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February 1, 2008

greatest poems

Years ago, I heard Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler speak at the Library of Congress. Their assignment was to read and reflect on their ten favorite poems. Vendler read some not-very-famous work by poets she knew, as well as some important poems that mattered to her for biographical reasons. Bloom then said something like this (in his stentorian voice, with his eyelids batting madly): "I like Helen, and I admire her criticism, but those were not the ten greatest poems in the English language. Here are the ten greatest poems in the English language." He proceeded to recite ten lyric poems about the self in a hostile world. I don't remember the list, but I recall that it began with Tom O'Bedlam's song:

From the hagg and hungrie goblin
That into raggs would rend ye,
And the spirit that stands by the naked man
In the Book of Moones - defend ye!

I simply don't read enough poetry to have a worthwhile top-ten list of my own, but I could cite some English lyric verse that has struck me as particularly magnificent over the years: Thomas Wyatt, "They Flee from Me that Sometime Did Me Seek" (chosen, I admit, because I am moved to hear a voice from so long ago); Shakespeare, the song from The Tempest ("Full fathom five, &c," because it is so abstract that it exemplifies lyric); Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"; Arnold, "Dover Beach"; Browning, "The Bishop Orders his Tomb" or another of his great dramatic monologues; Yeats, "Among School-Children"; Wilfred Owen, "Dulce et Decorum Est," Eliot, "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (on which Vendler is a superb guide). These authors are all dead white Englishmen, which simply reflects the limits of my reading.

February 1, 2008 3:23 PM | category: fine arts | Comments


This might make me a cretin, but I was never into poetry very much until I got my hands on Carla Bruni's CD "No Promises," in which she takes some great poems and sings them with a guitar for accompaniment. I highly recommend the CD, and if nothing else it allows me to pass on, for diversity's sake, the poetry of Dorothy Parker.

February 3, 2008 2:11 AM | Comments (1) | posted by Steven Maloney

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