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Reviews 2012 > The Top 500 Poems, ed. William Harmon

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message 1: by Jen (last edited Sep 28, 2012 07:31AM) (new)

Jen (jppoetryreader) | 1568 comments Mod
This book is based on statistics and thus has both an inherent bias and an inherent flaw. But then I supposed all anthologies have both of those things since all editors have biases and none are perfect. The bias is particularly strong in this chronological anthology. The top 500 is based on the poems most anthologized according to The Columbia Granger's Index to Poetry, which was first published in 1904. I have no idea what its sources include but they apparently go back much later than 1904 because this book has a strong historical bias. Obviously, the older the poem, the more chances it has had to be anthologized. Thus, even though this anthology was published in 1992, there are very few poems from the 20th Century. Yeats enters about 200 pages from the end and Plath's "Daddy" is the most recent poem. Of course, that makes the achievement of some 20th Century poems/poets all the more outstanding when they make it into the top popularity rankings. Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" is the 6th most anthologized poem. "The Second Coming" by Yeats is the next 20th Century poem to appear on the list at 19.

Now, it would have been quite cool if they had put the poems in the book according to their ranking on the list because then the reader would get a mixture of styles/periods as she read. But no. The editor chose to take a list that provided the opportunity for some interesting juxtapositions and put it in the back of the book as a reference. Then he did the same old thing that most anthologies do: start with the oldest and move forward to the most recent, grouped by poet. Blah!

Some people have said this is a great book to have if it is the only book of poetry one owns. I completely disagree with that because it contains so little contemporary poetry. In fact, I would say this sort of anthology is the sort of thing that turns the average person off of poetry entirely because there is so much antiquated language and means of (long-winded) expression in it, especially at the outset. At page 291, the average reader is hit with Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism," which goes on for 20 pages (and sits at number 463 of 500 in the rankings of most anthologized). Hopefully the average reader will just skip around.

So there are my gripes. I always feel the need to rant first. But there are things I like about this anthology and I'm definitely keeping it on my shelf. One positive attribute is precisely that it doesn't exclude the longer poems that occur on the list, like Pope's mentioned above. It also doesn't exclude light verse. Lewis Carroll, Eugene Field ("Wynken, Blynken, and Nod"), and Edward Lear are included. It's reassuring to me that Carroll's "Jabberwocky" is number 18 on the list of popularity (enclosed by Keats' "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" and Yeats' "The Second Coming"--would have been fun to read them in that sequence).

There is a brief note about each poet, some more biographical and some more anecdotal. In addition, there is also a brief note at the end of each poem. Notes on the poems often suggest connections to other poems, some connections more strained than others. A few notes fall entirely flat (one wonders if the editor was ill and on deadline the day he wrote it) but most are interesting. So there's an ongoing sense of having a conversation with someone who also enjoys poetry and who has a broad knowledge of it.

Also, it's printed on good paper. It's not like those anthologies often required for college courses that are printed on paper so thin the type from the back side of the page shows through. There's a sense that the book is meant to stand the test of time. The book is also not afraid of white space, so the poems aren't crowded at all. And the type is of an easily readable size. The 500 poems make for 1070 book pages.

Let me know if anyone is curious about where a favorite (or disliked) poem resides on the "popularity" (most anthologized) list and I'll look it up for you.

message 2: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 74 comments "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell

message 3: by Jen (new)

Jen (jppoetryreader) | 1568 comments Mod
Jimmy wrote: ""To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell"
Number 11.

message 4: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 74 comments Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality"

message 5: by Jen (new)

Jen (jppoetryreader) | 1568 comments Mod
Jimmy wrote: "Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality""
Number 110

message 6: by S. (new)

S. (SarahJ) | 1481 comments Mod
I love your rant about ordering the poems. You are right - it would have been so much more interesting to do it some other way. Even alphabetically would be better than chronological.

Hmm, a poem... how about Emily Dickinson's "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain?" Or any Emily?

message 7: by Donald (new)

Donald (DonF) | 183 comments Jen, Do we need to buy the book to find out which poem was # 1?

message 8: by Jen (new)

Jen (jppoetryreader) | 1568 comments Mod
how about Emily Dickinson's "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain?" Or any Emily?

Number 427. Unjust if you ask me. It's one of my favorites of hers--one of my favorites period. Emily has 14 poems in the anthology. The first is "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" at position 29.

message 9: by Jen (last edited Sep 28, 2012 06:39PM) (new)

Jen (jppoetryreader) | 1568 comments Mod
Donald wrote: "Jen, Do we need to buy the book to find out which poem was # 1?"

I suppose it wouldn't be too much work to give the top 10.

1. The Tyger--William Blake
2. Sir Patrick Spense--anonymous
3. To Autumn--John Keats
4. That Time of Year Thou Mayst in Me Behold--William Shakespeare.
5. Pied Beauty--Gerard Manley Hopkins
6. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening--Robert Frost
7. Kubla Khan--Samuel Taylor Coleridge
8. Dover Beach--Matthew Arnold
9. La Belle Dame sans Merci--John Keats
10. To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time--Robert Herrick

A bit about number 1. This past spring something in a book club discussion (with only two other people) brought to mind Blake's Tyger. I don't recall what. My bookish compatriots drew complete blanks even when I quoted the first stanza. I was surprised and a bit depressed. After seeing its placement here, I felt more justified in my surprise. Makes me wonder though how many people haven't read the most anthologized poem--or found it utterly forgettable.

message 10: by S. (new)

S. (SarahJ) | 1481 comments Mod
I love "The Tyger." They'd all know "The Owl and the Pussycat," though, so take heart.

message 11: by Jen (new)

Jen (jppoetryreader) | 1568 comments Mod
Are you suuuure? I should go to the children's section of my library to see what's there. I still have a favorite slim book of poetry given to me when I was a child. It had "The Tyger" in it and several by Emily D and at least one by Frost. In fact, I think it has "La Belle Dame sans Merci." I wonder if there's something similar out in the world now. We've got to catch them young!

message 12: by S. (new)

S. (SarahJ) | 1481 comments Mod
I'm never sure about anything, but I think it would be pretty hard to get to be, say, 25 years old without having heard "The Owl and the Pussycat."
When I was a kid we had very few poetry books in the house, but we did have A Child's Garden of Verses, and some Edward Lear.

message 13: by Jen (new)

Jen (jppoetryreader) | 1568 comments Mod
I followed your link and found this list of poetry for children: http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/13...

message 14: by Jen (new)

Jen (jppoetryreader) | 1568 comments Mod
Here is the children's poetry book I was referring to, with the bland title of Poems: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/67...

message 15: by Debra (new)

Debra Hewitt | 27 comments Terrific review, Jen, as usual. I was already awestruck by the fact that you chose to read and review a 500 poem anthology; I keep looking for slender volumes to complete my twenty! You made a great point about the early poems turning off the casual reader. Presentation is so important. Now, I'm fantasizing about creating a collection of poems best suited to turn people on to poetry perhaps pairing old and new poems with similar themes. If I'm ever an editor...

message 16: by Jen (new)

Jen (jppoetryreader) | 1568 comments Mod
Thanks, Debi. Your proposed project is a worthy one. I hope you some day have an opportunity to make it happen--and that it becomes a best seller.

message 17: by Donald (new)

Donald (DonF) | 183 comments Has anyone noticed any weird system behavior on
Goodyears? For several days I've noticed the "Read" notifications goes off when post hasn't been read. It got worse this morning. When I posted something that I had worked on for a while, it just disappeared into Never never land!

message 18: by Jen (new)

Jen (jppoetryreader) | 1568 comments Mod
I haven't noticed anything irregular on my end. Considering how much thought many people here put into their posts, I hate the notion of them disappearing! I usually try to remember to select all and copy before posting but I don't always. Thanks for the heads up that things may not be working well at the moment.

message 19: by Donald (new)

Donald (DonF) | 183 comments I normally make a copy first too, Jen, but this time I didn't.

message 20: by Annie (new)

Annie (ahartsock) I love "The Tyger" by Blake, but Number One? Hmmm . . . (I am guessing no Brautigan. ;)

message 21: by Jen (new)

Jen (jppoetryreader) | 1568 comments Mod
Keep in mind that these are the most anthologized, not necessarily the best. I think one big point in the favor of "The Tyger" is that it can be enjoyed by both children (the sounds and just the very notion of a tiger) and adults (who hopefully get the deeper meaning), so lots of opportunities to anthologize it.

Sorry, Brautigan was nowhere in sight.

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