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Dean Rader wants to know, Who do you love?

By Harriet Staff

Taking a cue from Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times quest to pinpoint the greatest composers, Dean Rader put the call out to San Francisco Chronicle readers hoping to give poets the same treatment. This is by no means a consensus project; Tommasini’s responses reached 1,500 and while he eventually published his own list, the idea that there should be a finite measure for quality or importance isn’t the point, as the sheer scale of nominees suggests. But it sure makes a fun exercise to try, particularly when it comes to justifying the reasons for one poet’s inclusion. There is a great deal more to be learned from the process of how “the greatest” are determined than by the final list itself.

This morning, as I was watching coverage of the celebrations in the streets of Cairo, I began thinking about the connection between literature and revolution, poetry and civic engagement. At times of social crisis and political milestones, historians and commentators often turn to writers (especially poets) to help encapsulate the emotional tenor of the event. Great moments need great language.

In was Martin Heidegger who said “In the time of the world’s night, the poet utters the holy.” Indeed. But, who are those writers we tend to gravitate toward? Who embodies “greatness?”

To keep things from getting too out of hand, Rader has set up a few conditions for the nomination process. First, and what Rader believes likely to cause the most controversy, any poet whose authorship is in question is out (see ya, oral traditionalists). Second, non-English poetry counts. The final one is also sure to cause an uproar, but it needs to be said:

Musicians have their own lists–dozens of them. So, for this project, no Bob Dylan, no Jim Morrison, no Springsteen, no Tupac, unless they have a separate life as a poet. Ryan Adams, for example, has published at least two books of poems. Jewel has also published a book. So, those works could count.

Rader has apparently never heard of Tupac’s collection The Rose that Grew from Concrete. Game on!

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, February 15th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.