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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
by Paul Westerberg
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
Neither tawdry or resplendent
In clothes that hide your figure
She was daddy’s little sparrow
He was a dirty picture window
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?