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Thread: The 100 Greatest English Language Poets

  1. #1
    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    The 100 Greatest English Language Poets

    Something that's very popular amongst cinephiles and critics is creating "lists" of the greatest films and filmmakers (I think this started with Sight & Sound, but AFI has done it as well, and now we have everything from IMDb, to meta-lists like Theyshootpictures), and I've always wondered why you rarely see such a thing in literature. Anyway, I love making lists, if only because it allows me to clarify my own opinions, so I thought I would make one trying to list the 100 greatest English language poets. Now, this list is an attempt to be as objective as possible, taking things like influence and importance into account instead of my own personal tastes (indeed, there are many poets here I haven't even read, or have only read a few poems from). From about 40 onward I had a great difficult devising the list if only because it's hard to get a solid sense of how important/influential various poets are when compared against others.

    Obviously, any input is welcome, and I'm certainly willing to modify the list (in fact, I've been constantly modifying it the last several days). What I'm really interested in hearing is if anyone can spot any rankings that seem, to them, clearly wrong (ie, a certain poet is ranked much too low/high given their reputation, influence, importance, etc.), or notable exclusions/unworthy inclusions. This was especially difficult when it came to including 20th century and living poets, because, obviously, their reputation isn't nearly as settled and is more volatile. So many of them have to be educated guesses only, but, hey, I regularly see films made within the past 10 years high on the lists of the greatest films made, so I don't see why we can't afford the same privilege to poets.

    Code:
    1	John Milton	1608-1674
    2	William Shakespeare	1564-1616
    3	Geoffrey Chaucer	1343-1400
    4	WB Yeats	1865-1939
    5	William Wordsworth	1770-1850
    6	John Keats	1795-1821
    7	William Blake	1757-1827
    8	TS Eliot	1888-1965
    9	John Donne	1572-1631
    10	Emily Dickinson	1830-1886
    11	Walt Whitman	1819-1892
    12	Alexander Pope	1688-1744
    13	Robert Browning	1812-1899
    14	Wallace Stevens	1879-1955
    15	Percy Blysse Shelley	1792-1822
    16	Lord Byron	1788-1824
    17	Alfred Lord Tennysson	1809-1892
    18	Edmund Spenser	1552-1599
    19	Edgar Allan Poe	1809-1849
    20	WH Auden	1907-1973
    21	Samuel Taylor Coleridge	1772-1934
    22	John Dryden	1631-1700
    23	Ezra Pound	1885-1972
    24	George Herbert	1593-1633
    25	Robert Burns	1759-1796
    26	Andrew Marvell	1621-1678
    27	Thomas Hardy	1840-1928
    28	John Ashbery	1927-
    29	William Langland	1332-1386
    30	Elizabeth Bishop	1911-1979
    31	Pearl Poet	?
    32	Philip Sidney	1554-1586
    33	Gerard Manley Hopkins	1844-1889
    34	Robert Frost	1874-1963
    35	Matthew Arnold	1822-1888
    36	John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester	1647-1680
    37	Beowulf Poet	?
    38	Robert Lowell	1917-1977
    39	Elizabeth Barrett Browning	1806-1861
    40	Christina Rossetti 	1830-1894
    41	James Merrill	1926-1995
    42	Thomas Wyatt	1503-1542
    43	Sylvia Plath	1932-1963
    44	John Clare	1793-1864
    45	Algernon Charles Swinburne	1837-1809
    46	Philip Larkin	1922-1985
    47	John Gower	1330-1408
    48	Ben Johnson	1572-1637
    49	Hart Crane	1899-1932
    50	William Dunbar	1460-?
    51	Geoffrey Hill	1932-
    52	Seamus Heaney	1939-
    53	William Cowper	1731-1800
    54	William Carlos Williams	1832-1963
    55	Henry Wadsworth Longfellow	1807-1882
    56	Thomas Traherne	1636-1674
    57	Adrienne Rich	1929-2012
    58	Wilfred Owen	1893-1918
    59	AE Housman	1859-1936
    60	Thomas Moore	1779-1852
    61	Dylan Thomas	1914-1953
    62	Derek Walcott	1930-
    63	EE Cummings	1896-1962
    64	Marianne Moore	1887-1972
    65	John Berryman	1914-1972
    66	Henry Vaughan	1622-1695
    67	AR Ammons	1926-2001
    68	Anne Finch	1661-1720
    69	WS Merwin	1927-
    70	Dante Gabriel Rossetti	1828-1882
    71	Robert Penn Warren	1905-1989
    72	Allen Ginsberg	1926-1997
    73	Louise Gluck	1943-
    74	Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey	1516-1547
    75	Theodore Roethke 	1908-1963
    76	Felicia Hemans	1793-1835
    77	Thomas Gray	1716-1771
    78	Paul Muldoon	1951-
    79	Thomas Lovell Beddoes	1803-1849
    80	Abraham Cowley	1618-1667
    81	Henry David Thoreau	1817-1862
    82	Jonathan Swift	1667-1745
    83	Ted Hughes	1930-1998
    84	HD	1886-1961
    85	Robinson Jeffers	1887-1962
    86	Christopher Marlowe	1564-1593
    87	Robert Herrick	1592-1674
    88	Edward Arlington Robinson	1860-1935
    89	Richard Crashaw	1613-1649
    90	Carl Sandburg	1878-1967
    91	Langston Hughes	1902-1967
    92	Robert Henryson	1460-1500
    93	Paul Laurence Dunbar	1872-1906
    94	Stephen Crane	1871-1900
    95	Anne Carson	1950-
    96	Louis MacNeice	1907-1963
    97	Anne Bradstreet	1612-1672
    98	John Skelton	1460-1529
    99	Bob Dylan	1941-
    100	Emily Bronte	1818-1848
    One thing I feel compelled to defend immediately is the placing of Milton over Shakespeare, and my defense is simply that Milton was a pure poet, whereas Shakespeare was also a dramatist who even wrote parts of his plays in prose. It's difficult to determine where the poetry in Shakespeare begins and the drama ends, and vice-versa, but it would be just as wrong to only consider Shakespeare's sonnets and narrative poems, or, worse yet, not to include him at all. Plus, Milton wrote in every poetic genre imaginable, including writing the single greatest epic in English, so I felt that alone justified placing him first.
    Last edited by MorpheusSandman; 05-04-2013 at 03:24 PM.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

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    Dance Magic Dance OrphanPip's Avatar
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    Just as an initial reaction I noticed the omission of Cavalier and Libertine poets, like Richard Lovelace or John Wilmot, and perhaps an over-emphasis on the minor metaphysical poets.
    "If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia."
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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    Wilmot is definitely an overlook on my part, and Lovelace should probably be there as well. Thanks for the suggestions.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

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    Alea iacta est. mortalterror's Avatar
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    First, I'll direct you to this thread Drkshadow made that was similar. http://www.online-literature.com/for...8-Top-20-Poets and I'll also add that I have about 25 lists like this on my blog here. http://www.online-literature.com/for...8-mortalterror Neither, is exclusively about English poets, so I'll consult my Norton's Anthology and then get back to you. But I have to agree with your addition of John Wilmot. He's one of my favorites. I just got a copy of The Farce of Sodom in the mail last week.
    "So-Crates: The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing." "That's us, dude!"- Bill and Ted
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    It's hard to argue with the top ten except maybe Donne. I think Spenser should be ranked higher based on both his influence and the quality of his work. Donne is one of my favourite poets, but I'd probably put Spenser in his position. I'd definitely place Spenser higher than Poe.

    Ben Jonson should probably be higher, too. He was hugely influential with his followers, the 'Sons of Ben', and the publication of his folio of plays paved the way for Shakespeare's first folio.
    Last edited by MementoMori; 05-04-2013 at 12:35 AM.

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    Alea iacta est. mortalterror's Avatar
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    I feel the need to quibble with your placing Shakespeare over Milton. Your reasoning is that much of Shakespeare's poetry is dramatic poetry, whereas much of Milton is epic. I have to say that I think you are discounting dramatic poetry too quickly. Milton himself wrote dramatic poetry in Comus and Samson Agonistes, two of his greatest literary achievements. T.S. Eliot wrote 7 verse plays, and I believe that in his writings, he mentions that his ideal poet would be an expert in lyric, epic, and dramatic poetry. How many plays did Yeats write, two dozen? Dryden wrote verse plays. Wilmot's Farce of Sodom is verse. Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci should be considered when estimating his worth as should Byron's Manfred. It seems to me that verse drama is definitely one of the main poetic genres. Too many poets have tried their hand at it to consider it otherwise.

    Then I'd say that Chaucer is a somewhat better poet than Milton and should take second rank among the English. Canterbury Tales is just as good as Paradise Lost, but then you have Troilus and Cresida, House of Fame, Book of the Duchess. With Chaucer you laugh and enjoy yourself quite a bit more than with Milton who is often cold, intellectual, and distant. There's just more warmth and humanity in Chaucer and Shakespeare more finely drawn characters you'd recognize and fewer heroes. Plus, they are less likely to wrench syntax around and do violence to the English language. With Chaucer I've read passages that seem written in the manner someone might say them, but everything is very rhetorical and refined in Milton.

    Donne below Eliot (should be). Dickenson below Browning. Stevens, Ashbery, Merrill much much lower. Glad your not underrating Pope. Beowulf poet below Pearl poet? Have you read the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf? It is divine! Wow, Frost below Lowell? That's a little low for Longfellow. The first part of Ginsberg's Howl is cool, but does anybody like anything else he did? Who are Anne Finch, Louise Gluck, and Felicia Hemans? I've heard of Thomas Gray. Not a big fan of the graveyard poets? Oh, come on. Edwin Arlington Robinson is better than half of these guys! And how are you going to put Derek Walcott, a legitimate modern great down at the bottom with the likes of HD and Anne Carson? Robert Penn Warren is better than Merrill and John Skelton is better than Bob Dylan.

    Feel like James Thomson should be in there for The City of Dreadful Night and The Seasons. Also, some of the old English poets rock. The anonymous guys who wrote The Phoenix, the Finnesburg Fragment, and the Battle of Brunanburh are as good as we make 'em. Early guys like Cynewulf could use some love for his poem Elene among other things, and Caedmon for The Dream of the Rood. I thought Wyatt should be placed higher for poems like They Flee From Me and Skelton for Colin Clout. I'd put Wilmot over Dryden. He's been under appreciated for centuries because he's obscene, but I feel like now that aspect of his work would make him more modern and should gain our respect. Also, I have a scrapbook of my favorite poetry with Robert Penn Warren's "Two Pieces after Suetonius" in it. Him and Carl Sandburg are possibly the most underrated American poets. Maybe it's 'cause I'm tired. Did I not see Sandburg up there? His Chicago poems alone, and three pulitzer prizes.
    Last edited by mortalterror; 05-04-2013 at 02:29 PM.
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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MementoMori View Post
    It's hard to argue with the top ten except maybe Donne. I think Spenser should be ranked higher based on both his influence and the quality of his work. Donne is one of my favourite poets, but I'd probably put Spenser in his position. I'd definitely place Spenser higher than Poe. Ben Jonson should probably be higher, too. He was hugely influential with his followers, the 'Sons of Ben', and the publication of his folio of plays paved the way for Shakespeare's first folio.
    It's hard for me to get a solid feel of Donne's place in the canon. He was rather obscure until Eliot almost single-handedly thrust him into the spotlight, and since then he's arguably had as many editors and critics analyzing his output as any poet. I think top 10 is definitely justified, but where is tricky. I think I'll take MT's advice and put him behind Eliot. I struggled with Spenser too; it seems to me his biggest influence was on Milton, but Milton loomed so large that many poets took to going in the complete opposite direction just to escape that shadow (I'm reminded of Keats giving up on his epic because it was too "Miltonic"). So, yes, Spenser was influential, but I think influential in a more limited context than those in the Top 10. I do think placing him above Poe is fair, though. I also agree about Ben Johnson. He was much higher on a previous draft, so I'll bump him up on the next one.

    Quote Originally Posted by mortalterror View Post
    First, I'll direct you to this thread Drkshadow made that was similar. http://www.online-literature.com/for...8-Top-20-Poets and I'll also add that I have about 25 lists like this on my blog here. http://www.online-literature.com/for...8-mortalterror Neither, is exclusively about English poets, so I'll consult my Norton's Anthology and then get back to you. But I have to agree with your addition of John Wilmot. He's one of my favorites. I just got a copy of The Farce of Sodom in the mail last week.
    I actually participated in Drkshadow's thread, but he limited his to 20 and wasn't limited to English poets. I noted in that thread how I hesitate to try and rank/compare poets of different languages because you're inevitably comparing an original with a translation, and translations can never be perfect.

    Lots of good talking points, MT. I'll try to address them all:

    Milton VS Shakespeare VS Chaucer -- My reasons for placing Milton ahead of Shakespeare are more than just me placing more value on epic as opposed to dramatic poetry. Let me be clear; I don't think dramatic poetry is an inferior mode, it's merely that one can write dramatic poetry where the only thing "poetic" about it is the fact that it's in blank verse. There are certainly many scenes in Shakespeare (and Chaucer) that are just two people talking in plain verse without any powerful images, metaphors, metrical or syntactic ingenuity, rhetorical flourishes, or other poetic devices. In these moments it tends to be more about the "drama" as opposed to the "poetry". It comes back to what Keats said about "loading every rift with ore," and in dramatic (and narrative) poetry there is often a tendency to be much looser, to lose or lessen the poetic density in favor of focusing on character and drama. So I'm not discounting dramatic poetry since, as you noted, many great poets have indulged in it, but I find this flaw even in much of their work. I've recently been reading Byron's classic dramas (ie, not Manfred) and they tend to be just people talking with the "poetry" parts few and far between. Obviously there's plenty of poetry to be found in Shakespeare and Chaucer, but they have it with less density than Milton does. What's more, Milton had to almost invent his own language in order to achieve that density.

    There's even more to it than that, though. Milton was really the first English poet to follow in the "classic" poetic development of beginning their life working in and mastering lyric forms and then writing a transcendent epic in their maturity. This was really the archetype that Dante and Virgil laid down that so few English poets followed in (Spenser being one obvious exceptional predecessor). And I think when people think of Milton they do him a great injustice to ignore the greatness of his non-Paradise Lost output. Paradise Regained showed that he could, if he wanted to, write plain, unadorned, elegant, digestible verse, and Samson Agonistes equally showed how adept he could've been as a dramatist. But, before all that, there's the utter perfection of pieces like Lycidas, On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, L'Allegro/Il Penseroso, a handful of sonnets (his best every bit as good as Shakespeare's) right down to miniature gems like Song on May Morning. I don't know of any English poet that was as equally great in such a diversity of modes and genres.

    As for Chaucer, it's hard for me to compare TCT to Paradise Lost because TCT varies wildly in quality, with its best moments being amongst the best writing ever in English. T&C is a more "perfect" work, IMO, and the quality of his output goes down from there (I actually like The Parliament of Fowles more than House of Fame and the dull Book of the Duchess). I can't disagree that there's more warmth and humanity in Chaucer and Shakespeare, but surely you can't disagree that there's more formal ingenuity and intellectual substance in Milton. You call this being "cold and distance," but that's just an individual preference. I could just as easily praise this element in Milton and claim it's lacking in the others. What you accuse Milton of "wrenching syntax around and do(ing) violence to the English language" I call inventing one's own language that was completely original. It's the reason we have the adjective "Miltonic," and, indeed, it's impossible to write like that without sounding like a pale imitation (as you may note in some of Wordsworth's, Keats', and Coleridge's output). Any poet that manages to create a style that unique, original, and inimitable deserves praise rather than scorn. One final thing I may add is that Milton may be the last poet to really do something original with blank verse; the fact that he was able to elevate it to the level and diction of the epic was quite extraordinary, and I'd highly recommend Christopher Ricks' study called "Milton's Grand Style" that explains much of it.

    Others: Agree with Donne below Eliot. I don't agree with Dickinson below Browning, or Stevens, Ashbery, and Merrill being much lower. Dickinson seems, to me, to be both more widely read and studied and more influential on 20th century poetry. Stevens' influence is right there with Eliot's on modernism, and Ashbery is almost to the 2nd half of the 20th century what Stevens and Eliot were to the first. In fact, I think it was Harold Bloom that said since the death of Stevens we've been living in the age of Ashbery. As for Merrill, perhaps it's because I recently finished reading his output, but he strikes me as terribly underrated. There's nothing in the 20th century like his The Changing Light at Sandover, and outside that he wrote some of the best lyric poetry of the century. Seriously check out his Divine Comedies volume and tell me he doesn't deserve to be in the Top 50.

    I had considered not even putting Beowulf poet on the list, because I think Middle English is really the cutoff point for what's still readable to modern audiences (and even it requires heavy glossing). You almost have to read Beowulf in translation. I haven't read Heaney's, but it seems to me that talking about a translation defeats the whole point of having an English language list to begin with. I think Frost and Lowell are pretty close. Frost is respected, but I think much less influential than Lowell. I remember one critic comparing the impact of Lowell's Life Studies to that of The Waste Land. Where would you put Longfellow? I'm with you about Ginsberg, but sometimes it only takes one breakthrough poem, and The Howl was huge. Anne Finch, Louise Gluck, and Felicia Hemans. Of those, Anne Finch certainly deserves to be on the list. I think Gluck and Hemans are more debatable, but I recently picked up (and have been reading) Gluck's Collected Poems, and I am quite impressed, especially with her Pulitzer Prize winning The Wild Iris. Hemans was, much like Letitia Landon, immensely popular in the 19th century, and she definitely had a great influence on her female contemporaries, but also on Tennyson and Longfellow. Where would you rank EA Robinson, Walcott, and RP Warren? Again, it's hard to accurately guage the reputation of 20th century poets. I'm pretty sure I had both Walcott and Warren much higher on previous lists. I don't agree about Warren being better than Merrill, though; not by a long shot. Dylan is close for me, but I think he deserves a place on the list. If he's good enough to warrant a book-length study by Christopher Ricks, that's enough for me.

    I had James Thomson on a previous iteration; where would you put them. I thought about Cynewulf and Caedmon, but it goes back to the needing a translation thing. I do have Gower there (46 currently). Wyatt is one of those whom I think was influential, though in a limited way, but whom is somewhat ignored today, so I think you could go either way on arguing for him being higher or lower. Really, I feel Top 50 is already ranking him quite high (many would argue Henry Howard is better than Wyatt). I don't think I can put Wilmot over Dryden, but he certainly belongs on the list (I'm thinking 30-40). Again, I probably enjoy Wilmot more than Dryden, but I think it would be hard to argue he was more important/influential, despite the resurgence in critical attention. Dryden was only behind Pope in his influence on 18th century poetry. I did forget Sandberg, and he does probably need to be there.

    Thanks for all the input.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    List has been updated taking into consideration many of the recent suggestions.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

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    Alea iacta est. mortalterror's Avatar
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    When it comes to Milton I feel like he's dense to a fault. It's a boon to be light and accessible like Chaucer and Shakespeare, otherwise you run the risk of being difficult or precious. I remember Pound claimed to have convinced Yeats that the new poetic language was closer to speech and many flourishes of rhetoric struck a false note on the modern ear.

    If your list were who are the 100 Most Influential English poets then I can see why you might put Dryden and others as high as you do, but by that criteria you cannot justify also placing Ashbery, Bishop, Lowell, Larkin, Merrill, and Hill where you do. If the list is a measure of their relative talents then it's a different list. Personally, I think that no note will be taken of their talents a hundred years hence, no matter how men praise them now. They are the Edmund Wallers, the Colley Cibbers, and Robert Southeys of our day.

    About two years ago, I was looking for a good modern epic. I read the beginning of Merrill's "Changing Light at Sandover" and didn't think much of it. Though I also didn't think much of William's "Paterson", Crane's "The Bridge", Walcott's "Omeros", Kazantzakis' "The Odyssey a modern sequel", Pound's "Cantos", MacLeish's "Conquistador".

    Went digging into my old notes to try and find my reactions to Merrill, but they were too brief to be helpful. However, I did find this one on Philip Larkin:
    Philip Larkin's strength as a poet appears to be that he can be open and frank about death and sexuality. However, these are not the strengths of poetry itself, and I've seen better expression of his themes in the prose of modern writers such as George Orwell. Larkin doesn't raise anything up, or transform it. He doesn't distill it into a form which is the essence of his topic. He lays out the facts like a surgeon lays his tools upon a table before operating, but there is no action to his poems themselves. I read some of Carl Sandburg's Chicago poems yesterday and they were quite lively and beautiful. I found them to be much better than Mr. Larkin's verses.
    Many of these moderns only stand out because it is a weak age for English poetry. Is Ginsberg really much better than Ferlinghetti? I know he's no Neruda or Zbigniew Herbert. Wallace Stevens I don't personally find appealing but I suspect that there is some there there, maybe just because of his ideas, but is he as good as Robert Frost? Absolutely not. Frost wasn't much of an innovator but he made great poems that everybody loves: Mending Wall, Death of the Hired Man, The Road Not Taken, Fire and Ice, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Acquainted With the Night, Birches, Out Out-, Nothing Gold Can Stay. He stands up well against other greats like Shelley or Wordsworth. He has a body of work and a number of hits. These other young guys have nothing like that. For a while I liked Mr. Ashbery, but then I actually sat down and tried to read his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and I couldn't get all the way through it, though it wasn't really that long. It's a dim memory to me now, but I think it started well and then got boring for some reason. I'd rather read Billy Collins' The Death of Allegory or Ishmael Reed's I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra, or even something simple like John Updike's Player Piano.

    Where would I rank EA Robinson, Walcott, and RP Warren? Not with the great poets, but certainly among the best of the good poets. Walcott I like for his A City's Death by Fire. Warren I like for his Two Pieces After Suetonius. Robinson I like for Luke Havergal, Richard Cory, or Calverly's. By the way, where is Kipling on your list? He was actually a pretty good poet. His If poem is first rate. I keep A Pict Song and Salonikan Grave in my scrapbook. Then there's Gunga Din, which is not half bad.

    You've set yourself an interesting task with this one. When I set down to do the same thing yesterday, I found I had about twenty-five great poets and twenty-five good poets. But after about 60 I ran out of names and had to start borrowing from your own list to pad mine out. It wasn't such rough going in the first ten or fifteen which I had well formed ideas about, but I found little between my 81st and 85th pick and felt that so many at that point were interchangeable. Also, if one good poem like Howl get's you in then shouldn't William Morris deserve a place for The Haystack in the Floods?
    Last edited by mortalterror; 05-05-2013 at 08:03 PM.
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    Registered User Darcy88's Avatar
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    Deciding between Milton and Shakespeare is like picking one sex position from another. No matter which you go with, in the end its going to be right.
    “To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.”

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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    mortalterror,

    I guess I simply don't mind density, heaviness, or difficulty. My favorite poet after Milton is Blake, and his late prophetic works are as dense and difficult as it gets. It's not that I mind lightness and accessibility either, but Milton was the first poet I encountered where I remembered thinking to myself "I didn't know language could DO this!" I don't promote density and difficulty just for the sake of it, but I think it's justified in Milton on several fronts and, as I said, his shorter works and Paradise Regained proves he didn't HAVE to write like that to write extraordinarily well. I know many of the moderns were big on common, even colloquial diction, but I've never found that kind of simplicity innately better than the highly rhetorical, dense, twisted approach. Like most things, it just depends on whom is doing it. I tend not to subscribe to any generalized, blanketed "do and don'ts" when it comes to poetry; every tool, device, mode, etc. seems to be useful in certain instances, and, to me, Milton's density seems fitting to his attempt at a blank-verse epic, especially given his models).

    I said in my OP that I was trying to be somewhat objective, ie, taking into consideration things like influence, import, originality, breadth, depth, etc. If I was making a "My Favorite English Poets" list, the list would look much, much different. Rather, I tried to gauge the critical and poetic reputation of these poets, and I do think I can justify placing those modern poets as high as they are. Ashbery, certainly, has had an enormous impact on the last 50 years of poetry... Bishop is one poet that seems almost universally loved/revered (I can't tell you how many interviews I've read with poets where someone compares their work with Bishop's and the poet says "yeah, there's the influence, but I'm not as good"). Lowell also had a huge impact, and his pioneering of confessional poetry is still producing Pulitzer winners today. Hill is one, like Bishop, that seems revered amongst poets and critics. You may be right that they'll be remembered as Wallers, Cibbers, and Southeys, but you simply have no way of knowing. I certainly don't see any evidence of Ashbery's or Bishop's reputation going in that direction. Really, for that to happen I half suspect it would take a new poetic revolution similar to The Waste Land that consigned so many of the late Victorians to the dustbins (but, even then, we have three greats that escaped: Browning, Tennyson, and Arnold).

    With Merrill, again, after reading his entire oeuvre I just can't imagine what else anyone could expect from a poet; he mastered seemingly every verse form he attempted; was one of the few modern poets that actually found new rhyme pairings; he could write in a ton of different modes, genres, and idioms, from the insanely dense and difficult, to the lightest and most accessible; he crafted by far the most original, unique epic of the 20th century. Personally, he's right there with Auden as my favorite 20th century poet. All I can say is that I hope you give him another chance. Sandover is not a work in which any singular moment is going to jump out and impress you; like Blake's late prophetic works (IMO, its closest predecessor both in spirit and style) it really requires the dedication to read through all of it, even the tough and boring bits. But one your way through it there will suddenly come these surprising moments of clarity, revelation, humor, poignancy. It's the last book (period) I read that made me laugh, cry, and switch rapidly between boredom, frustration, excitement, and anticipation. However, I would say that I think it's best approach by familiarizing yourself with some of Merrill's poetry before it. I'd recommend reading Water Street, Nights & Days, and Divine Comedies beforehand, because Merrill reworks a lot of the motifs and themes from those poems into Sandover. In fact, it's often been noted that The Book of Ephraim, which was the last poem in Divine Comedies and the first book of Sandover, was really THE transition between the lyric and epic Merrill.

    Larkin, to me, seemed to capture the imagination of post-war Britain like no other poet. I may agree that he's overrated (mostly given his limited output), but I can't deny how beloved he is by that generation. He seems to fit right in (in spirit) with the British New Wave filmmakers of the 60s, who had a similar mode of lyrically capturing an unadorned, depressive, occasionally sarcastic view of reality (I'm thinking of films like Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life and If..., Jack Clayton's Room at the Top, Ken Loach's Kes, and especially the films of Tony Richardson like Look Back in Anger, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and The Loved One). What you say about Larkin not "raising up or transforming" his subjects was, IIRC, a criticism leveled against him in his own time, and he responded by essentially saying he didn't want to, that he was the poet of the dull and ordinary, and he left the heavy lifting to the romantics. However, I do think he has several poems that, if not necessarily "lifted" and "transformed," do at least move beyond the everyday dullness of the subject matter, like Church Going, Spring, or Ambulances.

    I simply can't agree that this is a weak age for poetry; Yeats wouldn't agree either, saying modernism had produced the best poetry since the Renaissance. I wouldn't go as far as he did, but what I would say is that I think modernism produced a few genuinely great poets and a lot of really-good-almost-great ones. I haven't read Ferlinghetti, so I can't compare him to Ginsberg. As for Stevens/Frost, I think his reputation amongst critics and poets is certainly higher than Frost's, absolutely. Frost is eminently readable, with his accessibility frequently obscuring some real depth; however, his only lasting influence seems to be in his ability to fuse classic forms with an everyday idiom. I probably enjoy reading Frost more, but Stevens is one of those poets I feel like you could spend a lifetime immersing yourself in. As for Ashbery, I will say that he is very hit or miss, but when he hits, there's no 20th century poet better. Self-Portrait is notoriously difficult but genuinely worth it. I think I had Kipling on a previous iteration of the list. There are a lot of poets that would be candidates for that 100-110 position, and Kipling is certainly one (Wilbur another).

    Yes, these lists are always interesting (if time-consuming) to try and make. I would love for you to share your own list with me, if only so I can better arrange several of the more dubious points in my own list. Ideally, I'd love to send a questionnaire out to our preminant living poets and critics asking them to list their, say, 50 best poets and then tally the results. This is what a poll like Sight & Sound's Greatest Films/Directors list does (though they only ask participants to rate their top 10, which is far too few I think), or a site like Theyshootpictures which has collected over 3000 "greatest films" lists and tried to create a list based on consensus. I'd love to do that with poetry, but I doubt many would respond (because it is so time consuming, and who the hell am I to ask them?). As for Ginsberg/The Howl and just needing one great poem, there are a lot of poets that could be deserving based on the reputation of one great poem. I don't recall reading the Morris poem you mentioned, but there are other candidates, like Edward Young for Night Thoughts, Basil Bunting for Briggflatts, and Cowper is there based mostly on the strength of The Task.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

  12. #12
    Alea iacta est. mortalterror's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MorpheusSandman View Post
    I said in my OP that I was trying to be somewhat objective, ie, taking into consideration things like influence, import, originality, breadth, depth, etc. If I was making a "My Favorite English Poets" list, the list would look much, much different. Rather, I tried to gauge the critical and poetic reputation of these poets, and I do think I can justify placing those modern poets as high as they are. Ashbery, certainly, has had an enormous impact on the last 50 years of poetry... Bishop is one poet that seems almost universally loved/revered (I can't tell you how many interviews I've read with poets where someone compares their work with Bishop's and the poet says "yeah, there's the influence, but I'm not as good"). Lowell also had a huge impact, and his pioneering of confessional poetry is still producing Pulitzer winners today. Hill is one, like Bishop, that seems revered amongst poets and critics. You may be right that they'll be remembered as Wallers, Cibbers, and Southeys, but you simply have no way of knowing. I certainly don't see any evidence of Ashbery's or Bishop's reputation going in that direction. Really, for that to happen I half suspect it would take a new poetic revolution similar to The Waste Land that consigned so many of the late Victorians to the dustbins (but, even then, we have three greats that escaped: Browning, Tennyson, and Arnold).
    It doesn't happen all at once. Edmund Waller's reputation was ridiculously high for about a century and a half before it fell. He was considered the master of the heroic couplet and influenced a preference for that over blank verse that lasted until Wordsworth's time.

    Thomas Rymer 1678: Chaucer threw in Latin, French, Provencal, and other languages, like new stum to raise a fermentation; in Queen Elizabeth's time, it grew fine, but came not to an head and spirit, did not shine and sparkle, till Mr. Waller set it a running.

    John Wilmot 1680: Waller, by Nature, for the Bays design'd,
    With force, and fire, and fancy unconfin'd,
    In Panegyricks, does excell Mankind.
    He best can turn, enforce, and soften things,
    To praise great Conquerors, or to flatter Kings.

    John Dryden 1683: Waller came last, but was the first whose Art
    Just Weight and Measure did to Verse impart;
    That of a well-plac'd Word could teach the force,
    And shew'd for Poetry a nobler Course:
    His happy Genius did our Tongue Refine,
    And easie Words with pleasing Numbers joyn:
    His Verses to good method did apply,
    And chang'd harsh Discord to Soft Harmony.
    All own'd his Laws; which long approv'd and try'd,
    To present Authors now may be a Guide.
    Tread boldly in his Steps, secure from Fear,
    And be, like him, in your Expressions clear.

    Aphra Behn 1688: Hail, wondrous Bard, whose Heav'n-born Genius first
    My Infant Muse, and Blooming Fancy Nurst.
    With thy soft Food of Love I first began,
    Then fed on nobler Panegyrick Strain,
    Numbers Seraphic! and, at every View,
    My Soul extended, and much larger grew:
    Where e're I Read, new Raptures seiz'd my Blood;
    Methought I heard the Language of a God.

    Thomas Rymer 1688: Waller is dead; and lofty Number's lost.
    Now English Verse (with nothing left to boast)
    May hobble on, and vex good Pindar's Ghost.
    What was it Three and Eighty Years to live?
    Short is the Boon to what the Muses give:
    They so Insur'd his Immortality,
    That scarce he knew, in any kind, to dye.
    Two Ages he the Sacred Garland bore;
    Peerless in this, and Prince of that before.
    Rare Genius, his; alike their Glory made,
    In glittering Courts, and in the Country Shade.
    There, by four Kings belov'd, how high he shone!
    Inseparable Jewel of the Crown;

    Joseph Addison 1694: But now my Muse, a softer strain rehearse.
    Turn every Line with Art, and smooth thy Verse;
    The Courtly Waller next commands thy Lays:
    Muse Tune thy Verse, with Art, to Waller's Praise.
    While tender Airs and lovely Dames inspire
    Soft melting Thoughts, and propagate Desire;
    So long shall Waller's strains our Passion move,
    And Sacharissa's Beauties kindle Love.

    Edmund Burke 1746: I got yesterday Waller, whom I never read before, nor did you, I believe; for it would be needless to tell you, if you had, that he is one of the most charming poets of England. 'Tis surprizing how much softness and so much grandeur could dwell in one soul; his panegyricks are wonderfully fine. His chief excellence lies, I think, in making apparent defects of persons become their greatest praise, and that in a manner quite new.

    Oliver Goldsmith 1776: Our poetry was not quite harmonised in Waller's time; so that this [Death of the Lord Protector], which would be now looked upon as a slovenly sort of versification, was, with respect to the times in which it was written, almost a prodigy of harmony.

    Robert Southey 1806: Waller has perhaps received more than due praise for the refinement of his native language; it is well that it was not lavished on his wit. He is often elegant, sometimes tender, and not seldom dull; his conceits are often brilliant, and oftener far-fetched; his political life was a system of contradictions, and the effects of it are seen in his poetry. In the editions of his works, the piece next in order to the Verses on the Death of Cromwell, is a congratulation on the return of Charles II.

    I'm sure that the English language poets of the last 50 years will be like that. Many people have a bad habit of not tempering their praise. That fellow you mentioned who compared such and such a poem to The Wasteland was probably such a one himself. I am reminded of the undo praise heaped upon recent movies and the corresponding tendency for histrionics. The Hurt Locker was said to be better than Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket, and the European gangster films A Prophet and Gomorrah were compared to The Godfather and Goodfellas. Do you ever watch the ratings when they come out on imdb? Opening weekend everything is a ten, but year by year they drop and wind up a six or a five.

    I'll definitely give Merrill a second shot sometime down the road, based on what you said. I'll probably look into Divine Comedies.

    Larkin. He is much like his time, the angry young men time. But isn't that dated now? Of the representative films you listed, how many would you say were really good? Like Kurosawa, Fellini, Kubrick good? I liked both versions of Look Back in Anger, and I liked The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, but I wouldn't put any of those on a list of great cinema.
    Quote Originally Posted by MorpheusSandman View Post
    What you say about Larkin not "raising up or transforming" his subjects was, IIRC, a criticism leveled against him in his own time, and he responded by essentially saying he didn't want to, that he was the poet of the dull and ordinary, and he left the heavy lifting to the romantics.
    Well, if his object was to not impress me, mission accomplished.

    And as far as Stevens being more popular with critics right now, I can't think of a time when he's been more popular with readers. The critics don't tell the whole story.
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  13. #13
    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    I don't want to sound too confrontational, but there's no bloody way you can be SURE that the English language poets of the last 50 years will be forgotten. That you've been able to name poets whom were praised in their own time and then fell from critical grace is only proof that such a thing can happen, not that it will happen with all praised poets of the past 50 years. Afterall, I could just as easily name poets that were praised in their own day and have now become a fixture in the canon, as well as poets that were unknown in their day and were catapulted into the canon decades/centuries after their death. Future critical trends are nearly impossible to predict, and it seems to me that the "contemporary canon" is far too varied for all of them to get thrown under the bus, and, as I said, I see no sign now of their critical appreciation waning.

    Yes, many people have a tendency to overpraise what is new; being an active memeber on a number of film forums I see this constantly, with each new hyped film and filmmaker being praised as the next (insert canonical film/filmmaker here). Obviously most of these turn out to be busts, but there are also those that genuinely do turn out to be classics that become part of the canon. However, such praise and fall with films tends to take place in the span of years, if not months; what you're talking about are poets that have been praised for almost half a century suddenly falling from grace, and I think that is probably much rarer. It would actually be closer to saying that, eg, Vertigo will be forgotten and Hitchcock thought of as a Waller.

    Quote Originally Posted by mortalterror View Post
    Larkin. He is much like his time, the angry young men time. But isn't that dated now? Of the representative films you listed, how many would you say were really good? Like Kurosawa, Fellini, Kubrick good?
    Is it dated? Sure, it's dated, but no more so than romanticism is dated. Everything dates; that's an inevitability. I don't take dated to be a pejorative. Of the films I listed I certainly think If... and Kes are up there; Kess is ranked around 200 on TSPDT, and If... is around 350. I think asking for "Kurosawa, Fellini, Kubrick" good is a bit unfair given the parameters: with poets we're only discussing English language poets, so if we were doing the same for film then, yes, I think all of those directors would be on a list of the 100 best directors and those films would probably be in the top 200 of greatest films. However, I also think Larkin has two advantages over those filmmakers: firstly, I can't think of any other poets that were writing like him before him, whereas the filmmakers not only had their somewhat-similar contemporaries, but also the French and German New Wave they were drawing from, so they weren't nearly as original. Secondly, I also think Larkin is a more technically gifted poet than any of those filmmakers were technically gifted directors. Larkin is one of the rare masters of the line and stanza break of the 20th century, and the way he structures his poetic turns around them is quite accomplished.

    I'd agree with Frost is certainly more popular with readers than Stevens, but, as has been noted, probably the majority of modern poetry readers are either critics/academics or poets; the non-poet, non-critical/academic readership of poetry has shrunk dramatically, so I rather DO think at this point that Stevens may be more popular "amongst readers" because there are far too few casual readers left. Critics may not tell the whole story, but critics and artists tend to have a much stronger influence on canons than popular audiences in almost all the arts.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

  14. #14
    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Actually I find myself agreeing with Mortal. The canon is already too hard to enter - especially with the internationalization going on right now.The great Post-Modern Poet will undoubtedly be Ashbery in America, it seems almost impossible to find a more widely accepted and appreciated, and yet deserving, voice out there. It's the same way that the Chinese poet Li Bo (Li Bai, Li Po) was undoubtedly accepted as a sort of superhuman literary genius within his own time. The only other contender for a similar literary position was all in awe of the former (Du Fu, having written several poems about his encounter with the legend). And even Du Fu within 50 years after his death had already begun to seal himself into the position of poet-teacher, of the torchbearer of the next 1300 years of poetic development in the continent.

    In all honest the black-horse canonical figures are the exception, rather than the rule. Generally the standard for canonization is that later serious readers, and almost more importantly, writers, pick the person up. As Shakespeare was so copied in the 19th century, he became our modern bard, the same way miltion was so emulated after his time, and spenser in his own time.

    Literary texts in genres are a game of mutation, but it is less precise than evolution in that the artist has a choice in his or her parent. Yeats to me seems the biggest poet of the last 100-odd years, for instance, based on how he sort of collected that around him into a cohesive sort of mythology - he is very much the summary of Romanticism and anticipates Modernism. Stevens seems to me the beacon of true modernization in English language (particularly American) verse, even more so than either Pound or Eliot, simply because his sort of style has been so copied these past 100 years. He very much is anticipatory, in the sense that Du Fu is, whereas Yeats is more a summary of what came before, in the sense that Li Bo summarized all shi poetry up until his time within his works.

    As for contemporary poets, it is hard for me to see a direction, in that their role in society is currently altering, and also that I am so removed from the game already, living on the other side of the world.

    Still, it can be assumed that 90% of the mid-late 20th century poets esteemed today will be as forgotten as their 3rd rate modernist counterparts which now only exist in historical records. This isn't a bad thing, it is a natural process.

  15. #15
    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    JBI, I read your post, and I'm not really sure if you're agreeing with Mortal or I. EG, you seem to think Ashbery and Stevens will be/are a part of the canon, and I'm pretty sure Mortal is arguing that they are not, while I think they are. You and I seem to agree that serious readers and writers tend to determine what enters the canon more so than anyone else, and, if I'm going by those things, it seems to me those other modern names I listed reflect the tastes of serious readers and writers right now (who knows if that will change, much less what it would change into?). You and I would certainly agree that the canon is extremely difficult to enter, and that 90% (or thereabouts) of the mad-late 20th century esteemed poets will be forgotten (as always happens), but Mortal seems to be claiming they'll ALL be forgotten. I could understand him wanting to debate about what 10% will be remembered, but claiming that none of them will seems illogical. If I had to bet on which will be remembered, I'd probably go with Ashbery, Bishop, Lowell, Merrill, Larkin, Hill, and Heaney... Considering that's only 7 names, if they were the 10% that would mean there were at least 70 acclaimed English poets of the last 60 years, which seems trivially true.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

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