, Shakespeare’s character, delays killing his uncle because Hamlet naturally feels he is a sinner in the same way: Hamlet, like all of us, wants to kill his father and sleep with his mother; not only this, Hamlet’s “distaste for sexuality” is quickly held aloft by Freud as a pathology, and then just as quickly ascribed to Shakespeare, the author.

Was the New Criticism, and other sorts of complex literary commentary, merely a fire wall against this sort of fiery Freudian Criticism?  We sometimes forget how very influential Freud was. One thinks of Princess Marie Bonaparte, a member of Freud’s inner circle, and her 700 page ‘psycho-biography’ of Poe (1933), which helped to cloud, mitigate, distort, and even destroy, the literary reputation of that famous author.

Trotsky reminds us that Futurism fit in with Soviet art, but “purist” Formalism did not, even though the two went hand in hand in the Modernist upsurge. Trotsky, writing for “the state,” can’t abide “purist” art, which is not a big surprise.







When the sun confuses the sky,
And the warmth and the shades and the light
Which shouldn’t exist, springs into sight,
I have my opinions of you anyway,
Which I ponder in secret agony
Despite the swimming day.
Every miracle that you can think of is nothing
Without my thinking it so,
Without me, nothing exists at all—
Nothing triumphs without me,
Without me, nothing can fall.

It took me a long time,
Because I was blinded by myself,
To see how much you were
Yourself in your own soul,
How much the existence I
Took for granted was really myself,
A miracle for you
And also a poem
That could never be written,
Not because you are not a poet,
But because you are,
Understanding limits in a perfectly
Positive way; so when I
Fell upon your silences
As things too wide and tall,
You made no effort to acknowledge
The silences at all.

I thought you rejected me,
But you rejected silence by being
Silent about it, these silences
The space you needed
To have space as yourself
In each particular case
So that I, myself, could not possibly know,
Hanging over here in my space,
The whole context a little piece of the all
Which surrounds your face,
Silent, and this is why I am in your thrall.


All poets I know would say a poem is a thing,
A piece of rich imagining,
A thing other things are holding
For some other time.
A life, a soul, a rhyme.

But I know a poem is a person,
I know this poem is me.
And you—my love! reading this poem—
Can I count on you to agree?



EYE Don Share

Collecting is where material pride, wisdom and love uneasily sit, an endless pursuit which moves product, an endless boon to any enterprise.  To collect is to amass, to buy, to own, to bring into one’s circle the niceties of some industry for one’s own comfort and inspection. The collectable items should be unique, if not numerous, and if not unique, at least very rare.  Collecting is to break off pieces of some whole, but the item, when found, bought, discovered, possessed, is a shining whole to the collector, and compared to it, the universe is a sad jumble—such is the profundity of collecting.

Poetry anthologies spread wealth; poetry is centrifugal; it scatters itself outward freely.  Except where it overlaps with the ‘rare book collector,’ poetry, despite its fecundity, is not collectable; collecting is centripetal; it waits in vaults and rooms crowded with unique paintings, coins, and cars.  To know coins, one must darken them in one’s palm; to know poetry, one merely glimpses what every other person glimpses.

The following list is not a rare book list; increasingly, great old poetry, important translated poetry, and all sorts of rare poetry, simply lives on the internet.

This, in many ways, is a perfectly centrifugal list, readily available to whatever soul—no matter how mysterious, no matter how centripetal, no matter how hidden, no matter how curious—happens to want it.

Poetry is against collecting.  Poetry doesn’t  hoard; you can be deeply poetic for free.

These are books you could own, or read, or memorize, or teach, or learn, and probably already have.

Good translations are necessary, but impossible.  Old poems are necessary, but impossible.  Good, new poetry is necessary, but impossible.

The list below is mundane, but necessary.  This—mostly from the top of the list—is what you read if you want to know poetry.

It is everywhere, but it still must hit you.


1. SHAKESPEARE SONNETS, AUDEN INTRODUCTION  Modern poetry begins here. A definite sequence: 1-14 children as immortality, 15-28 poems as immortality, etc.

2. POE: POETRY, TALES, AND SELECTED ESSAYS (LIBRARY OF AMERICA) Iconic poems, tales of poetic quality, even criticism of poetic quality

3. VIKING BOOK OF POETRY OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING WORLD, RICHARD ALDINGTON  H.D.’s husband, got Eliot out of the bank, solid anthology by this Brit wounded in WW I who knew all the Modernists and hated most of them (375 poets)


5. THE ARDEN SHAKESPEARE, COMPLETE WORKS  With Shakespeare the best is just to read, and forget all the notes

6. THE DIVINE COMEDY, DANTE, JOHN D. SINCLAIR, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD U. PRESS)  Verse translation hopeless; take the prose Sinclair with Italian on the facing page

7. THE ILIAD OF HOMER TRANSLATED BY ALEXANDER POPE (PENGUIN)  The king of men his reverent priest defied/And for the king’s offense the people died

8. THE ODYSSEY OF HOMER TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH VERSE BY ALEXANDER POPE (MACMILLAN, 1911)  The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d/Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound

9. EDNA MILLAY COLLECTED, NORMA MILLAY (HARPER)  Tragically undervalued as Modernism came into vogue, Millay’s Collected is a must

10. PHILIP LARKIN THE COMPLETE POEMS, ARCHIE BURNETT  recently published master of the short lyric

11. LYRICAL BALLADS, WORDSWORTH, COLERIDGE  A shame Coleridge didn’t contribute more

12. WASTELAND AND OTHER POEMS, T.S. ELIOT  The one Modernist who could really write poetry (and prose).

13. LEAVES OF GRASS, WHITMAN (1855 EDITION) The first edition, before it got too long-winded


15. UNDERSTANDING POETRY, BROOKS AND WARREN Textbooks are propaganda—this most used anthology in the 20th c. attacked Poe and elevated Pound/Williams

16. SELECTED POETRY & LETTERS, BYRON, EDWARD BOSTETTER, ED  Byron was very, very unhappy

17. POCKET BOOK OF MODERN VERSE, OSCAR WILLIAMS (1954)  Okay. Some of modern verse is good

18. A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, AN INTRODUCTORY ANTHOLOGY, CZESLAW MILOSZ  International poetry collections are good things

19. SELECTED POEMS AND TWO PLAYS, WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, ROSENTHAL, ED  Yeats benefits from Selected as opposed to Collected

20. OVID, THE LOVE POEMS, A.D. MELVILLE, ED. And you can really learn something, lovers

21. THE BEST LOVED POEMS OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, HAZEL FELLEMAN  Because these uncritical anthologies always have some gems

22. ROBERT BROWNING, THE POEMS, PETTIGREW, ED. 2 VOLS  Because it’s Robert Browning

23. A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF MODERN POETRY, SELDEN RODMAN (1938)   Great snapshot of poetry in the 1930s: lots of ballads of political anguish

24. 100 GREAT POEMS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, MARK STRAND, ED.  A very nice selection from a poet whose reputation is fading


26. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1988, LEHMAN, SERIES ED. ASHBERY, GUEST ED. The first volume in the series may be the best

27. ARIEL, SYLVIA PLATH  A whirlwind of rhyme and rage


29. GREAT POEMS BY AMERICAN WOMEN: AN ANTHOLOGY, SUSAN RATTINER (DOVER) Women once had a higher standing as poets

30. OXFORD BOOK OF LIGHT VERSE, W.H. AUDEN, EDITOR  Who said light verse was light?



33. 100 POEMS FROM THE JAPANESE, KENNETH REXROTH  blossoms and other stuff


35. THE OXFORD BOOK OF NARRATIVE VERSE, PETER OPIE  A narrative poem does not exist?

36. A BOY’S WILL, ROBERT FROST  His first book, published in England while the 40 year old poet made contacts there

37. THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY 1945-1960, DONALD ALLEN   Dawn of the post-war avant-garde


39. FIRST WORLD WAR POETRY, JON SILKIN, EDITOR  While being slaughtered, they wrote


41. THE HERITAGE OF RUSSIAN VERSE, DIMITRI OBOLENSKY  “From The Ends To The Beginning A Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse” is available on-line

42. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007, LEHMAN, SERIES EDITOR, MCHUGH, GUEST EDITOR   One of the best volumes in the series


44. ART AND ARTISTS: POEMS, EMILY FRAGOS (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)    Art really meets poetry; lovely poems

45. W.H. AUDEN COLLECTED POEMS Best poet of the 20th century; slighted by anthologies

46. POEMS 1965-1975 SEAMUS HEANEY  Never quite made it to major status


48. COMPLETE POEMS OF KEATS AND SHELLEY (MODERN LIBRARY) The two best—the best, the best

49. THE 20TH CENTURY IN POETRY, HULSE, RAE, EDS (PEGASUS BOOKS)   Wonderful idea: poems in close chronology throughout the century

50. VITA NOVA, DANTE, MARK MUSA, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD) A great book for so many reasons

51. CHAUCER: THE CANTERBURY TALES (PENGUIN) father of English literature, we hear

52. HYPERION; BALLADS & OTHER POEMS, LONGFELLOW (1841)  “Hyperion” is a very modern poem…


54. WORLD POETRY: AN ANTHOLOGY OF VERSE FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE PRESENT, WASHBURN, MAJOR, FADIMAN, EDS  The translations are terrible, the selections are generally weak, but kudos for the attempt


56. VICTORIAN WOMEN POETS: AN ANTHOLOGY, LEIGHTON, REYNOLDS, EDS (BLACKWELL)  That backwards era when women poets sold better than their male counterparts

57.  IMMORTAL POEMS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, OSCAR WILLIAMS   Solid overview (150 poets) without too much emphasis on annoying moderns

58. ALEXANDER POPE, SELECTED (OXFORD POETRY LIBRARY) You could do worse than his verse




62. THE POETICAL WORKS OF ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, RUTH M. ADAMS INTRO  She was the famous poet when Robert met her

63. THE ESSENTIAL RUMI, COLEMAN BARKS, ED  Passion pushed to the limit of wisdom


65. DYLAN THOMAS, COLLECTED, PAUL MULDOON, INTRO Too drunk to write many poems; this may be good or bad

66. POETRY OF DEREK WALCOTT 1948-2013, SELECTED BY GLYN MAXWELL  Between obligation and pleasure, we read…

67. BRITISH POETRY SINCE 1945, EWARD LUCIE-SMITH.  The poor modern Brits, neither old nor quite modern


69. ROBERT LOWELL, COLLECTED  Most overrated poet of the 20th century, but has his moments

70  AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, MARY OLIVER  Our little Wordsworth


72. ELIZABETH BISHOP, POEMS (FSG)  Another one of those poets who wrote few, but good, poems

73. A CHOICE OF ENGLISH ROMANTIC POETRY, STEPHEN SPENDER (DIAL PRESS)  Rare, if you can track it down…(it’s at the Grolier in Hvd Sq)

74. CHIEF MODERN POETS OF BRITAIN AND AMERICA, 5th Edition, SANDERS, NELSON, ROSENTHAL  Can’t get enough of those chief poets

75. NEW AMERICAN POETS OF THE 80s, MYERS & WEINGARTEN Look back into the recent, recent past

76. BIRTHDAY LETTERS, TED HUGHES  The poetry isn’t good, but interesting historical document

77. TRANFORMATIONS, ANNE SEXTON, FOREWARD BY KURT VONNEGUT, JR. Modernized fairy tales—very influential

78. THE ESSENTIAL HAIKU, ROBERT HASS, ED (ECCO)  We forget Imagism sprang directly from haiku rage in West after Japan won Russo-Japanese War

79. THE DIVINE COMEDY, CLIVE JAMES, TRANSLATOR. This new translation is worth a read

80. PENGUIN BOOK OF FRENCH POETRY 1820-1950  Good translation anthologies are few and far between


82. THE RATTLE BAG, SEAMUS HEANEY, TED HUGHES, EDS  Conservative selection: Shakespeare, Blake, Hardy, Lawrence, Frost, etc


84. COLLECTED FRENCH TRANSLATIONS, JOHN ASHBERY (FSG)  Not the most trustworthy translator, but we’ll take ’em

85. VILLANELLES (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)  These editions are available and lovely—why not?

86. BRIGHT WINGS: AN ILLUSTRATED ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS ABOUT BIRDS, BILLY COLLINS, ED  All the best poems are bird poems—it’s really true

87. THE ETERNAL ONES OF THE DREAM: SELECTED POEMS 1990-2010, JAMES TATE Iowa Workshop poem par excellence, poignant, miserable, and cute

88. GOOD POEMS, GARRISON KEILLOR  As accessible as it gets

89. THE MAKING OF A SONNET, HIRSCH/BOLAND, EDS (NORTON) There’s no best sonnet anthology, but this one is good


91. SELECTED RILKE, ROBERT BLY, ED  Amazing how well Rilke sells in the U.S.

92. KING JAMES BIBLE  Yea, poetry

93. WELDON KEES, COLLECTED POEMS, DONALD JUSTICE, ED  Somewhat creepy—as modern poetry truly ought to be?

94. BILLY COLLINS, AIMLESS LOVE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (RANDOM HOUSE)  Collins is America’s modern poet—get used to it.


96. NORTH OF BOSTON, ROBERT FROST (1915, HENRY HOLT) Like Emerson, Whitman, and Melville before him, interest by the English was the ticket to fame

97. HOWL AND OTHER POEMS, ALLEN GINSBERG  A Hieronymous Bosch nightmare

98. TALES FROM THE DECAMERON OF GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO, RICHARD ALDINGTON (1930)  this 14th century writer considered a ‘novelist’ but influenced Chaucer

99. EROSION, JORIE GRAHAM  Such promise!  Then along came Alan Cordle

100. LUNCH POEMS, FRANK O’HARA  Not repasts; snacks; the virtue of O’Hara is that he’s funny






For the most wild, yet homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief.  –E.A. Poe, “The Black Cat”

Laura Runyan, an MFA Fiction graduate and occasional visitor to this little blog, has taken immense pleasure in reminding me every now and then that my attempt to neatly categorize much of literary fiction as “autobiographical” is terribly misguided.

When I first made this assertion, she reacted as if I had insulted not only herself, but all respectable Creative Writing Programs  and even literary fiction itself.

Oh the idea that literary fiction—the holy craft of literary imagination—would be, or could be, or would dare to be, merely thinly disguised memoir!  The sacred author reduced from architect, researcher, scientist, god of creativity to—a mere child with a diary!  How dare I make such an assertion!

Let me re-assert my point.  Laura’s objection rests on nothing but authorial vanity.

Let me go even further.  All fiction is non-fiction.

And by non-fiction we mean just this: the simple, naked truth.  And the simple, naked truth is that all discourse, whether it be labeled fiction or non-fiction, is a human talking—and this act itself is nothing if not an autobiographical act.

The truth is this: We don’t read stories.  We don’t read books.  We don’t read poems. We don’t read philosophy. We read a person.

The modernist/writing workshop agenda: “show, don’t tell” is a false belief that the person can hide behind things like “character development” and “research” and “invention,” in which discourse magically turns into reality, or heightened reality.

Characters (people) do not exist in fiction.  There is only one ‘character’ in fiction: the person who is writing the fiction.

In addition, the whole idea of “narrative” is falsified, as well, as “let’s see what happens next” is the false magic which replaces a well reasoned discourse or well-reasoned argument.

The good argument is good, whether we know the ending, or not.  In fact, the good argument finds its end in its beginning.

Narrative, however, is supposedly best when it surprises us—which is another way of saying:

A good narrative is a bad argument.

A true surprise is random, but no good argument is random; a Narrative, however, filled with true surprises, pleases as ‘exciting’ narrative, but exists thereby as a flawed and wretched Argument.

Fiction chases away Philosophy.

Plato was right: there is an ancient quarrel between the Poets and the Philosophers—and discourse of all kinds is autobiographical, and neither poetry (fiction) nor philosophy (non-fiction) can hide from the “Living Voice” by tricks of “craft,” which is just another word for the deceptions of fiction’s narrative surprises, or the tricks of “writing” which characterizes the worst modern philosophers (Derrida, etc).

Recall Derrida’s agenda: to attack Plato, while favoring Writing (Text) over (Living) Speech.

So what does it mean to say that we read, whether fiction or non-fiction, a person?

Aren’t we reading ‘craft’ that is executed well, or not?  Aren’t we reading facts that are true, or not?  Are we really reading a person?

Yes.  We are reading a person.

This is the fact, the truth, of everything we read.

A person who is either tricking us, or not.

To read Plato is not to read a pretty good book.

To read Plato is to experience the living voice of an extraordinary human being—of which there is no substitute in any other book.

Autobiographical?  Absolutely.



Complexity was my delight;
When the shadow had a name, I got the shadow right,
And all around my cunning memory
The people honored me.
But that was under a different sun.
You better put me down for one.

I endeared myself to all,
My poems were glaciers, which I made small
In a trick I learned last year
When the critic, my love, swung near.
But that was under a different sun.
You better put me down for one.

I fabricated delights for all
Who came into the leafy valley beaten and small;
I took the law from the primitive tree.
I made the law me.
But that was under a different sun.
You better put me down for one.

I tried to show what I could know
In difficulty—night, fog, the valley, snow.
I knew a thousand poems by sight
Even when they were covered by night.
But that was under a different sun.
You better put me down for one.

I thought it was the thought you feared,
But that was only how the thought appeared;
We had not wanted to imply
That our thought needed to ask why.
But that was under a different sun.
You better put me down for one.

I thought I could love you all,
Where the great woods shadow the sibilant call,
And the rain and lake plunge pleasantly
To the green sea.
But that was under a different sun.
You better put me down for one.


Schleiermacher: Common sense alternative to the New Critics and other text-obsessed thinkers.


As every discourse has a two-part reference, to the whole language and to the entire thought of its creator, so all understanding of speech consists of two elements—understanding the speech as it derives from the language and as it derives from the mind of the thinker.

Every discourse depends on earlier thought.

It follows that every person is on one hand a locus in which a given language is formed after an individual fashion and, on the other, a speaker who is only able to be understood within the totality of the language.

Grammatical and Psychological are completely equal: the psychological is the superior only if one views language as the means by which the individual communicates his thoughts; the grammatical is then merely a cleaning away of temporary difficulties. The grammatical is the superior if one views language as stipulating the thinking of all individuals and the individual’s discourse only as a locus at which the language manifests itself.

Only by means of such a reciprocity could one find both to be completely similar.

Exposition is an art. Every part stands by itself. Every composition is a finite certainty out of the infinite uncertainty. Language is an infinite because every element can be determined in a specific manner only through the other elements.  And this is also true for the psychological part because every perspective of an individual is infinite; and the outside influences on people extend into the disappearing horizon. A composition composed of such elements cannot be defined by rules, which carry with them the security of  their applications.

Should the grammatical part be considered by itself, one would need in some cases a complete knowledge of the language, or, in others, a complete knowledge of the person. As neither can ever be complete, one must go from one to the other, and it is not possible to give any rules as to how this should be done.

The text is not always the focus of attention. Otherwise the art would only become necessary through the difference between text and discourse; that is to say, by the absence of the living voice and by the inaccessibility of other personal influences.




The office of philosophical disquisition consists in just distinction; while it is the privilege of the philosopher to preserve himself constantly aware, that distinction is not division. In order to obtain adequate notions of any truth, we must intellectually separate its distinguishable parts; and this is the technical process of philosophy. But having so done, we must then restore them in our conceptions  to the unity, in which they actually co-exist; and this is the result of philosophy. A poem contains the same elements as a prose composition; the difference therefore must consist in a different combination of them, in consequence of a different object proposed. According to the difference of the object will be the difference of the combination. It is possible, that the object may be merely to facilitate the recollection of any given facts or observations by artificial arrangement; and the composition will be a poem, merely because it is distinguished from prose by meter, or by rhyme, or by both conjointly. In this, the lowest sense, a man might attribute the name of a poem to the well known  enumeration of the days in the several months: “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November, etc.” and others of the same class and purpose. And as a particular pleasure is found in anticipating the recurrence of sounds and quantities, all compositions that have this charm superadded, whatever be their contents, may be entitled poems.

So much for the superficial form. A difference of object and contents supplies an additional ground of distinction. The immediate purpose may be the communication of truths; either of truth absolute and demonstrable, as in works of science; or of facts experienced and recorded, as in history. Pleasure, and that of the highest and most permanent kind, may result from the attainment of the end; but it is not itself the immediate end. In other works the communication of pleasure may be the immediate purpose; and though truth, either moral or intellectual, ought to be the ultimate end, yet this will distinguish the character of the author, not the class  to which the work belongs. Blest indeed is that state of society, in which the immediate purpose would be baffled by the perversion of the proper ultimate end; in which no charm of diction or imagery could exempt the Bathyllus even of an Anacreon, or the Alexis of Virgil, from disgust and aversion!

But the communication of pleasure may be the immediate object of a work not metrically composed; and that object may have been in a high degree attained, as in novels and romances. Would then the mere superaddition of meter, with or without rhyme, entitle these to the name of poems? The answer is, that nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise. If meter be superadded, all other parts must be consonant with it. They must be such, as to justify the perpetual and distinct attention to each part, which an exact correspondent recurrence of accent and sound are calculated to excite. The final definition then, so deduced, may be thus worded. A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.


Do you know why art and poetry used to be really beautiful?  Because of thinkers like the two above.  To put it as simply as possible, they understood parts, and how parts relate to the whole.

Schleiermacher (b. 1768) makes a useful distinction between two vital aspects of writing: Psychological and Grammatical. Philosophers tend to get bogged down in one or the other; they become obsessed with text, and forget the “living voice,” or they become excited by various insights of their own (think of typical modernist extravagances: Gertrude Stein, John Cage, Charles Olson, etc) which don’t translate into speech that is scientifically sound (we don’t usually think of grammar as scientific, but it is).

Coleridge offers wisdom to both sides of the verse/free verse/what is poetry? debate: poetry is not an empty shell of metrics, but neither is it truth-telling prose—the end of poetry involves three things: pleasure, unity, and the compatibility of each part with its unity in the communication of that pleasure. One can see how metrics may very much be involved in this end—or not. One can also see how the pretentious poetaster of prosey ‘truths’ will not get much of a hearing.  Poetry is difficult to define; Coleridge may have come closest.




Fanon: Saw 9/11 coming in the 1950s


Philosophers have assumed utterances report facts or describe situations truly or falsely. In recent times this kind of approach has been questioned—in two stages.

If things are true or false it ought to be possible to decide which they are, and if we can’t decide which they are, they aren’t any good but are, in short, nonsense.

Secondly: people began to ask whether statements dismissed as nonsense were really statements after all. Mightn’t they perhaps be intended not to report facts but to influence people in this way or that, or to let off steam in this way or that? Or perhaps these utterances drew attention in some way (without actually reporting it) to some important feature of the circumstances in which the utterance was being made? On these lines people have now adopted a new slogan, the slogan of the ‘different uses of language.’ The old approach, the old statemental approach, is sometimes called even a fallacy, the descriptive fallacy.

I want to discuss a kind of utterance which looks like a statement and grammatically, I suppose, would be classed as a statement, which is not nonsensical, and yet is not true or false. These are not going to be utterances which contain curious verbs like ‘could’ or ‘might,’ or curious words like ‘good,’ which many philosophers regard nowadays as danger signals. They will be perfectly straightforward utterances, with ordinary verbs in the first person singular present indicative active, and yet we shall see at once that they couldn’t possibly be true or false. Furthermore, if a person makes an utterance of this sort we should say that he is doing something rather than merely saying something.

When I say ‘I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth’ I do not describe the christening ceremony, I actually perform the christening.

If I say ‘I congratulate you’ when I’m not pleased or when I don’t believe the credit was yours, then there is insincerity.

If I say something like ‘I shall be there,’ it may not be certain whether it is a promise, or an expression of intention, or perhaps even a forecast of my future behavior, of what is going to happen to me; and it may matter a good deal, at least in developed societies, precisely  which of these things it is.

By means of these explicit performative verbs and some other devices we make explicit what precise act it is that we are performing when we issue our utterance. But here I would like to put in a word of warning. We must distinguish between the functions of making explicit what act it is we are performing, and the quite different matter of stating what act it is we are performing.

Consider the case, however, of the umpire when he says ‘Out.’ Performing has some connection with the facts.

Statements, we had it, were to be true or false; performative utterances on the other hand were to be felicitous or infelicitous. They were doing something, whereas for all we said  making statements was not doing something. Now this contrast surely, if we look back at it, is unsatisfactory.

Ills that have been found to afflict statements can be precisely paralleled with ills that are characteristic of performative utterances. And after all when we state something or describe something or report something, we do perform an act which is every bit as much an act as act of ordering or warning.



The national middle class which takes over power at the end of the colonial regime is an underdeveloped middle class. It has practically no economic power, and in any case it is in no way commensurate with the bourgeoisie of the mother country which it hopes to replace.


Colonialism pulls every string shamelessly, and it is only too content to set at loggerheads those Africans who only yesterday were leagued against the settlers. The idea of  the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572 massacre of Protestants in Paris) takes shape in certain minds , and the advocates of colonialism laugh to themselves derisively when they hear magnificent declarations about African unity. Inside a single nation, religion splits up the people into different spiritual communities, all of them kept up and stiffened by colonialism and its instruments. Totally unexpected events break out here and there. In regions where Catholicism or Protestantism predominates, we see the Moslem minorities flinging themselves with unaccustomed ardor into their devotions. The Islamic feast-days are revived, and the Moslem religion defends itself inch by inch against the violent absolutism of the Catholic faith. Sometimes American Protestantism transplants its anti-Catholic prejudices into African soil, and keeps up tribal rivalries through religion.


Austin is not well-known, which is a pity, for this brainy, nerdy, Harvard/Oxford/military intelligence 1940s-1950s professor is very easy to understand and articulates the crucial idea about language which goes to the heart of every philosophical debate from Nietzsche to Wittgenstein to Derrida; linguistic theory, poetry, science and religion cannot be understood without understanding what Austin is talking about in the brief excerpts above: All language is performance. This is Austin’s conclusion. Language doesn’t lie or tell the truth—it does things, and it does things whether or not it lies or tells the truth. Language poetry comes out of this whole notion that language is performance.  But in a misguided manner, since language poetry is so awful, and since the poets have always understood that poetry is precisely that which is neither true nor false, and yet is not nonsense—due to both its pleasurable effect and its grammatical epistemology.

Fanon confines himself to the facts of colonialism—a completely different topic one would think, but not really: “Moslem minorities flinging themselves with unaccustomed ardor into their devotions” is a prophecy of 9/11 made in the 1950s. Religion—the realm where language is performance—dominates politics, or, it might be said, is politics, and always will be. Liberalism has unconsciously known this, and its victories in the university and in Washington—uneasy, dumbing-down, ravenous sorts of victories, threatening to collapse all that Liberalism ostensibly stands for—are due precisely to this knowledge. If science and democracy often seem irrational, this is why.







It is difficult to put rock music in perspective. Sure, smart people have written about rock music, and rock music is very popular, and has been so popular for so many years that old rock songs are still popular.

It could be said, that for the last three generations, rock music has become America’s poetry—shaping the sensibility of millions of young—and even old—people.

Why, then does rock still seem mindless, schlocky, obscene, and low-brow?

Because most of it is.

If literature is a polite form of sex, rock music is an art form which some feel veers too close to sex to be a socially healthy alternative to it.

But with rock’s continued popularity, it is fast becoming our religion, our poetry.  It is now America’s elevator music, shopping-mall music, American Idol music, nostalgic radio and TV music, and has not stopped being our Top 40 music, even as Country and Rap sells millions. All popular American music, even jazz, is just a form of rock music.  A jazz solo sounds like an electric guitar solo; folk, country, jazz, and rap fit under rock’s umbrella—not the other way around.  It is all rock music, really.  Sonically speaking, American art is rock.  Classical music peaked in the 19th century, when America was still a relatively small and backward place; it may not be long before classical music will be a subset of rock music—and such is already the case in many musical listeners’ minds. Rock may not be the best kind of music; but right now it is the biggest sponge.  Rock is currently the place where all roads lead.

The look of rock has certainly been vital to its fame in a modern, media-saturated society.  The personalities, the costumes, the personal stories, the videos, the pyrotechnics, the idols, all that extra-musical material every rock fan is familiar with, is part of rock’s popularity; but rock songs still exist as rock songs: they have their profound impact, in the dark, emitted from a tiny speaker.  It is finally the sound, the song, in its harmonic and emotional aurality that matters.

But why—how—has rock, this silly electrified music, scaled the heights of culture?  Four basic reasons.

The best of it absorbs all other music, from classical, to jazz, to folk.

It has no avant-garde.  It has not yet fallen victim to the zany and the pretentious.

It lives outside the academy.  To see how dead rock music can be, watch American Idol, a display of what happens when rock is systemized, archived, sent to school, judged.

It strikes a perfect balance between writing/creating and playing/performing: both are equally important.

When rock has nothing left to rebel against, when rock has nothing left to absorb, will it finally die? And what will take its place?  Right now, rock music stands alone.

The criteria for The List are as follows:  Interesting All the Way Through. Rock songs thrill immediately; many good ones begin brilliantly but then we lose interest once the beat of the song is established. Great lyrics, Melody, harmony, originality, sound quality, emotional power, are all crucial.

A good List should seem inevitable, yet surprising.

A good List should not be enslaved by stars and big names, but obscurity should be avoided as well.  We are talking about popular music, after all.

If some favorites are not included, one should at least feel that every type has been represented, and often in terms of origins and templates.



1. WHEN THE MUSIC’S OVER  –THE DOORS— Jim’s screams; a mini-symphony from the Beethoven of Rock bands.

2. BE MY BABY –THE RONETTES— Chorus agrees with singer so sweetly and exuberantly, for two minutes the world and love seem one.

3. GREEN FIELDS –THE BROTHERS FOUR— The ultimate ‘white blues’ song. Has a hushed power. Released in 1960.

4. MRS. ROBINSON– SIMON & GARFUNKLE— The energy, polish, and delicacy of late 60s S & G songs are unmatched.

5. LATHER– JEFFERSON AIRPLANE— Very few songs can truly be called mind-blowing; haunting, artistic, weird.

6. DAY IN THE LIFE– THE BEATLES— The musicians took over the control board: the final effort of an era’s performers turning profoundly and self-consciously inward. More than a song: the world’s greatest entertainers descend into the despondently poetic.

7. SEA OF LOVE –PHIL PHILLIPS— If Bach were alive in the 1950s…if Puccini were a hep cat…a catalogue of art music in two minutes.

8. CRY — JOHNNY RAY— Was he the father of rock n’ roll?  This magnificent recording came out in 1951.

9. I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER –ARETHA FRANKLIN— Urban gospel jazz classical sweetness.

10. HOW SOON IS NOW –THE SMITHS — This song has it all: brain-filling sound, lyric, singer, intangible menace-melting-into-cool.

11. SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT –NIRVANA— A moment when rock looked at itself, said Oh Fuck and squirmed back.

12. LIGHT MY FIRE –THE DOORS— For about 100 days these guys were rock music and no one else was.

13. WILD THING — THE TROGGS— With a recorder solo! In terms of insouciant understatement, most iconic rock performance ever. Hold me tight.

14. WHAT’S GOIN ON? –MARVIN GAYE— Maybe the greatest pop singer ever. A delirious—and serious song.

15. LIKE A ROLLING STONE — BOB DYLAN — He made angry lyrics an art form; looking back, folk to rock was a big challenge.

16. SPACE ODDITY –DAVID BOWIE— A song that does many things; one of the great Wagnerian efforts of mature rock.

17. HOUSE OF THE RISING SUNTHE ANIMALS— On the back of an electric keyboard, a classic folk tune reaches rock immortality.

18. STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN –LED ZEPPELIN— No matter what anyone says, this band’s best song. Melody, dynamics, atmosphere.

19. WILD WORLD — CAT STEVENS— The best of the ‘sincere’ singer/songwriter phenomenon from a male perspective.

20. ME AND BOBBY MCGEE –JANIS JOPLIN— She emoted in a way that was almost too good to be true.

21. VIVA LA VIDA –COLD PLAY— They could have had hits in the 60s!

22. SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL –THE ROLLING STONES— They actually wrote a lot of pretty pop songs.

23. SHE LOVES YOU –THE BEATLES— It was the simple sophistication of ‘she’ loves you rather than ‘I’ love you. It was joy.

24. KANSAS CITY –LITTLE RICHARD— A British Invasion starter. A 1955 record issued in 1959 in the U.K. where Little Richard was huge, never having set foot there.

25. NOTHING COMPARES 2 U — SINEAD O’CONNOR— Big, slow beautiful ballad that came out of nowhere in the moribund 90s.

26. WHITER SHADE OF PALE — PROCOL HARUM— Help from Bach and Chaucer; a song that keeps on giving.

27. JAILHOUSE ROCK — ELVIS PRESLEY— Performer, not writer; good at choosing songs, but a truly great song never chose him.

28. STANDING IN THE SHADOW OF LOVE — FOUR TOPS— A hit-making machine for Motown, all went to the same high school in Detroit.  There was uplift, but also an exquisite sound of moral desperation in their songs.

29. WALK ON THE WILD SIDE — LOU REED— This was rock becoming self-consciously cool, almost as it always had been.

30. JUST SAY I LOVE HIM — NINA SIMONE— Genre-wise, “Forbidden Fruit” (1961) which contains this tender song, is jazz/blues/folk. The underrated album is a monster.

31. DON’T LET THE SUN CATCH YOU CRYING– GERRY AND THE PACEMAKERS— One of the sweetest recordings of all time.

32. WATERLOO SUNSET — THE KINKS— Ray Davies writes and sings; his brother pushes the song into another zone with his guitar; successful bands usually contain family, love, rivalry.

33. HE’S A REBEL — THE BLOSSOMS—  Loving the rebel.  Credited to the Crystals, a girl-group not available on short notice to record it.

34. SCHOOL’S OUT — ALICE COOPER— What most people think of when they think of rock music.

35. ELENORE –THE TURTLES— Before rock turned dangerous, it grew into what it was simply as an innocent (?) love-drug. “So Happy Together” would work as well.

36. IT’S ALL IN THE GAME — TOMMY EDWARDS— The tune was composed in 1911 by a future Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge, Charles Dawes.

37. BILLY JEAN — MICHAEL JACKSON— A song impeccably produced by Quincy Jones, who worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, and Lesley Gore.

38. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER — BUFFY ST. MARIE— This anti-war song, written by the sexy Native American singer, was covered by Donovan.  Her version is much better.

39. CALIFORNIA DREAMING — MAMAS AND PAPAS— Folk rock can be a great way to speak.

40. I WANNA BE SEDATED — THE RAMONES—  Punk has its anthem.

41. DO YOU REALLY WANT TO HURT ME? — CULTURE CLUB— Melancholy cool at its best.

42. WHAT THE WORLD  NEEDS NOW IS LOVE — JACKIE DESHANNON— A perfect example of sophisticated, urban, socially holy, feel-good, sentimentality.

43. BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER — SIMON & GARFUNKLE— There was an inescapable magic about these two.

44. MAGGIE MAE — ROD STEWART— A raggedy rock classic.

45. HURDY GURDY MAN –DONOVAN — The backing band for this great hippie singer’s 1968 hit (and he had many) was the future Led Zeppelin.

46. HEY YA! — OUTKAST—  It was nice to hear this in 2003.   This is how it’s done.

47. I’M A BELIEVER — THE MONKEES—  The emergence of this ‘audition for TV show’ Beatles-clone band inspired the Beatles to go deeper.

48. TO KNOW HIM IS TO LOVE HIM — THE TEDDY BEARS— Freud could say Phil Spector used music to get women to worship the father.

49. PINE TOP’S BOOGIE WOOGIE — PINE TOP SMITH— The template for all forms of popular rock exists in this 1928 recording. “And when I say, get it, I want you to shake that thing.”

50. SPIRIT IN THE SKY — NORMAN GREENBAUM— A one hit wonder which really is a wonder.

51. UNDER THE BOARDWALK — THE DRIFTERS— We don’t have to talk about the heroin overdose death of the lead singer the day before the song was to be recorded. Just a great song.

52. SOMEONE LIKE YOU — ADELLE — A woman holding her heart in her hand. Magnificent.

53. EARTH ANGEL — THE PENGUINS — An art song of sentimental naivety.

54. NEW YORK MINING DISASTER 1941 — THE BEE GEES — Nothing bubblegum about this.

55. WHAT’D I SAY — RAY CHARLES — If this song doesn’t make you want to jump out of your skin, you’re not alive.

56. I PUT A SPELL ON YOU — SCREAMIN JAY HAWKINS — What can one say about this?

57. ICKY THUMP– THE WHITE STRIPES — The art of controlled hysteria with poetry inside.

58. I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU –THE FLAMINGOS — A gorgeous declaration of love, as 1959 covers a 1934 tune.

59. SHE’S NOT THERE — THE ZOMBIES — Moody, soft, melodic, and to the point. Rock that dazzles.

60. WE ARE YOUNG — FUN — The chord progression of the chorus is epic.

61. TIME — PINK FLOYD— A special-effects-saturated, self-examining exercise in English self-pity at the center of the best-selling album of all time.

62. AT THE HOP — DANNY AND THE JUNIORS—  The most efficient twelve-bar blues ever.  1957. When templates were perfected.

63. GOD SAVE THE QUEEN — THE SEX PISTOLS — This was a new kind of music: real limits were being pushed. Rock has many, many houses.

64. THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED –DON MCLEAN — The danger here is sentimentality, but the moral, historical, self-reflexive story telling is important.

65. STAYIN’ ALIVE –THE BEE GEES — No one saw this coming: a band of melody becoming a band of beats.

66. HEY JUDE — THE BEATLES — A hopeful A.M. radio era anthem before all the F.M. splintering began.

67. DANCING QUEEN –ABBA — The well-tempered clavier meets disco.

68. MACK THE KNIFE –BOBBY DARIN —  Kurt Weil had his own invasion.

69. YOUNG FOLKS — PETER BJORN AND JOHN— Some day ‘catchy’ may be the most important term in the world.

70. SLOW RIDE — FOGHAT — A great example of a rocker’s rock song.

71. AQUALUNG –JETHRO TULL — The ‘Sgt. Peppers/Tommy’ era was extraordinary: Globe Theater rock.

72. NIGHTS IN WHITE SATIN — THE MOODY BLUES — One of those haunting ‘classical music’ rock tunes which sound good even when its simple chords are strummed on an acoustic guitar.

73. TEMPTATION EYES — THE GRASS ROOTS — Life is too short to be snobby towards The Grass Roots.

74. ARE YOU EXPERIENCED — JIMI HENDRIX — Hendrix was a fanatic about sound, almost in a John Cage sort of way.

75. FREE BIRD — LYNYRD SKYNYRD — The song became a joke, but only because it was good.

76. BORN TO BE WILD — STEPPENWOLF — All the elements of a great rock song and the first to really sound like a machine, among other things.

77. THE END — THE DOORS — Early rock n’ roll was Greece, the Doors, Rome.  The rest is imitative.

78. LOUIE LOUIE — THE KINGSMEN — One of those mysteriously great hits which seem like many great songs inside of one.

79. MY SHARONA — THE KNACK — Nearly the parody of a great rock song.

80. SMOKE ON THE WATER — DEEP PURPLE — Something important about this song. No, never mind.

81. ROCK LOBSTER — B-52S — The best example, perhaps, of New Wave’s goofiness.

82. BENNY AND THE JETS — ELTON JOHN — John/Taupin was like one of those old music & lyric writing teams.

83. NORWEGIAN WOOD — THE BEATLES — The best world music riff of all time.

84. AS TEARS GO BY — THE ROLLING STONES — If you can please with a slow tune, it proves you’re not just a dance band.

85. LOVE WILL TEAR US APART –JOY DIVISION — Of Ian Curtis his band mates said, “we didn’t realize he meant it.”

86. I CAN SEE FOR MILES — THE WHO — The Who had remarkable parts which came together in a mix good and bad precisely because they tried so hard to be pop and rock.

87. JOY INSIDE MY TEARS —  STEVIE WONDER— A comfort song as only Stevie Wonder can bring, from the pretentiously named 1976 double album, “Songs in the Key of Life.”

88. MAYBELLENE — CHUCK BERRY — Let’s face it: so much of rock music can be annoying.  And also iconic.

89. JUST CAN’T GET ENOUGH — BLACK EYED PEAS — The new hedonism of rock adds competition: my party in my video has more naked, beautiful people than yours.

90. HEY THERE DELILAH — PLAIN WHITE T’S — The best love song of the 21st century so far?

91. STORMY — DENNIS YOST & THE CLASSICS IV— It’s a little hard to find this song, but for simple, unpretentious songwriting it’s as good as it gets. Epitomizes 70s ear candy.

92. LET’S STAY TOGETHER –AL GREEN — Every woman in the world loves this song.

93. VACATION — THE GO-GOS — This genre, which includes Katrina and the Waves, Cindi Lauper, Blondie, the Bangles, the Vapors, Shocking Blue, the Breeders is quite a lot of fun.

94. CHASING CARS — SNOW PATROL — One of the best things rock can do is create tension which makes passionate insouciance memorable.

95. IRREPLACEABLE — BEYONCE — Not a love song.

96. DREAM BROTHER — JEFF BUCKLEY — A meditative urgency which rock can do so well.

97. CALL ME MAYBE — CARLA RAE JEPSEN — Sort of a love song.

98. WHITE RABBIT — JEFFERSON AIRPLANE — The structure of this song is a rabbit hole. A masterpiece.

99. GOOD NIGHT IRENE– THE WEAVERS — This 1950 hit, a white group playing a black man’s (Leadbelly) music, could make a case for the song that began it all.

100. ODE TO JOY, FOURTH MOVEMENT, NINTH SYMPHONY– BEETHOVEN — Here’s a secret: this is when rock music really began.









Was I the one who leaned into your life—
Protected, soft, and safe from strife?
Was it I who entered the door of your mind,
Disrupting its innocence with ideas unkind?
Was I the one who hunted the prey,
Who hoped in her heart, “Please, please go away?”
Did I come armed with words untrue
Which flattered the sweetest part of you?
Did I know what you wanted to hear,
And poured only that into your ear?

Was I the one who mesmerized you?
Who took you away from the beautiful and true?
But the beautiful and true is a world of lies:
Smiles smiling with beautiful eyes.

I was the one who was mesmerized.
I was the one forsaken.
I was the one seduced by you, captured by you, and taken.
I was the one deceived by you—
Whether or not the beautiful is beautiful. Or true.


As the present presently becomes the past,
It is no longer a question of when or how fast
Will this fade, will we die, for nothing can last
At all; death is already here; all that is known is past.
All this lighted love, love’s fat desire and being,
All this love wants and smells and is seeing
Is dead already; we are gone, dead; dead in the past of the past.

Why did philosophy tell us things could last?
By the booming microphone’s voice, his hand shook as he drank his water.
Voices say so many things, their bodies already dying:
“You like my poems? You can have my daughter!”
Old poet, depressed by the pastness of everything,
Poet, put your poems away; they cannot sing.
Lover, love; lover, act; let’s see what this dead past can bring.
No one can give away their daughter; she is plucked
By death. And your lover has too many memories;
Your lover lives in death between each breath.

But you, the one I love the most; recently you have not spoken to me
And I have this terrible fear I am but a memory among many
To you, who now finds comfort in how death stays
In songs, in thoughts, in winding, unseen ways
Where you live, and I do not; my breath
Far from the life which floats inside your death
In a languor I dare not reach, I dare not stir
Because not only will you not be; it will be as if you never were.
The poet addresses the crowd, and they remain.
I close my eyes and count to ten,
Then to infinity. Don’t ask me why, or what, or how.
Please make this seem this is happening now.


File:Madame de Staël en Corinne 1807.jpg

Germaine de Stael: her daddy was finance minister for Louis XVI of France


Man’s most valuable faculty is his imagination. Human life seems so little designed for happiness that we need the help of a few creations, a few images, a lucky choice of memories to muster some sparse pleasure on this earth and struggle against the pain of all our destinies—not by philosophical force, but by the more efficient force of distraction. The dangers of imagination have been discussed a good deal, but there is no point in looking up what impotent mediocrity and strict reason have said on this topic over and over again. The human race is not about to give up being stimulated, and anyone who has the gift of appealing to people’s emotions is even less likely to give up the success promised by such talent. The number of necessary and evident truths is limited; it will never be enough for the human mind or heart. The highest honor may well go to those who discover such truths, but the authors of books producing sweet emotions or illusions have also done useful work for humanity. Metaphysical precision cannot be applied to man’s affections and remain compatible with his nature. Beginnings are all we have on this earth—there is no limit. Virtue is actual and real, but happiness floats in space; anyone who tries to examine happiness inappropriately will destroy it, as we dissolve the brilliant images of the mist if we walk straight through them. And yet the advantage of fictions is not the pleasure they bring. If fictions please nothing but the eye, they do nothing but amuse; but if they touch our hearts, they can have a great influence on all our moral ideas. This talent may be the most powerful way there is of controlling behavior and enlightening the mind. Man has only two distinct faculties: reason and imagination. All the others, even feeling, are simply results or combinations of these two. The realm of fiction, like that of imagination, is therefore vast. Fictions do not find obstacles in passions: they make use of them. Philosophy may be the invisible power in control of fictions, but if she is the first to show herself, she will destroy all their magic.

The morality of history only exists in bulk. History gives constant results by means of the recurrence of a certain number of chances: it’s lessons apply to nations, not individuals. Its examples always fit nations, because if one considers them in a general way they are invariable;  but it never explains the exceptions. These exceptions can seduce each man as an individual; the exceptional circumstances consecrated by history leave vast empty spaces into which the miseries and wrongs that make up most private destinies could easily fall. On the other hand,  novels can paint characters and feelings with such force and detail that they make more of an impression of hatred for vice and love for virtue than any other kind of reading.

Memoirs? If most men had the wit and good faith to give a truthful, clear account of what they had experienced in the course of their lives, novels would be useless—but even these sincere narratives would not have all the advantages of novels. We would still have to add a kind of dramatic effect to the truth; not deforming it, but condensing it to set it off. This is the art of the painter: far from distorting objects, it represents them in a way that makes them more immediately apprehended. Nature sometimes shows us things all on the same level, eliminating any contrasts; if we copy her too slavishly we become incapable of portraying her. The most truthful account is always an imitative truth: as a tableau, it demands a harmony of its own. However remarkable a true story may be for its nuances, feelings, and characters, it cannot interest us without the talent necessary for the composition of fiction.


Poetry, like the world, may be said to have four ages, but in a different order; the first age of poetry being the age of iron; the second, of gold; the third, of silver; and the fourth, of brass.

The first, or Iron Age of poetry, is that in which rude bards celebrate in rough numbers the exploits of ruder chiefs, in days when every man is a warrior, and when the great practical maximum of every form of society, “to keep what we have and to catch what we can,” is not yet disguised under names of justice and forms of law. The successful warrior becomes a chief; the successful chief becomes a king; his next want is an organ to disseminate the fame of his achievements and the extent of his possessions; and this organ he finds in a bard, who is always ready to celebrate the strength of his arm, being first duly inspired by that of his liquor. This is the origin of poetry, which, like all other trades, takes its rise in the demand for the commodity, and flourishes in proportion to the extent of the market. Poetry is thus in its origin panegyrical. This is the first stage of poetry before the invention of written letters. The numerical modulation is at once useful as a help to memory, and pleasant to the ears of uncultured men, who are easily caught by sound: and from the exceeding flexibility of the yet unformed language, the poet does no violence to his ideas in subjecting them to the fetters of number. The savage lisps in numbers, and all rude and uncivilized people express themselves in the manner which we call poetical.

The golden age of poetry finds its materials in the age of iron. This age begins when poetry begins to be retrospective; when something like a more extended system of civil polity is established; when personal strength and courage avail less and men live more in the light of truth and within the interchange of observation. This is the age of Homer.

Then comes the silver age, or the poetry of civilized life. This poetry is of two kinds, imitative and original. The imitative consists in recasting, and giving an exquisite polish to, the poetry of the age of gold: of this Virgil is the most obvious and striking example. The original is chiefly comic, didactic, or satiric: as in Menander, Aristophanes, Horace, and Juvenal. Experience having exhausted all the varieties of modulation, the civilized poetry selects the most beautiful, and prefers the repetition of these to ranging through the variety of all. But the best expression being that into which the idea naturally falls, it requires the utmost labor and care so to reconcile the inflexibility of civilized language and the labored polish of versification with the idea intended to be expressed, that sense may not appear to be sacrificed to sound. Hence numerous efforts and rare success.

This state of poetry is however a step towards its extinction. Feeling and passion are best painted in, and roused by, ornamental and figurative language; but the reason and the understanding are best addressed in the simplest and most unvarnished phrase. Pure reason and dispassionate truth would be perfectly ridiculous in verse, as we may judge by versifying one of Euclid’s demonstrations. This will be found true of all dispassionate reasoning whatever and all reasoning that requires comprehensive views and enlarged combinations. It is only the more tangible points of morality, those which command assent at once, those which have a mirror in every mind, and in which the severity of reason is warmed and rendered palatable by being mixed up with feeling and imagination, that are applicable even to what is called moral poetry: and as the sciences of morals and of mind advance towards perfection, as they become more enlarged and comprehensive in their views, as reason gains the ascendancy in them over imagination and feeling, poetry can no longer accompany them in their progress, but drops into the background and leaves them to advance alone.

Thus the empire of thought is withdrawn from poetry, as the empire of facts had been before.

It is now evident that poetry must either cease to be cultivated, or strike into a new path. The poets of the age of gold have been imitated and repeated till no new imitation will attract notice: the limited range of ethical and didactic poetry is exhausted: the associations of daily life in an advanced state of society are of very dry, methodical, unpoetical matters of fact: but there is always a multitude of listless idlers, yawning for amusement, and gaping for novelty: and the poet makes it his glory to be foremost among their purveyors.

Then comes the age of brass, which, by rejecting the polish and the learning of the age of silver, and taking a retrograde stride to the barbarisms and crude traditions of the age of iron, professes to return to nature and revive the age of gold. This is the second childhood of poetry.

Thomas Peacock’s “The Four Ages of Poetry” is neglected, known by a few as the work which inspired his friend Shelley’s much better known “Defense;” its glory has eclipsed Peacock, for where is Peacock’s poetry? Poets know Shelley, even though none write like him today; ironically, Shelley belongs to ‘another age,’ we think, and we are thinking exactly like Peacock—who no one reads. Poets should come to terms with those, like Plato, who doubt poetry, but they do not not. They prefer flattery in every case. Peacock, using history in remarkably modern ways, lays waste to poetry almost as effectively as Plato himself; perhaps more so: Peacock uses facts of Time and Manners and Science against the Muse; by comparison, Socrates merely speculated on Method and Morals—overturned to every poet’s satisfaction by Aristotle, Sidney, Shelley, etc.

We may laugh at Peacock’s confidence when he writes, ” as the science of morals and of mind advance towards perfection,” knowing what befell “morals” in the 20th century, so much that we can ignore his entire thesis—but no so fast. Morals still exist, as do Peacock’s ages of poetry; does Hitler disprove Peacock? Modernism might think so, but this would actually involve making all sorts of assumptions within a very small window of history. Peacock makes an excellent, sweeping case for large, pertinent dilemmas facing poetry right now.

De Stael is the common sense alternative to Peacock’s theoretical history. We will always need “fictions,” she says, and no apology is needed, or if it is, let us keep it out of sight in order to be properly “stimulated.” Hers is the bedtime story we need, as we otherwise drift into chaotic nightmare, the science of Peacock hopefully greeting us when we wake.

Unlike so many literary philosophers, De Stael writes clearly and accessibly, and we love this: “Beginnings are all we have on this earth—there is no limit.”

This is a tough one to call. De Stael is good enough to upset Peacock, but his work is a little more necessary.  This has to disappoint women, and it disappoints us, to say goodbye to Madame de Stael.



Because you do not speak,
You are the one I seek.
You spoke to me before
And now, in the cold mist, I wander the cold shore.
Cordelia said little to her father, the king,

A little more than nothing;
She said enough, we knew,
Before tragedy, in the form of rage, broke through.
We might attempt to describe our love,
But when the king’s in a rage, it will never be enough.
Make a play of silence, instead.
Hate will still fall on your head.
Since I am not a king
I hardly need a thing.
How much do I need to know?
A hint of love will exterminate my woe.
I wait in the shade
Where woe and jealousy are made.
Do not think your silence recommends you;
So vast is silence,
A single moment it spends, outspends you.
A single word—from you—to me–
Will stop my crying by the crying sea.


The problem with any argument, whether it be by politician, philosopher, priest, or poet, is this: any argument will always be prejudiced by its conclusion.

A good argument, we think, leads to its conclusion without any pre-knowledge of its conclusion; otherwise we find ourselves rejecting the argument as being made in bad faith: a mere adornment of a foregone conclusion.

Socrates is often faulted for winning his arguments too easily against fictionalized opponents— the inevitability of the conclusion results not in Socrates’ favor, but as an indictment of Plato ‘stacking the deck.’ So runs the case against Socrates, in many critics’ minds.

The seducer has one goal: carnal conquest; the unwilling victim must be persuaded by an argument guided by a conclusion which already exists. A politician’s speech, an essay, or a piece of fiction may all fall into this same unpleasant category: the conclusion comes first; the argument, no matter how elaborate, no matter how convincing, no matter how seemingly inevitable, was fashioned second, to fit the end—arrived at, for some hidden, sordid gain, in the beginning.

The bad faith argument only seems to be: ‘if these things are true, must not this be true?’ The bad faith argument is really: ‘I desire this, and to get it, I have laid out a masterpiece of an argument before you.’

Here is the great rhetorical dilemma: what sort of argument is it, if it is not prejudiced by its conclusion? It is no argument at all. An argument without a conclusion is not an argument. Yet an argument enslaved by a foregone conclusion is not an argument, either.

How does one rationally argue towards a conclusion which is unknown?

If conclusions are wants, goals, and desires, and all good arguments depend on every goal being unknown, then what in the world are good arguments for, and how can we even say what a good argument is? What sort of argument is it, which is separated from all that human beings want?

We are always reading books and recommending books to others. Do we really believe that in the great rhetorical climate of social and political communication in which all of us swim, there exists only the purest thoughts and actions, absent of all desire and ambition?

Of course we don’t believe this. Truly, conclusions exist. Desires exist. Arguments—ideal arguments, good arguments—do not exist. They can’t.

When someone says they don’t buy your argument, they are lying. Your conclusion, your desire, happens to clash with theirs.

When there is one desire, “good” arguments abound.

Where there are two conflicting desires, wonders! no “good” argument will ever be found.

If good arguments do not exist, and desire makes everything occur, then reason does not exist, or, if reason exists, it truly exists as feeling.

Reason, we think, takes time to unfold; this is what we call a ‘reasonable argument;’ but this is what we have just proved does not exist.

Last weekend my kids and I had to decide what we wanted to do for the day, and there were limits: distance to travel, cost of the event, interest in the event by the various parties, etc.  The conclusion (what we ended up doing) was already contained in the restrictions.

Today I noticed blossoms beginning to fall off the dogwood.

What is the conclusion of the dogwood?

The blossoms?

Or their death?

Reason, perhaps, if it is the same thing as emotion, manifests itself instantaneously, as feelings do.  There is debate on which is faster, light or gravity?  Perhaps the same argument could be made for swiftness of reason versus the swiftness of emotion?

I know what I want immediately.

My argument?

That is hardly relevant at all.

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