Musings on Poets and Poetry


Best PoemsFor me, reading the American literary critic, Harold Bloom, is often like wading in molasses. Intellectual molasses, to be sure, but slow going nonetheless. His writing is thick with difficult ideas and difficult words. Bloom’s historical reach, his knowledge and his understanding of the tapestry of literature far outstrip mine, so I find myself scuttling to the Net or other books on my shelf for collateral references, for critical commentary, and often to the dictionary.

Bloom’s commentaries and essays are a challenge to me because his terms of reference are so much greater than my own. Hence my appreciation of them: he makes me work, and work hard to keep apace with his quick mind. Well, perhaps not apace, more like a few kilometers back, but at least following more or less in his tracks.

Shakespeare: The Invention of the HumanI first encountered Bloom’s writing several years ago through his 1995 book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, in which he argues that the Bard “invented human attributes that we think are very much our own inventions” as well as creating our language in which to talk about ourselves. Bloom goes through each of the plays, exploring and explaining them to make his point. It’s a brilliant analysis that ranges through not only Shakespeare’s works, but other parts of the “Western canon” to underscore his ideas. I often turn to Bloom’s essay on a play before I read it to get perspective and milestones to look for within Shakespeare’s words.

A couple of years ago, I ordered his book, The Best Poems of the English Language, an anthology of poets from Chaucer to Frost. When it came, I stayed up into the wee hours reading it, then looking through my other anthologies to compare their selection of poets and poems. I was looking through it again recently as I was downsizing my library.

I have a lot of books of poetry, and most I intend to keep despite the pressure to relieve the congestion on my bookshelves. Yes, I still read poetry, perhaps not as much as I did in those younger years when I fancied I could write it, too (back in the Paleolithic of my late teens and early 20s). But I am as easily moved by poetry as I ever was, and also find it as baffling, inexplicable, contentious, beautiful, tasteless, passionate, tedious, exciting, and relevant as I ever did. However, I freely admit that what poems moved me in the past may not do so today, or at least not in the same way. I now appreciate poets who in my past I either never knew, or found leaden and incomprehensible, and wonder at my immaturity for liking those I did way back when.*

While the scope of his “Best Poems” covers an enormous, almost unwieldy, number of poets, Bloom decided to stop at those born before 1900 (to his credit, Bloom does not limit his selection to only English poets, but includes several American poets he exalts, too, but, inexcusably, he includes no Canadian poets). Although this still includes many 20th-century poets, it also means some of the century’s greatest modern poets, and some of those I consider among the best poets in the language, are missing from his collection simply for their misfortune of being born after 1899. Yes, that’s right” no Dylan Thomas!

So for me, the term “the best poems” is a marketing term; hyperbolic at best, inaccurate at worst.

Bloom has also come under some critical fire for his lack of adequate representation for women poets. Still, in 972 pages, Bloom manages to squeeze in a lot of great works — although not always the complete poem — along with individual essays on the poet and his writing.

While I respect Bloom’s far greater intelligence and education, he sometimes comes across as a grumpy old pedant. His rambling and (to my mind) arid introduction, The Art of Reading Poetry, while elevating the craft to the academic stratosphere, leaves it to die from lack of passionate oxygen among us lay readers. There is often more Bloom than poet presented to the reader.

In contrast, David Orr, in his introduction to Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, writes.

…one thing that often unites academic treatments and how-to guides, it’s the implicit assumption that relating to poetry is like solving a calculus problem while being zapped with a cattle prod… the dull business of poetic interpretation… is coupled uneasily with testimonials announcing poetry’s ability to derange the senses, make us lose ourselves in rapture, dance naked under a full moon, and so forth. We seem trapped between a tediously mechanical view of poems and an unjustifiably shamanistic view of poetry itself.

Whew. Orr takes a very different view about poetry from Bloom. Strident, iconoclastic, stick-in-the-academic-eye stuff. He wants us to treat poetry as we do any other human activity. His isn’t an anthology: it’s an explanation of why modern poetry matters and how even dunderheads like myself can read and appreciate it. Orr is another academic, like Bloom, just not as dense. Well, not most of the time. In his review of Orr’s book, Andre Rojas wrote,

…poetry is much more difficult to read than fiction. Poems more often than not have no narrative, no characters that develop and grow fully human in our imaginations, precious little time or space to flesh out a time and space until it becomes “real” to the reader. On top of that, poetic conventions make it difficult to READ a darned poem in the first place (and it’s supposed to be that way, right? if you can read a “poem” and immediately grasp its entire meaning then it’s not very good, is it?) If you can’t even figure out what the poem is doing (who is talking? where is he or she while talking? what on Earth does he or she mean by “My sister, the sun, / broods in her yellow room and won’t come out?”) then how can you have any response to it other than frustration and eventual disinterest?

Rojas asks, “… if poetry is beautiful and pointless but little read, would it hurt to make it beautiful and meaningful to enough people to get it read more?” Good point: what the audience likes matters. I remember the startling success of Rod McKuen’s books of poetry when I worked in bookstores (1970s). Critics called his poetry “superficial and platitudinous and frequently silly,” “silly and mawkish,” and “gooey schmaltz.” But the public loved them and he sold millions. Perhaps Orr and Bloom should consider the lesson here.

(Consider, too the runaway successes of such books as Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Celestine Prophecy. Public taste made them all bestsellers, despite the oft-spouted distaste and displeasure of critics and academics. But with a few rare exceptions like McKuen, poetry remains a harder sell than literature no matter how schmaltzy the latter is.)

Perhaps, too, for some readers, the unravelling of the complexities and subtleties is the joy in poetry. Like doing sudoku or crossword puzzles: poems often are intellectual challenges to work on. True, that may be more effort than many people care to undertake when they read. I expect more readers want to get pleasure from a poem, feel an emotional connection and a sense of empathy, without having to work for it. But I digress.

Picking the “best” of anything is always controversial and open to challenge, especially where aesthetic choice is involved. Does every English critic and commentator agree with Bloom’s selection? No, and never will. Even bathetic scribblers like myself can come up with pieces to pin against Bloom’s work and decry him for leaving it out. Poems speak to us in different ways, and have impacts that change as we do: each of us will react differently to the rhythms and meanings at different times of our lives.

Bloom’s selection is certainly different from that found in my several Norton and Oxford anthologies. it’s not the same selection as in a favourite collection, The Top 500 Poems, edited by William Harmon. (At 1,172 pages, Harmon’s collection is thicker, and overlaps Bloom’s somewhat, but while somewhat broader in scope, lacks Bloom’s incisive commentaries.) Then there’s Anthony and Ben Harmon’s collection, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry (which I wrote about back in 2014). The latter is an excellent selection with commentaries from 100 men about why the poems moved them. None, however, made me cry. But that might simply be because at the time I read them, they did not speak to an emotional issue I was feeling.

Similarly, Garrison Keillor has published three very personal, and somewhat eccentric anthologies, collected from those he read aloud on his NPR radio show, The Writer’s Almanac. These are Good Poems, Good Poems American Places, and Good Poems for Hard Times (I have only the latter). Keillor explains that the “criterion for poems read on the radio is clarity. A poem has to be legible to a listener who is frying eggs and hash browns and has a whiny child clinging to his pant leg.”

What I like about Keillor’s selections is that many are by poets I have not encountered in my past reading. Many make me stop and think about what the poet is saying, how it melds with my own life, to take time to mull over the cadence of their words in my head, to go backwards and read a line or a stanza to be sure I have read it properly.  Many make me want to read more of that poet’s work.

I’m not sure I’d agree that all meet the standards of clarity, however, but then I’m not on the radio. And there is a difference between reading and hearing a poem. Especially when you’re also making hash browns (not something I’ve ever done, mind you, but I appreciate the metaphor). But listening to Keillor reading a poem certainly had a different effect on me than simply reading it on the screen. Every poem he reads, he makes his own, makes it personal, speaks in a rhythm and cadence all his own, a sound that does not mimic the voice in my own head when I read it silently. Even if I speak it aloud, it is a different poem, although the words are the same.

Were I to make a selection of “best” poems (or more accurately, poems I like most) for publication, I would include many 20th-century poets: Dylan Thomas, Auden, Hughes, Cohen, Layton, Atwood, Plath, Snyder, or Ginsburg (in fact a lot of Beat-generation and Canadian poets would grace my selection). I suppose that’s why I have several anthologies: no single one can accommodate every reader’s choices. And, of course, I could not possibly annotate a collection as insightfully as Bloom. I could merely try to say why a poem moved me. Or maybe I’d just leave it to the reader to sample without the interference of an editor.

Among Bloom’s favourite poets are many of my own: Whitman, Stevens, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickinson, Blake, Tennyson. I struggle a bit to appreciate what Bloom considers their best work when it doesn’t match my own opinion. Take Wallace Stevens, for example. I would have put his Man with the Blue Guitar and Farewell to Florida in the compilation, but Bloom chose other pieces to represent Stevens’ work. Perhaps I lack his sensitivity. Or perhaps he simply had to make tough choices from an embarrassment of riches.

And I would not have included several pieces he chose to represent the cream of English poetry. Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is one, because, popular as it was in his day, it is a translation, not an original work (well, to be fair, Fitzgerald was liberal enough in his translation to create something uniquely his, and it is a superb work I have read several times over). If translations count, then why not Pound’s translations of Li Po (aka Li Bai)?

Pound’s work is represented by two poems, but his translations deserve more exposure, especially of Li Po, who wrote in the 8th century CE, but is not as well known in the West as he should be. Here’s a short example of a translation from Pound’s work, called Taking Leave of A Friend:**

Blue mountains to the north of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.

Mind like a floating wide cloud,
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance.
Our horses neigh to each others
as we are departing

(Digression: if translation into English is acceptable for Fitzgerald, why didn’t Gerald Manley Hopkins’ translations of Horacemy favourite Roman poet — get considered? Hopkins and Fitzgerald both wrote in the heydey of the Victorian era.)

On others we are in total agreement: Eliot’s Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land, Whitman’s Song of Myself, Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark, among others, although our reasons apparently differ for choosing them. I wondered why he omitted the shorter and (to my mind) more brilliant Carroll poem, Jabberwocky. And for William Carlos Williams, he omitted the brief yet stunning piece in its Zen-like clarity, The Red Wheelbarrow. I could go on, but you get the drift here: tastes differ.

Any collection like this, of course, is merely a tiny slice of any poets’ cumulative work, a sliver of a lifetime (the complete list of poets and poems is here). And because of the number of poets to choose from, it can never do more than offer a thin slice of personal favourites from the buffet of their work.

I have many such anthologies and enjoy all of them because, together, they give me a far more comprehensive overview of English poetry. Many (like the Norton anthologies) are meant as academic collections, others as representative selections for the average reader.  I tend to prefer the personal selections, like Bloom’s and Keillor’s. Most important is that they give me an opportunity to read the poetic works from the earliest English to today, a dizzying wealth of beauty, art and craft. Bloom’s collection has a permanent place on my bookshelf beside Keillor’s and the rest.


* When we read, we process everything through the filters of our current self. That means every day, we read differently. Sure, the changes in ourselves may not move that quickly, especially at my age, but we do change. Sometimes we do so subtly, other times noisily and expressively.

Major external events, even when outside our own communities, can easily and rapidly shape our perspectives because we get inundated with them in the news, social media, radio and TV to the point where they saturate our daily lives. Think of how your own world view today differs from what it was before the pandemic occurred. Or before and after the debacle of the Trump presidency and his daily tweets. Or before and after 9/11. 

That’s one reason to re-read books and poems that were favourites in the past: in doing so we revisit them from a new perspective. We see things in them we missed before, or interpret them differently. You might be surprised at how you read a book from your childhood today.

** The first translation I ever read of Li Po, was Pound’s translation of The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter, which opens:

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

That was in the early 1970s. That poem still moves me to read it. I soon got other translations of Li Po’s works, as well as books of classical Chinese and Japanese poetry which introduced me to poets like Wang Wei, Tu Fu, and Basho. I loved their styles. I bought books of specific poetic forms, like haiku, too. I still have most of these books and am loathe to part with them.

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One comment

  1. Like your frank and well-written account.

    There is something to Keillor’s selection dictum about being plausibly able to draw some meaning immediately. But it’s not all. In doing my ongoing project I sometimes move through entire book-length collections or anthologies, and after eliminating all the long poems I find I’m often attracted not only (or not even primarily) to those I understand right off. Instead what might draw me in to a poem is some sense of “word-music” — some attractive way they charm with the way they say and order their series of phrases — and (counter Keillor) sometimes something mysterious about what they’re on about. Obviously, just being mysterious isn’t enough (anyone can be incomprehensible) — they need to somehow charm with their mystery. One trick is to be clear in some phrases mixed with at least some others that are elusive.

    I too was seduced by Walley and Pound’s classical Chinese translations, or inspirations, when still young. I think their trick is often to make us think we understand (perhaps with a note of “is that all there is to it”) and then when one takes time to understand the minimal choices another deeper poem emerges.

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