Sunday, March 8, 2009

Old-School Brits

(image: Gerard Manley Hopkins)

In my first or second year of graduate school, the university's daily newspaper interviewed an English professor, Elliot Gilbert, whom I ended up taking 2-3 seminars from. He was a Victorianist but also published on detective fiction and other topics. The reporter wanted to know either what Gilbert's favorite authors were or maybe favorite novels. I can't quite remember. Anyway, Gilbert refused to answer and called the inquiry "a TV question." He was right. On the other hand, it's a TV question that is sometimes amusing and pleasantly frustrating to answer.

On facebook, I made a list of my 100 most recommended novels. In a few instances, I bowed to pressure and included books just because they're so widely valued. Lolita is a good example. I don't like it as much as most people seem to, but it's hard to question its status. Otherwise, I listed books that I thought were great. I left off The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick (among others) and caught grief for it the next day, as I should have, I suppose. With listing comes responsibility.

Last night I decided to invent a much more difficult task for myself: to list my favorite 10 Old School British poets--in order of my preference. By Old School, I think I mean, oh, pre-1950, and I included Ireland in the mix, just because, poetically speaking, it is usually in the mix when people put anthologies together; otherwise, no offense intended.

How on Earth did I rank them--by what criteria? Good question. I think the answer is . . . some combination of achievement in the genre (poetry), influence on later poets, and my own personal appreciation. But the percentages change in each case. Anway, here goes:

1. W. H. Auden (the tops)
2. Gerard Manley Hopkins
3. William Shakespeare
4. William Blake
5. William Butler Yeats
6. Robert Browning
7. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
8. Stevie Smith
9. A.E. Housman
10. John Keats

Auden's achievement seems as various as any poet I can think of, and he was enormously influential. Also, it's just great to read his poetry, no matter what day or year it is. Hoplins is there because of his genuinely unique contribution, and also because when I first read him, the experience was something close to revolutionary. You can do that with poetry? I remember thinking.

Shakespeare's there because of the indelible achievement in sonnets, Blake because of the originality and daring, Yeats, I think, because he was just a fine poet. In some of those poems, his way with language is perfect. A lot of his views are just too weird to bear, and the thing with Maude Gonne and daughter got silly real fast. But as for some of the poems: hard to know what more he could have done. Browning is there, I think, because some of his poems are so precociously modern. Of the Victorians, he's the best psychological poet, in my opinion. Coleridge is on the list because, although his batting average wasn't that great, when he did "hit the ball," he hit it to the moon. Stevie Smith's vision and phrasing are just so independent, quirky, and fresh that I find her work irresistible. I can imagine lots of argument for keeping her off the list. Housman's there because of craft. Keats made it on there because of 5-10 fabulous poems.

Wordsworth almost made it on there because of the achievement in some of those lyrics--and parats of the Prelude. I've been re-reading a lot of Wordsworth lately, and the charm is definitely gone. I almost wrote a dissertation on him, and I've taught a whole course on him. He wrote a lot of bad poetry, however, and the self-absorption is unyielding. Nonetheless, some of those poems early on are superb.

If the list were a house, Wordsworth would be banging on the door wanting in. I can hear him out there. The same goes for Pope, Byron, Tennyson, E.B. Browning (Aurora Leigh is pretty great), and George Crabbe. Marvell and Donne are in the crowd, and so is Spenser--and so is Spender, although I can't imagine his banging on the door. Lots of other poets wanted in, but I had to keep the list to 10, just for the agony of it.

I also realized the extent to which I haven't kept up with post-1960/1970 British poetry in the way I have with American poetry from the same period. Part of this has to do with my getting interested in African Amerian poetry, but part of it is also a lack of discipline. I need to do some reading. The same applies to African poetry and Canadian poetry. Oy, so much poetry to read.

After you've railed in disgust at my list, please do make your own. I want to share the agony of choosing just 10--and ranking them. Good listing to you.
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