By Dean Rader
When I am with you, we stay up all night,
9. William Butler Yeats. On your lists, Yeats and Wallace Stevens were the most frequent 20th century names, with T. S. Eliot a close third. If you have in your head lines or passages from a 20th century poet, it is likely from Yeats or Robert Frost. Yeats’ poems like “Easter 1916,” “No Second Troy,” “The Lake Isle of Innesfree,” “Leda and the Swan,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Among School Children” and especially “The Second Coming,” will always be taught and always be relevant.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
Back in 1996, National Public Radio did a funny story about a strange trend in American politics–quoting Yeats. Both conservatives and progressives like to claim Yeats’ ideas. Indeed, his ability to appeal to such a wide demographic over 70 years after his death is pretty amazing.
8. Li Po/Li Bai/Li Bo. Pick your transliteration, it’s the same guy. The most talented of the great trinity of Tang poets, including Wang Wei and Tu Fu, Li Po’s influence is incalculable.
Chuang Tzu in dream became a butterfly,
7.Emily Dickinson. I have taught Emily Dickinson for well over a decade now, and she is the one poet who, when I return to her, makes me feel like I’m starting all over. No major poet is more dense, more compressed, more elliptical, more elusive.
6. John Donne.
5. Wallace Stevens. I was surprised how many people included Stevens on their list. I think he’s the great poet of the 20th century, but I feared few share my high opinion of the Hartford lawyer. Many critics find him cold, aloof, and abstract, but they misread him. Stevens is the modern era’s chief poet of desire–desire named, desire lost, and desire regained.
The dump is full
4. Walt Whitman. I know, I know, both Whitman and Dickinson . . .sooooo America-centric. But, what can I do? Whitman changed poetry in English. He fused the expansive, encompassing narrativity of the epic with the subjective, internal, introspective impulse of the lyric. The we meets the I, the community marries the individual, the body loves the soul. Ralph Waldo Emerson saw in Whitman’s raw, exploratory lines the poetic correlative of an inchoate America.
3. Dante Alighieri. Aside from my top slot, I predict this pick will elicit the most controversy. Dante did not appear on as many lists as I would have predicted, and indeed, he seems to be taught and talked about less and less. Perhaps this is because he’s only well known for one poem (The Divine Comedy). Or maybe it’s because this poem is overly Catholic. Or, it’s possible people are turned off by the intense allegorical nature of the poem. Or, it could even be because the poem is just weird.
2. William Shakespeare. According to my shockingly un-scientific measurements, Shakespeare’s name appeared most frequently on your lists. In fact, for many of you he occupied the top spot and a few threatened me if I didn’t rank him among my greats. I’m okay with this. I’m not sure if a poet in English has had more of an effect on language, culture, and poetic form than the Bard. He reinvented the sonnet in English, out Petrarched Petrarch, and introduced into our culture some of the most-quoted lines:
* Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18)
Not only did Shakespeare rework the sonnet, making it more facile for English, he also wrote excellent verse in other forms, like his narrative poems “Venus and Adonis” (funny) “The Rape of Lucrece” (earnest), and the strange “A Lover’s Complaint” that, like “The Rape of Lucrece,” is written in rhyme royal, an inordinately difficult poetic form.
And so, the top pick goes too . . .
I come to speak for your dead mouths.