The Top 500 Poems, edited by William Harmon

This book is based on statistics and thus has both an inherent bias and an inherent flaw. But then I supposed all anthologies have both of those things since all editors have biases and none are perfect. The bias is particularly strong in this chronological anthology. The top 500 is based on the poems most anthologized according to <i>The Columbia Granger’s Index to Poetry</i>, which was first published in 1904. I have no idea what its sources include but they apparently go back much later than 1904 because this book has a strong historical bias. Obviously, the older the poem, the more chances it has had to be anthologized. Thus, even though this anthology was published in 1992, there are very few poems from the 20th Century. Yeats enters about 200 pages from the end and Plath’s “Daddy” is the most recent poem. Of course, that makes the achievement of some 20th Century poems/poets all the more outstanding when they make it into the top popularity rankings. Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” is the 6th most anthologized poem. “The Second Coming” by Yeats is the next 20th Century poem to appear on the list at 19.

Now, it would have been quite cool if they had put the poems in the book according to their ranking on the list because then the reader would get a mixture of styles/periods as she read. But no. The editor chose to take a list that provided the opportunity for some interesting juxtapositions and put it in the back of the book as a reference. Then he did the same old thing that most anthologies do: start with the oldest and move forward to the most recent, grouped by poet. Blah!

Some people have said this is a great book to have if it is the only book of poetry one owns. I completely disagree with that because it contains so little contemporary poetry. In fact, I would say this sort of anthology is the sort of thing that turns the average person off of poetry entirely because there is so much antiquated language and means of (long-winded) expression in it, especially at the outset. At page 291, the average reader is hit with Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism,” which goes on for 20 pages (and sits at number 463 of 500 in the rankings of most anthologized). Hopefully the average reader will just skip around.

So there are my gripes. I always feel the need to rant first. But there are things I like about this anthology and I’m definitely keeping it on my shelf. One positive attribute is precisely that it doesn’t exclude the longer poems that occur on the list, like Pope’s mentioned above. It also doesn’t exclude light verse. Lewis Carroll, Eugene Field (“Wynken, Blynken, and Nod”), and Edward Lear are included. It’s reassuring to me that Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is number 18 on the list of popularity (enclosed by Keats’ “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” and Yeats’ “The Second Coming”–would have been fun to read them in that sequence).

There is a brief note about each poet, some more biographical and some more anecdotal. In addition, there is also a brief note at the end of each poem. Notes on the poems often suggest connections to other poems, some connections more strained than others. A few notes fall entirely flat (one wonders if the editor was ill and on deadline the day he wrote it) but most are interesting. So there’s an ongoing sense of having a conversation with someone who also enjoys poetry and who has a broad knowledge of it.

Also, it’s printed on good paper. It’s not like those anthologies often required for college courses that are printed on paper so thin the type from the back side of the page shows through. There’s a sense that the book is meant to stand the test of time. The book is also not afraid of white space, so the poems aren’t crowded at all. And the type is of an easily readable size. The 500 poems make for 1070 book pages. Overall, it’s physically a pleasure to read whether whether the poem you’re turned to is a trial or a delight.

Posted in Miscellaneous | Tagged , | Leave a comment

My Wicked Wicked Ways by Sandra Cisneros

At first, I thought I’d found another disappointing book, but this book has two parts and two voices. The first is choppy:

That baby in a box like a valentine
and I thinking it is wrong
us in our raw red ankles
From “Velorio”

And then beginning with the section “Other Countries,” we are confronted with a smoother, more confident voice that remains throughout the rest of the collection:

Odd for such a city poet like me
to find such comfort in the dark–
I who always feared it–and yet
I loved the way it wrapped me like a skin.
From “Letter to Ilona from the South of France”

From here on out, we’re hearing from a woman being honest about her passionate dabbling in men, treating them as experiences rather than answers to anything. Still, she is hurt and can hurt others. It’s a rare poem in the next 60 pages that does not involve a man, yet there is no sense of the speaker being a victim. She is an agent throughout, choosing her own mistakes. Sometimes it’s “Beautiful Man–France” and somtimes it’s “Sensuality Plunging Barefoot into Thorns” (two titles). I especially enjoyed her poem admiring a feature of Michelangelo’s David, “Ass.” The second and third stanzas:

Did I say derriere?
Derriere too dainty.
Buttocks much too bawdy.
Cheeks so childishly petite.
Buns, impudently funny.
Rear end smacking of collision.

Ah, misnomered beauty.
Long-suffering
butt of jokes,
object of derision.
Pomegranate and apple
hath not such tempting
allure to me
as your hypnotic
anatomy.

The poem is full of play–the play on words, the play of sounds–and yet the impression is one of sincere admiration of the beauty of the male behind.

This book begins with a quote of Mary Cassatt, “I can live alone and I love to work,” before a prefatory poem. One of the pleasures of the book is going back and rereading that prefatory poem after finishing. We understand better how the poems in the second half are a woman wrestling with living alone and facing the need for sensuality and companionship, the struggle of finding a balance between maintaining independence and a desire for union. They are unashamed poems of the time between the ages twenty and twenty-nine, of a woman carving her own way in the world of relationships and exploring the wide world at the same time.

Sandra Cisneros has made her reputation on surprisingly few works. She has written only one other book of poetry since this one (Loose Woman in 1994). Library Journal praised it highly while noting that some poems are “occasionally a little too similar.” The same is true of the last poems in Wicked Ways. Still, the second half of the book was an enjoyable read overall.

Cisneros has received more acclaim for her fiction, particularly The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Last Magician by Stephen Corey

This is another oldie I picked up second hand. It’s copyrighted 1987.

Stephen Corey’s poetry is the polar opposite of the last book of poetry I read by Bin Ramke. The poems are extremely accessible. They are homely, quiet poems, in the sense of being about everyday objects and activities written in simple language. About the only poem with any flash to it was a tribute/elegy to Virginia Woolf. From the middle stanza of the poem by the same name:

Waves always charged and whipped your senses,
waves of color, scent, sound, beauty,
waves in folds of a green silk dress.
You were the diamond shore of your world–
all waves roaring into you.

The magicians of the books are artisans and artists as well as the magicians we associate with the stage. The book has two sections, one titled “Crafts” and another “Loves.” The first section has poems about blacksmiths, weavers, quilters, etc, but also poets and dancers. I enjoyed his poem about “State Craft Fair: Berea, Kentucky”:

And always at your feet,
cut-rate bowls and mugs in crates–
even failure can be beautiful and watertight.

Though there are several enjoyable poems in this book, the most beautiful is “Softening the World by Your Body,” which begins with a quote by Deaf Smith from the Country Cookbook, “Knead the dough until it is ear lobe consistency.” The first two stanzas:

I roll each politician between my palms
until he changes from my elbow
to the inside of your wrist: rough, flaking skin
to a cool white untouched by sun.

I bake the borders of every country
until they are the two inch valley
from the base of your spine
down into the cleft of your buttocks–
a petal-soft mystery whose only secret
is that no beauty can fight against itself.

Though Corey’s poetry has appeal, most of the poems in this volume fail to take flight. I hate to let that Virginia Woolf poem go, but I’m going to turn this book loose at one of the local library book sales because its accessibility and tribute to the crafts has the potential to be appreciated by others here that probably rarely read poetry.

I would happily grab up a later collection of his work.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems, edited by Charles Tomlinson

This is the first full book of WCW’s poetry I’ve read and I was pleasantly surprised by his range, considering it’s only his more spare poems that get anthologized. I really have never understood why “The Red Wheelbarrow” has been singled out for so much press. It’s instructional value? As an example of imagism? Now that I’ve read more of his work, I think it’s even more ridiculous that “The Red Wheelbarrow” has become representative of his poetry because it really isn’t.

I also feel vindicated in my earlier purchase of a two volume set of his collected poems and look forward to reading those as time allows. This 200 page volume was discovered at a used bookstore for $1.50 and I just couldn’t pass it up. And I’m glad I didn’t, not only because it has whetted my appetite for the collected works but because it will make a great loaner to others curious about him.

I’m not quite finished with this book. The last 40 pages are excerpts from his long poem “Paterson,” which I’m finding I need to read slowly to catch how he’s layering things. Thus far I’m finding it a very interesting poem. The same person who put together the collected volumes has also brought out an edition of Paterson and it’s now on my amazon wish list.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Fields of Praise by Marilyn Nelson

I enjoyed the first half of this 200 page book, which dealt with the experiences of motherhood and brought to life Nelson’s ancestors. I was thoroughly enjoying the personalities and lives she was celebrating.

But in the second half of the book she is obsessed with religious feeling and seems infatuated with a figure called Abba Jacob. I did not end up infatuated with him but found him and her admiration of what he says tiresome. Some later poems focus on evil. There were two poems in the this section I enjoyed. One was a rendering of the story of Jonah in a humorous voice. The other was the very last poem which tells of an act of contrition by a racist redneck.

I am not a religious person, which I’m sure affected my response to the poems in the second half of the book. Others might enjoy the Abba Jacob poems. This second half wrestles with divine love–union with god and attempts at unconditional love toward humanity in general.

I also should mention Nelson’s use of form. I recall a couple of ballads, one villanelle, some bluesy moments and many sonnets, including a well-done crown of sonnets (“Thus Far By Faith”) about an Uncle Warren, who started out preaching to mules and eventually ended up founding a church because the racists banned people of color from their church. This also had religious subject matter but I found it thoroughly enjoyable.

I would look at another of her books but would scan it first to gauge the number of religious poems in it. In my opinion, she is at her best reviving history and celebrating the lives of ordinary people, none of whom are ordinary when she renders them. She’s excellent at conjuring voices, which brings both Uncle Warren and Jonah to life.

At the end of the book, Nelson provides notes on some of the poems that are helpful. One tells that the poem was written for a couple who purchased her “poem-writing service” at a church auction for $73. Kudos to her for thinking to offer such a service and kudos to the couple who thought to purchase it!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Fire Water World by Adrian Louis

This is one of this Native American poet’s earlier works and as the title would suggest, it is mired in poetry that expresses bitterness, anger and confusion. I am not someone who thinks poetry that makes political or social commentary is inherently flawed, and I believe the personal is political, which this book screams, but this volume sounds these notes so singularly that it became dull. It does, however, contain “Couch Fantasy,” which I consider brilliant. One poem does not a collection make unfortunately. I recommend people consider Louis’s more recent books and leave this one alone.

I would advise libraries in areas with large Native American populations to keep this on the shelf. Libraries lacking other books of Native American poetry should also keep this one on the shelf for the sake of having diverse perspectives on the shelves. However, for diversity I would suggest an anthology of Native poetry rather than just one poet.

Posted in Miscellaneous | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Long Feud by Louis Untermeyer

Louis Untermeyer was an avid appreciator and editor of poetry and I have great respect for him in that regard. He was a tireless creator of anthologies that kept poetry out in the world. However, he’s simply not a great writer of poetry. Though he watched all the moderns with great interest, he struggled to become modern and really belonged in another era. There are a few good poems in this volume but one reads a lot of mediocre ones to find them. I picked this book up at a library book sale and it was appropriate for them to discard. In fact, it’s appropriate for any library to discard.

Posted in Miscellaneous | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment