We’ve been celebrating National Poetry Month with daily readings from Elijah over on our Instagram! Today, he’s here to share his expertise so you can hopefully find new poetry to provide joy, strength, and comfort at home.
One of the most unique and visionary geniuses in all of literature, Blake revolutionized the fields of both poetry and illustration with his gothic, mythopoetic imagination and talent for crafting metaphysical allegory. Often considered a Romantic poet because of his contempt for Enlightenment creeds and his religious veneration of the imagination, Blake is more accurately categorized in a class unto himself. His best writings, such as his Songs of Experience and Proverbs of Hell, vividly concretize a radical philosophy of spiritual and political subversion for the sake of transcendence. Two hundred years before Nietzsche, Blake is the original prophet of the self-made soul.
Les Fleurs Du Mal by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Richard Howard
Often considered the premier French poet, and the crucial link between the Romantic and Modern sensibilities, Baudelaire is the master of voluptuous self-degradation. By examining the deterioration of his soul through the lens of urban experience and twisted fantasy, and cataloging his hedonistic and morbid indulgences, Baudelaire offers an unprecedented language for examining the deliciousness and despair of a sin-filled life. Richard Howard’s translation of Baudelaire’s magnum opus is the finest in English, deftly communicating the lush elegance of the original.
The Collected Poems by Stanley Kunitz
Two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz was that rarest of modern poets— not only a master of personal expression, but of majestic, impersonal, metaphysical verse which seems to penetrate to the heart of the human condition. Taking inspiration from his predecessors Blake, Baudelaire, and Stevens, and his contemporary Roethke (all of whom are mentioned in this list) and transmuting them through his own genius, Kunitz crafted a poetry of staggering ecstatic and meditative power on themes of Nature, personal loss, and spiritual affirmation.
Selected Poems by Robinson Jeffers
Rugged and unforgiving, Robinson Jeffers is a poet unlike any other. His sublimely brutal vision of Nature, which he dubbed “Inhumanism,” conceives of mankind as a piteous blot in an otherwise beautiful and dignified universe. In spite of, and indeed because of his controversial philosophy, his Nature poetry achieves an extreme pitch of grandeur unmatched by anyone else. Employing a loose and flowing line shaped by Walt Whitman, The King James Bible, and Greek tragedy, Jeffers offers his readers a dark gospel which electrifies even as it condemns.
Robinson: Poems by Edwin Arlington Robinson
A three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Edwin Arlington Robinson was the first major American poet of the 20th century. Little read today, having been eclipsed in popularity by his more accessible rival Robert Frost, Robinson is arguably the better poet, his sensitivity to human suffering unmatched by any poet before or since. The majority of Robinson’s poems are formally rigorous fusions of narrative and lyric, and tell the tragic stories of a cast of eccentric and lonely townsfolk who go about lives of quiet desperation. For poetry which inspires compassion and sympathy for the humble denizens of humanity, Robinson’s work is peerless.
A boisterous, brilliant, passionate man with the frame of a wrestler, Roethke was perhaps the largest personality in mid-20th century American poetry, and one of its greatest practitioners and teachers. His poetic range is vast— his collected poems include traditional verse that gleams with formal virtuosity, free verse, nonsense poetry, and children’s poetry. Roethke was one of the first to include “confessional” content in his work, often writing about his childhood and his mental health, and in this and other ways he was an enormous influence on the next generation of poets, particularly Sylvia Plath. Yet Roethke’s talent was such that he could always elevate such personal material into universal wisdom, and his later poetry in particular possesses a fiercely spiritual rhetoric both thrilling and profound.
The Collected Poems: The Corrected Edition by Wallace Stevens
Literary critics dispute nearly everything, but one thing many can agree upon, now that the modernist pageantry of Eliot and Pound has faded from view, is that Wallace Stevens was the greatest poet of the 20th century. Exhibiting a cool mastery of free verse rhythms like none before or since, as well as a Shakespearean gift for phrase and image, Stevens transformed the conventions of Symbolist and Imagist poetry to suit his sophisticated, irreverent, yet deeply philosophical ends. The result is a luscious body of poetry dedicated to the twin aims of investigating the epistemology of poetic perception and celebrating a hedonistic worldview. Tropically sensuous, witty, and profound, Steven’s poetry is a delight for both the senses and the mind.
Laura Riding is the hidden gem par excellence of 20th century poetry. With a mind as deep, strange, and original as Emily Dickinson’s, and a drive to investigate the communicative and philosophical ramifications of poetry that makes Wallace Stevens look like a schoolboy, Riding is one of the most stunning talents of her age, and yet is almost completely unknown. Because of her preoccupations and themes, she is a very dense poet, and she lacks the expressive grace which makes the occasional opacities in Wallace Stevens tolerable. Nevertheless, she is a revelation to those who endeavor to understand her, and may have more to teach us about the relationship between language and the mind than any other poet of the last hundred years.
The late Harold Bloom remains the most popular literary critic of our time, and for good reason—he was undoubtedly one of the most well-read people in history, and his erudition, combined with his infectious passion for literature and a gift for analyzing writers, makes him an ideal introduction to the literary canon. Bloom’s criticism is in some ways deeply flawed— he extravagantly overrates his favorites, is fond of grand, unsubstantiated generalizations, and relies more upon enthusiasm than argument to be convincing. Nevertheless, he has for the most part impeccable taste, and his curation and insightful commentary in this anthology provide a wonderful guide to a vast survey of important poems from the past several centuries.
In Defense of Reason by Yvor Winters
I believe it is no exaggeration to say that if Yvor Winters’s writings were more widely read, the poetic landscape would be infinitely richer than it is today. Winters was an excellent poet but an even better critic, responsible for developing the most rigorous and radical system of poetic evaluation known to modern times. In this collection of uncompromising yet sternly logical essays, Winters exposes the debilitating structural and ideological flaws of modern literature, and champions a return to a poetics of mature feeling, moral intelligence, and immaculate form. As a poet and student of poetry, I have read a great deal of literary criticism, and I can say with confidence that this is by far the most valuable, insightful, and constructive book of its kind I have ever read. For those who take the craft of literature seriously, this tome is indispensable.