Top 20th Century Poets

Well, the century’s over so we can choose.

Some possibilities:



Who deserves to be ranked? Who’s overrated? Quote something to support your answer.

Mine–Eliot. He seems to be unfashionable right now, but Prufrock, the Waste Land and 4 Quartets weigh heavily.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous–
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I’d go with Williams, with cummings a close second. Williams made simplicity a virtue, and cummings did some amazing stuff with form and language.

If you’re going to mention Seuss, you should also include Ogden Nash, one of the century’s best humorous poets; Nash was more of an innovator (created a form of verse that no one has ever dared duplicate: the mixture of long and short lines.

Eliot, meh. Proofrock is good, but he and Pound were too filled with ivory tower pretentiousness. `

Yep, Nash!

The simplicity of really short stuff can be compelling and is very difficult. Nonetheless, I prefer Eliot over Williams because it has more stuff in it. True, some of the stuff Italian and knowingly highbrow, but I still like it on the meaty side.

Frost gets high marks if you value accessibility and traditionalism, not so much if you want an innovator who moved the art of poetry forward. Still, he’s widely appreciated, a master at some of the things a great poet does, and there’s more to him than at first meets the eye.

He doesn’t belong at the top of the list, but I have to give a shout-out to hometown boy Vachel Lindsay.

No love for Dylan Thomas?

Aside from the obvious candiddates (Eliot, Auden, Frost, Thomas, etc.), who, by the way, reveal our parochialism (male, white, “western”), some consideration should be given to one Robert Zimmerman.

I put his name forward only partly tongue-in-cheek. If nothing else, his audience dwarfs that of the other contenders. And, as a result, his influence may be greater, too.

“Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked!”

My vote is for Charles Bukowski. The most interesting life among the poet’s named so far, too.

Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

James Dickey

And I to my motorcycle
Parked like the soul of the junkyard
Restored, a bicycle fleshed
With power, and tore off
Up Highway 106 continually
Drunk on the wind in my mouth
Wringing the handlebar for speed
Wild to be wreckage forever

Who you can’t really bring up without mentioning Sara Teasdale.

Wallace Stevens

I second that and put Wilfred Owen into the arena as well.

James Wright

Last night I paused at the edge of darkness,
And slept with green dew, alone.
I have come a long way, to surrender my shadow
To the shadow of a horse.

From Sitting in a Small Screenhouse on a Summer Morning [scroll about a third of the way down]

I’m quite partial to Eliot…
But I’ll have to say I rate Stevens highest:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Cat, or Ray? :smiley:

On my all-underrated team is Byron Herbert Reece. A sample:

*As I met early
A gray old man,
I with nearly
All life to span,

And he but a candle
This side of dusk,
His sage’s mantle
Seemed suddenly husk*

I like that Frost you quoted, Thudlow.

This turned out to be harder than I expected–I thought there might be a concensus top 5-10, but on reflection that probably won’t work because of all the arts poetry should not be judged on what is most “influential.”

Also, the OP doesn’t come from a list someone has done, so it is certainly incomplete even with respect to what might be “obvious” candidates.

Brian Patten
You lose your love for her and then it is her who is lost.
You tried not to hurt and yet
Everything you touched became a wound.
You tried to mend what cannot be mended,
You tried, neither foolish nor clumsy,
To rescue what cannot be rescued.

Roger McGough
And the railings.
All around, the railings.
Are they to keep out wolves and monsters?
Things that carry off and eat children?
Things you don’t take sweets from?
Perhaps they’re to stop us getting out
Running away from the lessins. Lessin.
What does a lessin look like?
Sounds small and slimy.
They keep them in the glassrooms.
Whole rooms made out of glass. Imagine.

Adrian Henri
Girls in bikinis are moonbathing
Folksongs are being sung by real folk
Art galleries are closed to people over 21
Poets get their poems in the Top 20
There’s jobs for everybody and nobody wants them
In back alleys everywhere teenage lovers are kissing in broad daylight
In forgotten graveyards everywhere the dead will quietly bury the living
You will tell me you love me
Tonight at noon

Adrian Mitchell
*For if Jesus came to Britain
He would turn its dizzy head.
They’d nail him up on a telegraph pole
Or he’d raise the poor from the dead.

So if you have a little baby
Make sure it’s a legitimate child,
Bind down his limbs with insurance and a mortgage
And he’ll grow up meek and mild.
Meek and mild…, meek and mild…, meek and mild.*
Stevie Smith
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Bricker beat me to it. Maybe not in the #1 position (I still adore cummings), but easily in my Top 5.

I want to think about it some more, but here are some names that should be added to the mix, IMO:

Langston Hughes
Anna Akhmatova
Czesław Miłosz
Raymond Carver