Earlier in the year, a student in my Contemporary American Poetry class asked me if there were any "great" contemporary American poems. I told her there were many great ones, including, for example, everything on her syllabus.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, she said.
Why, she asked, did anthologies of contemporary American poetry have different selections of poems, when pretty much every anthology agreed on what 19th and early 20th century poems were "great?" I told her greatness was a tough thing to define, especially in the present. When I pressed her, though, she admitted that what she meant was more like what contemporary American poems will, like "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "The Snow Man" or "The Red Wheelbarrow," always be taught? Are there recent poems everyone has acknowledged are iconic?
Her question intrigued me, in part, because it wasn't a query about the "best" poems but rather about poems that had been (or would likely be) entered into the bizzare and unpredictable canon-making machinery of the postmodern era. Such things don't always have a great deal to do with how "good" or "memorable" a poem is but how emblematic of x or y it might be. Enduring poetry, like so many things, is often largely about luck and timing. Is "The Red Wheelbarrow" really Williams' best poem? "In a Station at the Metro," Pound's? I'd take "The Man on The Dump" any day over "The Snow Man" or "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" or "The Emperor of Ice Cream," but "The Man on the Dump" is not connected to Harmonium or Imagism, or Modernism. It's nothing but an absolutely fabulous poem (that's almost never taught nor anthologized).
So, I asked a few friends what poems written after 1970 they thought were the most iconic. Which ones will get written about, anthologized, quoted? Which poems from this era will emblamatize American poetry?
There was, to understate, no concensus.
And so I turn it over to you. Post your 5 (five) nominees below in the comments section, or email me your list (firstname.lastname@example.org). We'll see what emerges.
At the end of my tenure as guest blogger, I'll post any meaningful results. And, if I'm able to steal enough smart ideas from your lists, I'll cobble together one of my own.