Poetic Principals

Another month, another Top 10 list, this time the 10 Greatest Poets in history, as compiled by Dean Rader, a poet, professor, and cultural critic who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle. The idea was spurred by the “10 Greatest Composers” project at the New York Times from a few weeks ago.

What catches my attention is the relative lack of discomfort at the absence of T.S. Eliot by readers and commentarists alike. I guess I live in a parallel universe, as Eliot and poetry are disengageable in my mind (with many lines ready at a moment’s notice). It’s a valid list nevertheless, though Rader probably expected some controversy with Pablo Neruda at the top. Not here. The Captain’s Verses and Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair are both requisite and exquisite.

Following Rader’s American-centric direction, I may have added the pediatrician-poet William Carlos Williams to accompany another compatriot who also had a second life, insurance executive Wallace Stevens, as well as a couple of other favorites, Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. (Rounding out the list are Li Po, or Li Bai, or Li Bo — choose the name, same poet — and one who followed, 13th-Century Persian, Rumi, described as [currently] the “most popular poet in America.”) The final lineup:

1) Pablo Neruda; 2) William Shakespeare; 3) Dante Alighieri; 4) Walt Whitman; 5) Wallace Stevens; 6) John Donne; 7) Emily Dickinson; 8)  Li Po/Li Bai/Li Bo; 9) William Butler Yeats; 10) Rumi.

And just because, I’ll end with Williams’ 28-word imagist jewel, “This is Just to Say”:

William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


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