Canon Fodder: Chris Wiman
[Note from the editors: Maybe some poems just don’t get the respect they deserve. We've asked nine poets to recommend nine poems that they think should be added to the canon: poems that should be taught, anthologized, revered. We will be adding their recommended poems to our archive as we obtain permissions for them. In this fifth installment our continuing series, Poetry editor Chris Wiman takes his turn at selecting poems so far neglected by anthologies and best of lists. From George Mackay to Edna St. Vincent Millay to Robert Duncan, he makes the case for nine forgotten masterpieces.]
I love anthologies—the absolute emphasis on the individual poem, the way you can jump from century to century, the sense they give of poetry being both continuous and contained. And yet I hate them too—the false impression they give of many poets, the emphasis on “teachable” poems, the train wreck of taste that most of them become when dealing with contemporaries. I’ve focused here on relatively recent poets who seem to me either badly anthologized or shamefully omitted from most major anthologies—and, of course, on poems I’ve long loved.
1. “Old Fisherman with Guitar,” by George Mackay Brown
For contemporary American poets, a poetry of place almost always means a poetry of missing places. The poetry of George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996 after spending his entire life in the Orkney Islands, illustrates some of the possibilities open to a poetry that is free from this anxiety. Vivid and direct, densely physical, crafted in the way of things built for use and not for show, his poems are saturated with actual life, though it sometimes happens to be the life of centuries ago. “Old Fisherman with Guitar” is one of my favorites. The technique is masterful, and inextricable from the sense the poem gives of words emerging out of, and acquiring truth from, deep experience.
2. “Such Is the Sickness of Many a Good Thing” by Robert Duncan
I used to love Robert Duncan, who seemed to me the very ideal of what a poet should be—large-souled, cosmically ambitious, full of feeling and intelligence in equal measure. I can’t read him anymore in his self-consciously “major” moments, when he has fired up the fog machine and swoops around in a cape, but I do still love his minor beauties. Anthologies get some of these (indeed, they ignore the other side of Duncan entirely), but I’ve never seen my favorite Duncan poem anthologized. It seems to me a great example of both his genuine wisdom and his exquisite ear.
3. “The Shadow on the Stone” by Thomas Hardy
Hardy is one of the worst-anthologized poets. “Hap,” “The Convergence of the Twain,” “Channel Firing,” “Nature’s Questioning,” “The Subalterns”—these aren’t terrible poems, I guess, but none of them is Hardy at his best. To be fair, anthologists aren’t completely to blame here: Hardy is one of those rare poets, like James Schuyler, who are actually best in bulk. He didn’t write “masterpieces,” but he wrote more than a hundred poems that are well worth being anthologized. Too often the Hardy we get is the didactic, philosophically simplistic (teachable!) Hardy, when he’s actually at his best in that shadow world between object and idea, phenomena and numina, the living and the dead. And the best example of these poems is “The Shadow on the Stone.”
4. “These Poems, She Said” by Robert Bringhurst
I’ve never seen Bringhurst in any anthology, so it’s probably too much to hope that “These Poems” will be canonized. It’s a terrific poem, though—gripping, funny, moving, subtly complex (in the end, is the speaker indicting or justifying himself?—impossible to say entirely). The poem dramatizes a tension between art and life, or between form and content, that any serious artist will surely have felt. I wish “rightly” weren’t there in that last line, as it gives the poet rather than the woman the last word. She deserves it.
5. “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
My favorite Millay is a series of poems that’s never anthologized and rarely even included in selections of her work. “Sonnets to an Ungrafted Tree” is written in the voice of a woman who finds herself taking care of a dying man she’s never truly loved, though it seems she’s spent most of her life with him. In the poem the woman remembers her first meeting with the man. It’s a very Hardyesque moment, though with a lyric, mysterious sense of fatality rather than Hardy’s implacable fatedness. The language is still merely gestural in places (“mystery,” “sweet,” “secret”), and there’s that familiar trope of losing sight of shore, but this is simply how all Millay poems work. She takes the bluntest materials and occasionally makes some cut sharper than you could have expected, uses stock poetic images and ideas, and somehow renders some truth of feeling as stark and unplumbable as this poem’s closing image.
6. “Days” by Janet Lewis
It would be absurd to make large claims for Janet Lewis’s work, but in five or six poems she achieves an anonymous, expository precision reminiscent of Renaissance writers such as George Turberville or Sir Walter Raleigh. There’s little to say critically about “Days.” I admire the way one word has been left without a rhyme, art enacting life, wherein there is always some mistake or failure that no amount of imagination or regret is going to change. That the word is “web” sharpens the effect, because it suggests that such a mistake or failure is not isolated but rather woven into the whole of one’s work, one’s self. Swift and subtle.
7. “Woods Burial” by John Peck
Peck’s poems are always difficult and frequently incomprehensible. He is like a sculptor whose clay keeps hardening faster than he can finish what he has in mind for it. Some pieces he leaves in various states of incompletion; some he touches up with a jackhammer. The result is a lot of strange, misshapen things that seem to be the fruit of some peculiar solitude, a mind often too screwed into itself to make itself known. There is a large gift there, though, a deep formal sense and true ear along the lines of Crane or Bunting. When Peck manages to be clear, as in “Woods Burial,” he’s as good as any poet around.
8. “Hymn to Life” by James Schuyler
Schuyler is one of those poets who make poetry seem so easy, and whose gifts are so original, that he’s usually ruinous as a model for younger poets. I love the way contingency and finish seem coextensive in his work, the way the poems manage to be at the same time elaborately crafted (it takes a while to see this) and improvisational. He’s tough to anthologize, as I’ve said, so I thought I’d go ahead and pick a poem of his that’s impossible to anthologize (except online!). “Hymn to Life” seems to me a great poem by one of the greatest poets of the second half of the twentieth century.
9. “To Alexander Graham” by W. S. Graham
Graham is anthologized in English and Scottish anthologies (he was Scottish), and perhaps “To Alexander Graham” has made it into one of those. But he’s still largely unknown in this country, which is a shame, as his work combines radical syntactical experiments and stylistic self-consciousness with disarming clarity of feeling. “To Alexander Graham” is somewhat anomalous in his work in that the syntactical distortions are very minor, really just in one line (“in you you give me always”). I find the effect of that line, and indeed this entire poem, wrenching.
Poet, translator, editor, and essayist Christian Wiman was raised in West Texas and earned a BA at Washington and Lee University. A former Guggenheim fellow, Wiman served as the editor of Poetry magazine from 2003 to 2013. He received an honorary doctorate from North Central College. Making use of—and at times gently...