The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

100 Essential Poems.  Selected and Introduced by Joseph Parisi

Ivan R. Dee, Publisher.  2005.  305 pp.  Hard cover.

“the work is secure in the canon.”
          —Parisi (about his book)

This review is dedicated to all the college students in English classes nodding out during mandatory readings of anthology poems.  This reviewer can relate to you.  Indeed, the poems by Yeats, which begin the anthology, put me in an immediate state of nutation (i.e., nodding off—one of Alexander Pope’s words of predilection RE the poets of his time).  As a professor, this reviewer always requests English students to define terms when they use them.  Parisi's definition of "essential [and ‘greatest’] poems" is not up front but rather scattered in the obit/bios throughout the volume.  Mostly it is the poet, not the poem, contrary to the title of this anthology, who lends definition to the term.  Prize-winning, knowing the right people, coming from a wealthy background, and attending “prestigious” universities tend to characterize the poets.  No doubt, Parisi has fallen for name-brand bards, as opposed to great poems.  Not far into this anthology, one will notice, that is, a keen somewhat independent observer will notice, just how utterly pretentious the title is, even though backed by the most famous names in poetry. 

The following, written by Dorothy Parker, according to this anthology, is one of the “greatest poems of the 20th century” (words written on the front cover of the book) and, sadly, there are a number of others like it in this volume:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Sure, it’s cute, but how can it possibly be “essential”?  How can “the most popular comic poet in the United States [in his time],” Ogden Nash, be essential with his “genial nonsense” (the words in quotes are Parisi’s)?  And what about Auden’s “fun to read” “Wise about Mores and Witty on Manners; ” Stevie Smith’s “slight, humorous, whimsical “ “Nursery-Rhyme formulas”; and “Manners” by Bishop, “one of the most esteemed of twentieth-century poets”?   

Why are the poems in this anthology “essential”?  Are they essential for highbrow entertainment?  The term witty is used over and over to the extent that one might conclude that highbrow wit is indeed the principle determinant of great canon poems… as if such resulted from mere intellectual games.  Certainly the poems in this volume are essential for understanding the canon and for anyone wishing to strive to be accepted by the canon.  But who has dictated them to be essential?  Well, in this case, one bourgeois, poet, Joseph Parisi, former editor of Poetry magazine, amongst other things.  In this volume, the names, almost each and every one of them, are recognizable, but why do we recognize them?  Perhaps most poets today lack the ability or inclination to even ask these essential questions.  Never are we encouraged to question and challenge the canon, in this case, as dictated by Parisi.   

Why are Sandburg’s “Chicago”, Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” Robinson’s “Minerver Cheevy,” or any number of other similar poems in this volume essential?  Many of the poems seem to manifest an absence of passion.  If indeed they are representative of the greatest, then clearly the past century was not at all a good one for poetry.  To establish a great literature, we need more convincing criteria than Pulitzer Prize, Guggenheim, published in Poetry Magazine, and “wide popular acclaim” (the publisher’s jacket blurb).  So many honors and accolades are listed in the obit/bios, yet so few courageous, risk-taking, activist poets are amongst the recipients!  This does not speak highly for poets of the canon, which might explain why so many poets endeavor to spread the romantic myth of the poet.  It is thus interesting to examine the diverse accolades, then to compare that with the naked product, the poems.  Sadly, too often in this anthology do the latter fall short of the former.  Bishop is perhaps the best example. 

What saddens this reviewer is that our university students are fed canon, rather than encouraged to question and challenge it.  Yet doing the latter would make it stronger and more credible in the long run.  Rare are the students and professors who do question the Pulitzer, for example, and ask who the judges are and how they’re appointed.  Rather than literary-prize recipient, what is needed as criteria is passion and fire in the poet… and the poem. Far too many of these poems seem as dead as our “great” living poets on the university lecture circuit and on the dole of grants, Guggenheims, and MacArthurs. 

“The selection is properly catholic, a fine representation of Mr. Parisi’s sophisticated poetic taste, and, poets and readers of poetry being highly contentious, also controversial,” notes blurber Joseph Epstein on the back cover.  Yet almost all of the poems in this volume are inoffensive, do not make waves, do not go against the grain, and unlikely to shock anybody at all.  Parisi describes the pre-Pound/Eliot poesy scene as “sentimentality, lofty but hazy notions, archaic diction and tired formulas.”  Yet many of these poems might equally be placed in that very category.  If you refuse to concur, then why not observe the state of nutation in an average college classroom as students attempt to read the poems?  I’m sure some of those students, not yet fully indoctrinated by their comfortable English professors, might actually be dreaming of pushing Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” right over the cliff where it probably belongs.  Williams himself had once declared, “to tell the truth, I myself never quite feel that I know what I am talking about—if I did, and when I do, the thing written seems nothing to me.” 

“Above all I am not concerned with Poetry,” wrote Wilfred Owen.  “My subject is War, and the pity of War.  The Poetry is in the pity.  Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory.  They may be to the next.  All a poet can do to-day is warn.  That is why the true poets must be truthful.”  Perhaps this is the crux of the problem with poetry this century.  Too many poets have been fixated on Poetry per se… not on truth.  Interestingly, none of the poems in this anthology criticize the oligarchy and literary establishment. 

Can “Recuerdo” actually be the best poem written by Vincent-Millay?  How can it possibly be considered one of “the greatest poems in English over the past century, memorable masterpiece” (quote taken from the front cover of this volume)? The same goes for “Helen” (Hilda Doolittle) and “The Fish” (Marianne Moore).  As a literary editor, this reviewer would have rejected most of the poems in this anthology.  If this book had been titled “Favorite Poems of an Establishment Poet,” I would have had no problem with it at all.

So, what are “superior poems”?  You’ll know them when you read them or the mandarins of poesy will tell you which ones?  No definition is attempted, except canon-accepted.  Do “exceptional technical skill and tonal range” (RE Louis MacNeice) necessarily produce great poems?  Does “extremely erudite” (RE Berryman) make great ones?  “The Dream Song” is hardly convincing.  Many if not most of the poems in this volume do not weather time well and should thus serve more as historical examples, rather than greatest poems.  Parisi informs that Roethke, for example, has “secured his reputation among literary historians.”

Stafford is “said to have written a poem a day,” but so what?  Does that give “How to Regain Your Soul” greatest poem status?  If so, perhaps Parisi should have chosen a poem by Lyn Lifshin, who must write at least 10 per day.  Many of the poems in this collection are fancy... and deadly boring.  You'd have to pay this reviewer to read through to the end of some of them, though inevitably I did check the endings of almost all of them to see what the "punch lines" might be.  Do they use that term in poesy?  Many, if not most, of these poems are written by professors, who seemed to have fed passively from the hand feeding them, rather than to have observed that hand with a critical eye.  Perhaps more polemics and less "beautifully realized poems" would shake things up and make poesy matter a little more.  But often polemics takes guts and nerve, sacrifice of literary prizes, teaching opportunities, grants, and reading invitations. 

Even Ginsberg, chief of the Beatnik poets, who figures in this collection, came off as a pitiful wannabee of canon. 
He was not the counter culture at all—that was his masque.  No wonder he became a "fixture on college syllabi.”  Canon fed him and he chewed and shut his mouth (and eyes) and got a job at Brooklyn College as Distinguished Professor.  Carl Soloman convinced him (the words are Parisi’s) "of the poet's political role as outsider, prophet and social critic."  But how does an outsider get inside the canon?  He does not, unless he sells out.  Perhaps Ginsberg would have been more honest if he'd written "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by desire for fame and canonic approval..."  On the surface, Ginsberg comes off as a token outsider in this collection, but only on the surface thanks to his extensive image marketing.  Parisi oddly fails to mention in the bio that Ginsberg was a proud proponent of sex with male children, not teenagers, but children.  Why the omission?  The Beatnik myth is perhaps a billion-dollar industry in the USA.  Myth of course implies burying truths and contradictions.  Canon itself is a myth.  What to say about “Howl” today?  Some of it is of interest but most of it is tedious and verbose and somewhat unintelligible. 

One has to wonder just how much Parisi likes “We Real Cool” (Gwendolyn Brooks).  Most likely he threw it in for political rectitude’s sake… as he did for Ginsberg.  In fact, one has to wonder if he is really suited as a judge, bending here, there—but what does he really think?  Maybe he doesn’t even know any more.  Frank O’Hara’s two poems remind of Charles Bukowski’s style.  So, why was the latter omitted… because O’Hara “was the life of the party”?  Well, wasn’t Bukowski also “the life of the party” and didn’t he receive a Guggenheim, whereas O’Hara did not? 

Why did Poetry Chancellor Philip Levine, also selected for this anthology, who wrote about the spiritual costs of the toil of working class people, never write about the spiritual costs of rampant intellectual corruption in academe and the literary scene, something he must surely have been even more knowledgeable about since that was where he spent most of his life?  Finally, Parisi seems to have made safe, as opposed to wise, choices.  Establishment poets get so used to making safe ones that they probably confuse them with wise ones.  Why is Eliot’s “Wasteland” not included?  Parisi notes how it shook everyone up and, more or less, began modernism.  Why is it not essential?  Copyright problems?  Too long?  Where are the poems of our great Poet Laureates of the U.S. Library of Congress, Pinsky, Gluck, Hass, Kooser et al?  And what about the other “great” Beatnik poets, Waldman, McClure, Ferlinghetti, Corso et al?  A blind panel might be a solution to poor choice, unless of course all the blind panelists turn out to be canon indoctrinates.

A few powerful poems are included in this anthology, but only a few, including Anne Sexton’s “Wanting to Die” and, of course, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.”  Many libraries already possess similar volumes.  So, why purchase yet another one?  This reviewer does not recommend this book.    
—The Editor