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)
4. PLATO: THE COLLECTED DIALOGUES, BOLLINGEN SERIES, EDITH HAMILTON, ED Poetry being born
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
14. THE COMPLETE POEMS OF JOHN MILTON WRITTEN IN ENGLISH (HARVARD CLASSICS) You can’t go wrong with melodious Milton
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
25. POETRY OF WITNESS: THE TRADITION IN ENGLISH 1500-2001, CAROLYN FORCHE, DUNCAN WU, EDS Poetry handles real horror
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
28. PABLO NERUDA, TWENTY LOVE SONGS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR, DUAL-LANGUAGE EDITION (PENGUIN) Neruda may get you laid
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?
31. PALGRAVE’S GOLDEN TREASURY, FRANCIS TURNER PALGRAVE (1861) Look out! Right-wing poetry!
32. LIBRARY OF WORLD POETRY, WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT Worth a peek
33. 100 POEMS FROM THE JAPANESE, KENNETH REXROTH blossoms and other stuff
34. BLACK POETS OF THE UNITED STATES: FROM PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR TO LANGSTON HUGHES, JEAN WAGNER Before rap
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
38. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1990, LEHMAN SERIES EDITOR, JORIE GRAHAM, GUEST EDITOR Has that wonderful poem by Kinnell…
39. FIRST WORLD WAR POETRY, JON SILKIN, EDITOR While being slaughtered, they wrote
40. SPANISH POETRY: A DUAL LANGUAGE ANTHOLOGY 16TH-20TH CENTURIES, ANGEL FLORES Dual Languages are a must, really
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
43. POETS TRANSLATE POETS, A HUDSON REVIEW ANTHOLOGY, PAULA DIETZ, ED. Nice historical sweep…
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
47. POEMS BEWITCHED AND HAUNTED, JOHN HOLLANDER, ED (EVERYMAN’S POCKET LIBRARY) Some really darling pieces here
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…
53. THE RAG AND BONE SHOP OF THE HEART: A POETRY ANTHOLOGY, ROBERT BLY, EDITOR A lot of Rumi and Neruda
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
55. LES FLEUR DU MAL, BAUDELAIRE Ah…Baudelaire!
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
59. A TREASURY OF GREAT POEMS, LOUIS UNTERMEYER Almost 2OO poets
60. AMERICAN POETRY: THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, HOLLANDER, ED, LIBRARY OF AMERICA A good look around at two centuries ago
61. ANEID, VIRGIL, ROBERT FITZGERALD, TRANSLATOR Poet of the silver age…
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
64. EUGENE ONEGIN BY ALEXANDER PUSHKIN, STANLEY MITCHELL (PENGUIN) The most modern of all epics
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
68. THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND, WALLACE STEVENS, SELECTED POEMS & A PLAY Pretentious rot, but fun
69. ROBERT LOWELL, COLLECTED Most overrated poet of the 20th century, but has his moments
70 AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, MARY OLIVER Our little Wordsworth
71. GORGEOUS NOTHINGS, EMILY DICKINSON, WERNER, BERRIN, EDS (NEW DIRECTIONS) A really bizarre document
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
81. ESSENTIAL PLEASURES: A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS TO READ ALOUD, PINSKY, ED Reading aloud is good
82. THE RATTLE BAG, SEAMUS HEANEY, TED HUGHES, EDS Conservative selection: Shakespeare, Blake, Hardy, Lawrence, Frost, etc
83. MODERNIST WOMEN POETS, ROBERT HASS, PAUL EBENKAMP, EDS Not a large number of poets
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
90. MOUNTAIN HOME: THE WILDERNESS POETRY OF ANCIENT CHINA, DAVID HINTON, ED Includes the major poets
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.
95. JOHN ASHBERY, SELF PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR His tour de force
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