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Tony Barnstone 10-04-2012 12:12 AM

Best 100 Poetry Books of the 20th Century?
So, here are the rules of the game: nominate a book to be included in the "Best 100 Poetry Books of the 20th Century" list.

1) You can only nominate one book. Don't take time to apologize for the poets whom you didn't select.

2) In order to nominate a book, you must write a short, pithy paragraph about what makes this book so distinctive, and you should title your reply with name of the book + author plus its number in the list. Check the list before posting, so you don't cross-post and mess up the math!

3) Books of translation can be included, but you must indicate which translation "wowed" you.

4) Since the idea here is to share some of our private gems and spur others to purchase these books for their own libraries, you must find a place on the Internet where this book is for sale and post a link to that website.

5) Criteria for selection are up to you, but the book has to "wow" you for some reason.

6) If you really, really, really, need to put more than one book in the list, you can do so only once, but you need to do so in another "reply" so each book gets its own page.

7) Once the list gets to 100, the game is over. No more books may be added.

I guess I'll start, to show what I mean in terms of format.



Tony Barnstone 10-04-2012 12:31 AM

1. James Wright, The Branch Will Not Break
I've loved James Wright's The Branch Will Not Break ever since I was a teenager. It was one of the books that made me fall in love with poetry. Wright quoted Frost, who said that "If you have 24 poems in a book, the book itself should be the 25th." This is what Wright did in The Branch Will Not Break--he wrote a book in which every individual poem is terrific, but in which they share a symbol system of recurrent images-- the caves, graves, Ohio Rivers, and coal mines where jewels hide in the coal seams, which are the places of death into which we descend in order to be reborn; the horses and mysterious dark women who are spirits of nature meant to usher us into the sublime; the slag heaps and factories and the dead moon that drops its feathers on the desperate Rust Belt; the green butterflies of innocent spring beauty; the ghosts of the massacred Native Americans and slaughtered animals haunting us with the violence of our history; the darkness which is tender and a place of grace; the light which is glaring and that seeks to destroy that tender dark. These gorgeous, difficult poems are surreal, but not senseless--they are based on ideas of the "deep image" derived from Jung, the idea that one must bypass rational thought and dive into the unconscious in order to break through what Blake called our "mind-forg'd manacles." It is a book that rewards dozens of rereadings.

Here it is:

Best, Tony

Andrew Frisardi 10-04-2012 12:35 AM

Fun game!

This Branch Will Not Break is one of mine, too.

A question, Tony: do you mean just U.S. poetry books or any in English?

Also, I assumed Collected or Selected Poems don't count?

Tony Barnstone 10-04-2012 12:48 AM

Hi Andrew,

Any book of poetry published in the 20th century, in any language, anywhere in the world!

Collected and Selected are fine, so long as they are good as BOOKS. In other words, I love William Carlos Williams, but would choose Journey to Love over his Selected and his Collected in terms of its integrity of vision and the level of accomplishment, poem by poem. On the other hand, I did say in the rules that the criteria for selection are up to each individual poster.

Have fun!


Andrew Frisardi 10-04-2012 03:09 AM

Yeats, Collected Poems, #2
Well, I don’t know what I’d do without Yeats’s Collected Poems, so although it is a predictable choice here I still have to nominate it for the list. No modern poet takes me more to the place I most want to be taken by poetry. The language and craft in Yeats pull me in every time, I never tire of rereading his poems and I've learned many by heart—even the slurpy early ones, but especially his great poetry from Responsibilities on, after his cauterizing by Pound. Poems like The Second Coming, Sailing to Byzantium, Easter 1916, The Wild Swans at Coole, and on and on—they’re permanent places to return to. This is all way too generalized, so I’ll briefly comment on just one of his poems to explain why Yeats is the poet for me. “Byzantium” is an incantation:

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

Talk about semantic density! Imagination, insatiable longing, gravitas, and (pace the “sensible” postindustrial world) magic—it’s all there. The poem ends:

Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

For all the archetypal imagery and fervency, that closing image comes from real life. The dolphins are from Orphic imagery that depicted dolphins as the carriers of souls into and out of this world. At the same time, Yeats says somewhere that the image of the gong came from his hearing fishermen in western Ireland banging on iron sheets to attract fish their nets. Yeats was the whole man: politics and Golden Dawn, real world and dream world—one reason why his Collected has something for everyone and are an inexhaustible source of insight and pleasure.

I forgot to post the link to the book: it's the standard Collected, which has some useful notes in it by Richard Finneran.

Nigel Mace 10-04-2012 04:10 AM

3. The Idle Demon by R. P. Lister
The book and poet who have been my vademecum ever since student days and whose rediscovery by members of the Sphere was what first made me aware of this site. The volume also has the teasing pleasure of being wrapped in a dustjacket designed by the 'spy novelist-to-be', Len Deighton. This may at first sight seem to be a collection of light verse whimsy but lying behind the easy wit and deft constructions is a breadth of culture and a warm and humane intelligence - exactly the person that Richard Lister turned out to be when I met with him, aged 97, this year. His poetry gently mocks guilt without losing human regret ('The Idle Demon'), relishes life without losing sight of its evanescence ('The Gardens of the Morning') - and bears its reflections with civilising humour ('The Owlet and the Gamekeeper', 'Before the Ball'). Even its rare moments of anger are touched by wry good nature ('The Old Peasant') and its flashes of hurt ('Three Triolets') are bared with touching humility. He evokes the natural world with a sympathy which retains a proper sense of its contrasts with the human ('The Robin', 'The Snail') and dwells on human destiny with a shrewd awareness of history and with lyricism ('Pinkerfly', 'The Troubadour', 'Freedom's Mansion'). He makes me smile, renews my faith in the happiness of life and makes me reach, as he does, for other works of art - music, pictures and books.

Thanks to the Sphere's rediscovery of him the volume has now become a bit pricey - but worth every penny or cent at

Jayne Osborn 10-04-2012 04:55 AM

The Idle Demon by R P Lister
Well, all I can say is "Ditto" to Nigel's post, above; I couldn't put it any better (probably not even as eloquently as Nigel has!)

I also met Richard this year and my copy of 'The Idle Demon' is signed by the great man himself.


Gregory Dowling 10-04-2012 08:49 AM

I've a feeling that it will make the thread more interesting if we exclude Collected Poems. What do people think? I mean, I'm uncertain between North of Boston and New Hampshire; if I choose the Collected, then I've got both, plus all the others...
Just a thought - but obviously it's not my thread so I don't get to choose the rules.

Max Goodman 10-04-2012 09:28 AM


Originally Posted by Gregory Dowling (Post 260703)
I've a feeling that it will make the thread more interesting if we exclude Collected Poems.

I agree. (Selecteds, too.) I don't see much difference between saying that Larkin's Collected is my favorite book of the century and saying that he's my favorite 20th century poet. So the thread becomes about poets rather than their books.

The potential interest in the thread for me is to deal with the poetry book as a form. It's something I think most of us ignore. I'm impressed that Gregory has two favorite Frost books. I can name most of the titles of Frost's books but for the most part I have no idea which poems are in which.

Possibly a subject for a different thread: I think most books are really collecteds or selecteds, the poet pulling together her (best) work since the last book. Very few poetry books are composed as books. The exceptions that come to mind are light verse and stuff by very minor poets.

Nigel Mace 10-04-2012 11:44 AM

I agree that this is very much more interesting if 'collected', 'selected' and 'complete' are all excluded.

Interesting to claim that only writers of light verse compose their works as books. Perhaps that should give pause to those who would down-grade their work? In any case, I'm not so sure that the contention is true. I could certainly nominate one rather than the rest of Larkin's books (I'm not about to) and I can think of other distinguished examples including Eliot, Dylan Thomas and, of course if he was admissable (which as he was writing in Scots he is not) MacDiarmid.

Over to the thread's originator on this one.

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