By Victor D. Infante
On Friday, American poet, novelist and critic Jay Parini published a list of “10 Best American Poems” online for the British newspaper, The Guardian. On the surface, it’s a fine list, with a few standards, including Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, which is pretty much the originating point of American poetry, and a few surprises, such as John Ashbery’s And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name.
“Every list is subjective,” writes Parini, “and of course the use of ‘greatest’ even more so – but these are not just ‘favorite’ poems. I’ve been thinking about American poetry – and teaching it to university students – for nearly 40 years, and these are the 10 poems that, in my own reading life, have seemed the most durable; poems that shifted the course of poetry in the United States.”
And again, it’s actually not a half-bad list, albeit one that appeals to the somewhat conservative middle-class poetic sensibilities American academics tend to share with the British media (which still puts them all ahead of the American media, which has no poetic sensibility to speak of at all.)
Still, one has to quibble, especially when one considers the terms Parini lays out. For example, Middle Passage, by Robert Hayden, is an excellent choice, but the absence of A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes seems baffling. If influence on American poetry is a parameter, it’s hard to condone the exclusion of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Sylvia Plath’s Daddy or Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool, each of which has been a starting point for a near-endless array of nascent poets. Parini himself expresses a deep regret at the absence of a number of poems, including Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, and it’s difficult to not agree with him on that point.
But that’s the trap of these things, isn’t it? There comes a point where an attempt to reduce a subject as broad as American poetry becomes ridiculously reductive, and the excluded possibilities begin to fractal, leaving a list which says more about the taste and the perspective of the author than anything else. Almost anyone with a healthy knowledge of American poetry would have created a different list – some more dull, certainly, some more radical. And in 10 poems, all of them would have seemed insufficient.
So tell us. What poems would you have chosen?