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.


About jppoetryreader

Poetry reviewer and poetry consultant for libraries
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