Daily Archives: 14 August 2009

The 64 Greatest Poems in the English Language

Poetry Countdown will do just that: count down from the 64th-greatest poem in the English language to #1.  My inspiration for this project comes from various MTV countdown shows, from Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on the radio over the years, and from a Rolling Stone feature several years ago that chose the 500 greatest songs of all time, or at least of their time.

I have a few rules, not many, to guide me in choosing the Top 64.

The poems must come from the year 1798 or later.  In 1798, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published the first edition of their book Lyrical Ballads, which some people see as the first book of truly modern English poetry.  Whether it was or not, it was very important in promoting the “Romantic” approach to poetry, using ordinary language and subjects, stressing nature and the imagination.  Any earlier than 1798 and we’re in a somewhat different kind of English and a somewhat different approach to poetry than we still employ today.

Eligible poems must have less than 100 lines.  That was Edgar Allan Poe’s idea in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition”: to have a single effect on the reader, a poem must be short: 100 lines or fewer.  So you won’t see “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” or “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” great as they are.   Maybe I’ll do another course next year on The Slightly Longer Poem. 

The poems will mostly have universal themes.  Some will be difficult, but none will be esoteric: that is, they won’t demand that you have special knowledge.  “Easter 1916” by William Butler Yeats is a very great poem, for instance, but to work it requires that you know a lot about the 1916 Easter Rising rebellion in Dublin.  So it isn’t included here.  

In choosing the Top 64, I have tried not to rely too much on my personal favorites.  I have also tried not to choose poems just because they are of historical importance.  Basically, they have to be good.  Matthew Arnold, another inspiration for this project, advises against evaluations that are too personal or too historical.  He wanted people to study “the best that has been thought and said,” and for our purposes, I agree.

Some of these poems will be very famous and familiar: the “usual suspects” of English literature.  But some usual suspects will be missing, and some little-studied poems will make the list.  Ultimately nobody’s Top 64 will correspond exactly with anyone else’s.  I have taken a lot of hints from scholars, poets, and anthologists.  But I can’t abdicate my own critical judgment, either.

An awful lot of these poems are by white guys.  In a sense, much of English-language literary culture till recently was a white guys’ culture, as well as an upper- or upper-middle class culture.  But people are still people, even if they’re privileged; all these poems speak to what’s human in all of us.   And some are by women; some are by black writers.  Some are by English poets, some by Americans, a few by Irish writers, and there’s the occasional poem by someone of another nationality, but all were originally written in English.  Some poets included here are gay, others straight.  Most of the authors, though not all, are dead, and the poems by living writers tend to be from early in their careers.  It’s hard to be certain that a poem is great if it’s not a few years old.  I have no requirements for “coverage” or “distribution” or “representation.”  If a single poet happened to write six or eight of the greatest 64 poems, so be it.

When I was initially casting about for the Top 64, I thought most of the poems would be about “love and death,” what Emily Dickinson said were the only real themes for poetry.  And indeed, there’s a lot of love and death here.  But there’s also nature, and childhood, and language itself.  And there’s a surprising (to me) amount of poetry about faith.  The last 200 years or so are often seen as a secular age.  Maybe just because they’ve been secular times, a lot of the best poetic thought has been about faith: keeping, losing, reacquiring, or questioning faith, but faith nonetheless.  We will study these poems in a secular context, but we will treat their ideas seriously.

A poem must be poetic: “equal to / not true,” said Archibald MacLeish.  It is not just a dressed-up message.  The language must be beautiful, but there must also be a poetic idea, something fused and perfect that can’t quite be paraphrased or condensed.  “Why did they use all those words,” students sometimes say.  But if the poet didn’t use those exact words, the poem would mean something different, something less coherent, something less exciting.

None of the poems here has a “hidden meaning.”  If a meaning can’t come out into the open, I say the hell with it.