(Spoiler alert: His list is pretty good. I don’t know enough poetry to debate his choices, but none are losers and all have greatness.)
If you begin a blog post with this sentence, I am going to read the post in its entirety, wherever it may lead: “For whatever reason, I woke up today with a list of the 10 greatest American poems in my head that had been accumulating through the night.” The list from London’s Guardian is good for clicking-through on. And your mileage may vary, but some are certain to jump at you. The ones for me:
–Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West.” To this day, I have no idea why, in high school, my sophomore English teacher assigned us Wallace Stevens among other poets for a group project. I still have trouble understanding Stevens. Our group got him and responded by creating a Wallace Stevens Jeopardy! video with answers and questions we barely understood. (Our parody of the Bud Light “I love you, man” commercials — “You’re not getting my book of Wallace Stevens poetry” — was solid, though. Topical.) Anyway, I love how this poem moves.
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.
–John Ashbery, “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name.” We roll downhill, faster, faster until finally there’s realization. “The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind / Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate / Something between breaths, if only for…”
Not on the list but sitting in my bookmarks and awaiting use? Wendell Barry’s “How to be a Poet.” The poem has three parts, and I can’t pick one to paste here. Each is affective in a different way — sequentially, on the acts of reading, listening and creating. He builds the narrative circle of life, which is on my mind more than usual today, with a thief’s skill. That’s what the poem doesn’t tell us. Why are we being so quiet?
To leave nature undisturbed? Or to hide our own natures? Repeated reads turn up something furtive in the poem. “Any readers / who like your poems, / doubt their judgment,” he writes, with a comma in the sentence. Removing that comma, “Any readers / who like your poems / doubt their judgment,” makes a different claim, declarative instead of imperative, placing readers as the skeptics. It’s hard not to read the poem that way. The quiet slant is the catch — or is it hope? — in all of our greatest arguments with ourselves about how we meet a world. I either doubt them, or they doubt me, the poet says, writing anyway.