My 10 favorite American poets

Anthony Braxton, one of my favorite living jazz musicians, said in a recent interview that

You have to be honest about who you are, and the men and women who’ve influenced you. Part of learning from someone is to acknowledge it, so that people can see that something comes from something. Nothing just pops out separate from history, or from the work that preceded it.

I think the word “honest” is important here. While top ten lists are rather self-indulgent, I confess to enjoying them, and this being National Poetry Month, I thought I’d share my ten favorite American poets, just for the fun of it. My list will no doubt surprise some people–both for the things on it and those not on it. But that’s always the way with such lists. Here they are, in alphabetical order according to last names:

Ashbo
That’s right, it’s my own pet name for him. Can you see me blush? Here’s a list of my favorite John Ashbery poems.

John Berryman

Is it just me or does Berryman not get the respect these days he used to? I guess there’s something old-school about him. The way he lived his whole life through poetry is not something I admire. Poetry serves life, not the other way around. But, my god, could he sing. The Dream Songs remain, for me, one of the most beautiful examples of how to build a book of poems.

I thought she was Canadian?
So? Last I heard Canada was part of North America. Anne Carson was one of the first contemporary poets who made me feel like it was ok to do the weird hybrid shit I was writing. Here’s something I’ve written about her.

Hart, not Stephen
It’s nothing against Stephen Crane. Guiltily I confess to not reading him. I have read Hart Crane. Stravinsky said of Beethoven’s string quartets that they were among his “highest articles of musical belief.” I could say the same about Hart Crane. There is no poet, in terms of style, I admire more, and no poet who sounds more like music to my ears when read aloud.

Emily Dickinson
Sure she’s on everybody’s list. But why? The more I read her the more amazed I am that so many people claim to love her. Not because she’s hard to love but because she’s so difficult, so challenging. Honestly, I think a lot of folks are in love with a false image. They romanticize her. She was shy and retiring–Wrong. Guests were frequent in the Dickinson household, and Emily entertained them. She kept her poems to herself–Wrong. She shared her poems with scores of correspondents. She had more followers than this blog has. She was meek–Wrong. Have you read the poems? This was an extremely strong-willed woman with the mind of a genius. Her poems are so radical in terms of style that we’re still trying to come to terms with them. Stop looking at the picture, thinking about fresh baked bread (hard work, that) and white dresses and read the poems.

I thought he wrote novels
Sure, but have you ever considered that Moby Dick is also a poem? I have, and do.

But Pip loved life, and all life’s peaceable securities; so that the panic-striking business in which he had somehow unaccountably become entrapped, had most sadly blurred his brightness; though, as ere long will be seen, what was thus temporarily subdued in him, in the end was destined to be luridly illumined by strange wild fires, that fictitiously showed him off to ten times the natural lustre with which in his native Tolland County in Connecticut, he had once enlivened many a fiddler’s frolic on the green; and at melodious even-tide, with his gay ha-ha! had turned the round horizon into one star-belled tambourine.

I chose that at more or less random. Moby Dick is chock-full of language like that. Call it what you want. I call it poetry. Oh, Melville also wrote verse poems.

Lou Reed?
Yes, Lou Reed. Generally, I accept the argument that song lyric writing and poetry are separate genres. Lyrics always serve the song, etc. But sometimes the words transcend the song. You can read the collected lyrics of Lou Reed like a book–I certainly do.

Paul who?
Paul WESTERBERG. Another lyricist, another great poet. He is the songwriter and lead singer of the best rock ‘n’ roll band you’ve still never heard of: The Replacements. Why you’ve still never heard of them I can’t understand but I’ll wager that in years to come Westerberg will be remembered as one of the best American songwriters ever. Read Westerberg’s lyrics.

Bookmark
by Paul Westerberg

Father left
You were crushed
Like the petals of a flower
Between the pages of a novel
A long forgotten bookmark
The end of a sad chapter
When he left her she read no more
And so left all trust
Of any man that wants you
To dress in black plastic
Or sing with your eyes only
As though you were autistic
Whisper diamonds and insolence
Enter misadventure
Neither tawdry or resplendent
In clothes that hide your figure
She was daddy’s little sparrow
He was a dirty picture window
Mister Inappropriate
Who washes his hands after
He thinks someone is watching
Too restless for education
Craves only entertainment
And to this day
There is no one you trust
Father left your mom
They say you were crushed
Like the petals of a flower
Between pages of a novel
A long forgotten bookmark

barbaric yawp man
Hey yeah, right, that’s Uncle Walt. Still radical after all these years!

last but certainly not least
In fact, if you twisted my tendinitis-raddled elbow and forced me to name one, and only one, favorite American poet, it would be William Carlos Williams. Why? Because he did it all, he did it first, and he did it best. In terms of what’s relevant in contemporary poetry, he’s still the one. Hybrid poems–did it. Long prose poems–did it. Poems as novels–did it. And that’s not even what he’s most famous for. Yes, I am referring to the red wheelbarrow. But most everyone takes the red wheelbarrow out of context. It’s part of a book called Spring and All, the single-most important book of American poetry to me, personally. It’s both poetry and exegesis, the most beautiful and perfect hybrid text written in this country, decades before anyone was even talking about hybrid texts. Williams was the first person I ever blogged about. He’s my touchstone.

Yeah, but what about
Wallace Stevens or [insert name of favorite American poet here]? I haven’t read everything, yet. In the case of Stevens, I argue and tussle with him too much. He gives me a headache. I know he’s brilliant (I love some of his poems without qualification), but somehow the jagged ends of his brilliance stick in a way I find less than pleasurable, like an itch. Frank O’Hara is a poet I like very much, but I’ve studied his work much less than the others. The paperback of his collected poems is rather pricy, and still sits on my wish list. But I suspect when I begin to study him more he very well might creep into the top ten.

And your top ten?

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11 Responses to My 10 favorite American poets

  1. Ashbery, Whitman, and O’Hara are in my top ten for sure. I’ve found O’Hara is well worth extensive study, a lot to appreciate there, especially with how he transformed his influences (from the American modern art world, modernist French poetry, etc.). Nice post.

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    I will say right off that I can’t come up with a top ten that would be even close to valid. I don’t read enough poetry, to my continuing chagrin, and I tend to come back to a handful that seem to hold ongoing fascination for me, rather than broadening out. But I will respond, with all those caveats, with this:

    Wallace Stevens has been with me so long I couldn’t dream of forsaking him, and whenever I do revisit his work, I find I’m entranced all over again.

    But it’s poems by John Ashbery that speak most directly to me of (my) human condition, and while there is much more of his work that I don’t know than I do, I keep him by me always, for which I have you to thank.

    I’ve long been fascinated by Anne Carson’s work and have, I believe, read all of her books but one (Eros the Bittersweet). What I love about her above all is the way she thinks, particularly about the act of translation, and her disregard of prescribed boundaries.

    I’ve more recently become fascinated by Susan Howe’s work and have snapped up and read many of her books, as well. I think what I love best about her work has to do with her preoccupations–reaching back into early American history, as well as her aural and visual ways of perceiving and creating poetry.

    Only recently have I come to understand how remarkable Emily Dickinson’s work is, so extraordinarily, authentically strange, it’s hard not to sit back in awe. She has had the effect of completely eclipsing Walt Whitman for me, even though I am sure, were I to go and read a bit of Whitman now, he would still sing as only he can.

    I’ve not successfully entered the poetic realm of either WCW or O’Hara. Much as I would like it to be otherwise, I don’t really “get” Spring and All. I’ve enjoyed the O’Hara poems to which I’ve been introduced, but haven’t felt inspired to go further on my own. Ginsberg, however, while I go back to him only rarely, always touches me.

    Bottom line for me? I need to read more poems. Right now, I’m enjoying getting to know Reverdy a bit, as, in the not so distant past, I enjoyed getting to know Rimbaud, Tranströmer, and Szymborska. Of course, they are all, I recognize, beyond the scope of the question posed!

    • The only valid list is an honest one. I wouldn’t dream of forsaking Stevens either. I need to acquaint myself with Susan Howe’s work. It’s interesting, the things different people find difficult–Howe’s work seems difficult to me. I don’t get everything about Williams, but then he was a lot smarter than I am. Questions of content aside, ‘Spring and All’ is the kind of book (mix of prose and verse, exegesis and poetry) that I really like, the kind of thing I like to write.

      Speaking of Reverdy, are you aware of the 2 new volumes that just came out of Ashbery’s translations? 1 is poetry, the other prose.

  3. Brian Carlin says:

    You’re bang on with westerberg and reed…and from my neck of the woods I’d add mark e. smith before he dissolved. Williams and Dickinson I read and re-read, for the precision and the passion. Ponge has laid down a mighty marker and has taught me a new way of approaching objects/things and how they are experienced. I’ll always have a soft spot for Larkin and his clarity. And Alexander Pope, acerbic genius that he was. Shockingly I’ve never read any of ashberry or berryman, I’m scuttling ’round the web to see what I can…

    • I love Mark E Smith’s voice and the sound of The Fall–haven’t listened closely to the lyrics though. If my list were an international one, Ponge would be on it, for sure, so would Lautréamont.

  4. hedgewitch says:

    What I like most about your list, Mark, is that you haven’t conflated ‘favorite’ with ‘best’ yet each example is surely often defined that way–it’s hard to do that. I also long ago gave up thinking my taste was an indicator of the excellence of someone’s work, yet, it is excellence that draws us in. I really appreciate the points you make about Dickinson and agree she is one of the most bastardized images in poetry, besides Poe, who rather deserved most of his caricatures, and you are spot-on about Williams–he is so much more than a red wheelbarrow.

    My favorite poets are the ones I read for pleasure, Stevens, Neruda, Lorca, yes, Poe and Dickinson, Sandburg, Yeats and Elliot.I also like Stephen not Hart, but his body of work is fairly small, so that unfortunately, it’s hard to see him as a major anything. I haven’t read any Hart Crane that I recall so will check him out.

    Great point about Melville, also–what kept me plowing through Moby Dick was not the rather fraught and overworked allegory of the tiresome Ahab, but the gorgeous language invoking the awesomeness of the sea and all it contains contrasted so glaringly with our own petty, brutal natures, as well as of course the narrative trainwreck-you-can’t-look-away-from of fate and doom, and all the little cameo parts like the one you quoted. Enjoyed this share much, Mark, thanks.

    • You’re right, taste is not an indicator of excellence. But on the other hand, I’m not afraid to say, ‘This is good.’ And it doesn’t hurt to be able to explain why you like something. I venture only so far into the world of literary analysis only because I’d rather spend my time writing poems. But it’s an endeavor I respect. In a top ten list I think it’s best to keep the tone light.

      Love your description of ‘Moby Dick’. I’m a raving lunatic when it comes to Melville.

      I have always loved Poe, especially his prose.

  5. Brendan says:

    Thanks for this, Mark. I think everyone needs to have this elevator speech parked somewhere not far back on their tongue: It sort of explains the atmosphere in which we all write, how that environment depends upon certain prior work. (OK, the world lit is just as important, but this keeps things defined enough to clarify.) I so agree with you about Melville as a central poet. I add Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot (he was born here, and so I read “Four Quartets” with a southern accent), Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver and Jack Gilbert. But then the number 10 is just like pylon around which a so much bigger river flows …

  6. Pingback: It’s alright, Ma (it’s only the Nobel) | The Mockingbird Sings

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