“If You Read, You'll Judge”

In the world of poetry, "best" is a fighting word.
What makes a poem one of the best? Anthologists have been arguing that question since 60 B.C. Can the latest round in the fight—a polite brawl between Garrison Keillor in one corner, August Kleinzahler in the other, with heavyweight champ Harold Bloom looking on—provide any answers? Joshua Weiner reports from ringside.

Some of the most interesting items in Kurt Cobain’s journals are the lists he compiled of the bands, albums, and individual songs he considered the best. Making lists was a consistent preoccupation of Cobain’s, one that complemented his work on the songs for Nirvana that even the most casual listener to popular music in the 1990s would recognize. The lists comprise a kind of table of contents to a personal anthology of music, compelling for what it suggests about Cobain, naturally, but also for the musical map it makes both of Cobain's own moment and of the reachable past, with which he felt a strong continuity. “If you read / you’ll judge,” he wrote on the cover of one of his spiral notebooks—the extremity of the confessional content, one imagines; but it also points to the lists: history mediated by taste, taste determined by history. If you read, you’ll judge. It’s a phrase suitable as epigraph to any serious poetry anthology published in the last 45 years.

When we read a list, on what do we pass judgment? On the list maker, to be sure, as Cobain foresaw (Blue Oyster Cult’s “Kick Out the Jams,” but no MC5? What’s wrong with you!); also ourselves (What don’t I know? Am I just a receptacle of received opinion?). And what are we judging in the list maker and, by extension, in ourselves? Two things, I think—personal taste and perception of history. We all have our personal lists of what we like best (taste) because we think it an example of the best of its kind (history). When a list goes public with the intention of establishing claims on our attention and gaining our approval, we become participants in the struggle of forming canons. And in the world of poetry, such struggles are ongoing, strange, and sometimes fierce.

Canons, of course, imply an orthodoxy, which indicates consensus and scriptural immunity. Yet because they exist historically, and because history is a dynamic process, canons do change, however slowly: the Torah changes through Talmudic debate; the U.S. Constitution gains amendments, which are later interpreted and reinterpreted. Canon formation is conservative by nature because consensus takes time; once consensus is established, however, change takes place only through some kind of radical force. In a democratic culture, literary canons are formed and radically challenged within generations. Such is modernity.

One thinks, for example, of how T.S. Eliot and his disciples reinserted Renaissance poets of metaphysical wit into the canon of English poetry; then, how a later generation of scholars reacted against Eliot by reclaiming the Romantics from his disparagement; how a generation of aesthetically radical poets including Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan held onto fascist, elitist Ezra Pound despite his growing disfavor in the academy; and how poets, scholars, publishers, and readers who came of age in the 1950s and '60s opened the canon to include more women and minorities. It didn’t just happen; people fought it out in the public arena of ideas—sometimes in a magazine such as Partisan Review, sometimes in a salon, sometimes in a saloon.

It’s an argument that’s been going on for decades, even centuries, perhaps as early as 90 B.C., around the time that Meleager of Gadara gathered up bouquets of poetry by Archilochus and others to weave his Garland; certainly as early as 1861, when Francis Palgrave published his Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language. The latest such controversy has swirled around the April 2004 issue of Poetry magazine, with its positive/negative tag-team review by Dana Gioia and August Kleinzahler, respectively, of Garrison Keillor’s anthology, Good Poems (Viking, 2002). While Gioia considers the anthology surprisingly good for its modest claims, and, due to Keillor’s influence as a media personality, an effective vehicle for introducing readers to poetry, Kleinzahler deems it hardly good enough, and worse. While Kleinzahler acknowledges that the book contains good poems (by familiars such as Whitman, Dickinson, and Burns, as well as contemporaries such as C.K. Williams and Anne Porter), he objects to the predominance of poetry written in a generic free verse driven by anecdote and steeped in a wistful tone.

Kleinzahler hates the cultural church, ministered by Keillor, that promotes poetry as a kind of blessing, valuable because it “is of use,” in Keillor’s belief, “it gives value.” Kleinzahler finds such sentimentality obnoxious, a kind of boosterism that results in bad art. “Are we not yet adult enough as a culture to acknowledge that the arts are not for everyone, and that bad art is worse than no art at all; and that good or bad, art’s exclusive function is to entertain, not to improve or nourish or console, simply to entertain.”

So what are the best poems? One can gain a sense of how loaded that question is by tracking the evasive maneuvers of each guest editor of Best American Poetry (Scribner), an annual publication edited by David Lehman and his chosen collaborator for that year. Since the series’ inauguration in 1988, its changing editorial cast has consistently ducked out from under the explicit claim announced in the series’ title. Not the best, we’re told, but among the better ones; or representing the best (in a kind of curious synecdoche); or indicating the various modes in which the best poems currently are written. Evaluative judgments of the contemporary appear particularly fraught, because the best poems in the language are those that most readers of poetry share with each other most often (that’s how the canon is formed over time), and the newest poems have seen the fewest opportunities for such sharing.

Not even Harold Bloom, so sure of his judgments regarding “the aesthetic,” stakes sure ground in his culling of the decade, The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1998. “There are still authentic poems being written in the United States,” claims Bloom, and, he suggests, maybe some of them are even in this book. This rhetorical circling of the aesthetic wagons, Bloom admits, was provoked by Adrienne Rich’s 1996 edition of the same series, a volume he claims, “of a badness not to be believed, because it follows the criteria now operative: what matters most are the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be-poet.” In making this point Bloom ignores that the argument over what’s best often has as much to do with who gets to choose, and whom the editor believes is listening.

In editing Best American Poetry 1996, Rich was listening, herself, she writes, “for poetry that could rouse me from fatigue, stir me from grief, poetry that was redemptive in the sense of offering a kind of deliverance or rescue of the imagination, and poetry that awoke delight—lip-to-lip, spark-to-spark, pleasure in recognition, pleasure in strangeness.” Rich’s echoing of Bloom’s desire for authenticity suggests that Bloom is misreading her, yet it is also true that Rich’s aesthetic value in poetry expresses her interest “in any poet’s acknowledgement of the social and political loomings of this time-space—that history goes on and we are in it.” Would Bloom's beloved Blake, and Rich's for that matter, disagree that such poems are necessary?

And so, one is left, as one is always left, with the enduring question, “Which be those?” and the corresponding rejoinder, “Sez who?” (One hears, too, an incisive voice speaking up from the back, to ask “Best for whom, and for what purposes?”) Backing away from the contemporary scene, Bloom’s answer is available and explicit; one finds it in his anthology, The Best Poems of the English Language (HarperCollins, 2004).

Bloom’s argument for what constitutes “the best” is richly suggestive and audaciously self-serving. For Bloom, figurative language, a turning from the literal, is the essential element of poetry. Figuration creates meaning—meaning, in fact, could not exist without it—and, in great poetry, an overflow of meaning creates a condition of newness. Upon encountering such a creation of newness, a reader becomes possessed by it, which we feel as a desire for deep identification with the poem. This excessive overflowing element is the sublime in poetry, according to Bloom. “Greatness in poetry,” he writes, “depends upon splendor of figurative language and on cognitive power, or what Emerson termed ‘meter-making argument.’” Such poetic power “so fuses thinking and remembering that we cannot separate the two processes.” In addition to figuration, great poetry is highly allusive, according to Bloom, and great poems are in a continual correspondence with the literary past. The logic, then, is clear: if the best poems are allusive, then not only reading them but even being able to recognize them requires that a reader become familiar with the literary past. And what better way to become familiar with that past than to read Bloom’s anthology?

It would be wrong, though, to view the implications of Bloom’s logic too cynically: there are certainly other ways to encounter the literary past, but they all involve the same activity, reading and rereading; and there’s no better place to start, or to continue, than Bloom’s big book. Bloom is on an educational mission, but his temple of poetry is closer to Kleinzahler’s fun house than Keillor’s cultural church or, for that matter, Billy Collins’s adequate high school that he envisions in Poetry 180 (Random House, 2003). For Bloom, as for Kleinzahler, poetry is one of the fine arts; it’s demanding on the reader, but its rigors are joyful.

The poems that he finds most joyful are those that make the most enormous demands on him, the particular demands of “an absolute cognitive music.” He hears such music in, for example, Hart Crane’s “minstrel galleons of Carib fire” that “bequeath us to no neatly shore until/Is answered in the vortex of our grave/The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise” ("Voyages II"). From such music, one encounters a strangeness, “the true mode of expanding consciousness.” Valuing a poem for making the world strange stands against Keillor’s homely interest in poems that return to the reader “clear pictures of the familiar.” Bloom delights in this Romantic paradox—that in making the world unfamiliar, a poem leads a reader to a dwelling place, a site of recognition, where (he quotes Stevens) “I found myself more truly and more strange.”

Among the champion anthology battles, Bloom’s towers in the ring, fit competition for a classroom killer such as the Norton Anthology of Poetry, as well as superseding old sluggers such as Oscar Williams’s Immortal Poems (Simon & Schuster, 1952). But if Bloom stays fit and trim in his choices by cutting the uncertain calories and capricious fat of contemporary poetry altogether, it comes at a cost: any poet born in the 20th century.

Curiously, Bloom’s toughest competition is hardly the exercise of an individual sensibility: William Harmon’s The Top 500 Poems (Columbia, 1992). Where Bloom makes choices, Harmon counts statistics, presenting the poems most often included by 400 contemporary editors in their own anthologies. The list, drawn from the Columbia Granger's Index to Poetry, establishes its authority by virtue of its collective anonymity: these are the poems a variety of professionals have shared with a reading public, as indicated through the bibliographic science of indexing. Between Bloom’s 372 poems and Harmon’s 500 lies a common set of 120 poems, a kind of ultimate anthology, the bestest of the best, although it’s difficult to imagine any reader of poetry not wanting the other 632. While Bloom may have the heights on this territory, Harmon clearly has the numbers; yet both are facing the same direction of history despite the 18 poets Harmon includes born between 1902 (Langston Hughes) and 1932 (Sylvia Plath).

That’s a crucial 30 year period, however, one that alters the map of gained territory for poetry in the twentieth century. Two recent anthologies attempt to address this historical achievement: one—Joseph Parisi’s 100 Essential Modern Poems (Ivan R. Dee, 2005)—by restricting contents to English language poems; and the other—Mark Strand’s 100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century (Norton, 2005)—by including translations from a dozen other languages. Of the two, Strand’s selections are the more personal and eclectic, and thus the more interesting, though his argument for them slides by on a sheet of vague: “They are poems that I have continued to feel strongly about over the years and that for one reason or another will not allow themselves to be forgotten or pushed aside by more recent poems . . . In vastly different ways, they provide us with what experiencing that century was like.” Strand is bland, but fair enough. His criteria pass because of his status as a notable contemporary poet: we are interested in the collection not just for what it maps out, but, as with Kurt Cobain’s lists, for who’s drawing up the charts. If Strand’s taste, his perception of history, is poorly reasoned, it is also sharply intuited. And his anthology skirts some sink holes that Parisi’s book hits: by claiming his choices “great” (as opposed to “essential”), Strand signals that he’s harvesting from a wide field; by defining his historical period in the most straightforward manner, he avoids the abysmal difficulty of defining “modernism” per se, and whatever you choose to call the period following it. At the same time, Strand suggests a significant aspect of aesthetic modernism, generally—its internationalism—and by doing so introduces and returns readers to a broad set of influences on English language poetry all too easily lost sight of. (Anna Akhmatova, Yehuda Amichai, Borges, Aimé Césaire, Robert Desnos, Nazim Hikmet, Jorge de Lima, Eugenio Montale, Dan Pagis, Octavio Paz, George Seferis, and Tomas Tranströmer, among others).

Parisi, on the other hand, plucks the historical string of the “essential” in his title, only to retune it in his introduction, writing that his choice of 100 poems “may be justly called essential in that they deal with the most fundamental issues everyone eventually faces.” As a definition, this will do no better, one feels, than Parisi’s wish to view the poems as “modern, in the broadest sense.” One appreciates the predicament of working with such terms, though it seems to confuse the purpose of a smart and serviceable gathering; why announce that you’ll present poems essentially modern and essential to understanding the modern, if you’re going to sidestep both critical issues? If Parisi’s claims are more specific than Strand’s, they are not more persuasive. Between them, though, you’ll find some great poems, such as A. R. Ammons’s “The City Limits,” Marianne Moore’s “The Fish,” Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” and W.D. Snodgrass’s “April Inventory.” Where Strand picks Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” one of the great modern elegies in English, Parisi picks, among others, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” one of the more memorable poems in the language on the occasion of looking at a painting. Where Strand picks Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” a great memory poem about self-recognition in childhood, Parisi picks the disarming villanelle, “One Art,” a poem of mature self-reflection, self-reproach, and urgency. Where Strand picks Wallace Stevens’ “Postcard from the Volcano,” Parisi picks the more anthologized chestnuts, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “Sunday Morning,” and “Anecdote of the Jar.” In such choices, however, Parisi suggests that his sense of “the essential” in fact corresponds more closely to a perception of the canon, that his “essential” poems are not essential simply for addressing essentially common human concerns: Stevens is a canonical modern poet, and Parisi’s picks are in keeping with a general consensus among anthologists regarding individual titles. Likewise, Parisi’s inclusion of Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died” and “Why I Am Not a Painter” appear closer to the center of consensus than Strand’s choice, “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” also by O’Hara.

Between Parisi’s 100 “essential modern” poems and Bloom’s “best” 97 “modern” poems, there are only ten poets common to both; and within that set, one finds in common only five poems (Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” William Carlos Williams’s “Spring and All,” Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). "Prufrock," in fact, turns out to be the best, most essential, great, top, favorite poem in English of the twentieth century, appearing in Bloom’s Best, both Harmon’s Top 500 Poems and his follow-up, The Classic Hundred Poems (Columbia, 1998), Robert Pinsky and Maggie Dietz’s America’s Favorite Poems (Norton, 2000), the American Poetry & Literacy Project’s 101 Great American Poems (Dover, 1998) and The Nation’s Favourite Poems (BBC, 1996). If anecdotal evidence serves, I routinely teach undergraduates who, given the choice of memorizing any poem of any length in the monumental Norton Anthology, roll up their trousers and dare to commit to memory 131 lines of an ironized, enervated, solipsistic love song, a love song which nonetheless speaks to them powerfully, even hypnotically, of their own indecision, jadedness, and abject inability “to say just what I mean!” Fortunately for my students, they’ve paid no attention to John Hollander’s Committed to Memory (Riverhead, 1997), which recommends many fine poems to memorize, but which does not list “Prufrock” among them. One notes, too, “Prufrock’s” conspicuous absence from Bartletts’ Poems for Occasions (Little, Brown, 2004), edited by Geoffrey O’Brien, which claims to collect “the world’s greatest poems, organized for every occasion, public and private, from birth to death and everything in between.” Apparently, “Prufrock” is not a good poem to recite at birthday or retirement parties. Coffee? Peach?

Originally Published: February 27th, 2006

Joshua Weiner was born in Boston and grew up in central New Jersey. He is the author of three books of poems, The World’s Room (2001) and From the Book of Giants (2006), and The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (2013).Weiner earned a BA from Northwestern University and a PhD from...

  1. January 16, 2009
     Edward Bone

    Iwould like to say that intering my poem and seeing I made it in the book really helps my self of steem a bunch.

  2. October 6, 2014
     brandon grant

    great summary and kurt was a great man wish i couldve met
    him myself so i could have asked him the same questios i
    do now til this day thanks kurt for inpiring me in your
    music and jimmy hendrix or awesome too