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Contemporary Poetry ReviewInvaluable....generous in its selection of poems and extraordinarily generous in providing the information necessary to enter the world of those poems.
— James Matthew Wilson
Inspired and inspirational, worldly wise, deeply felt, and often delightfully funny—here in one compact volume are 100 of the greatest poems written in English over the last century, memorable masterpieces that everyone should know and enjoy. Selected and introduced by Joseph Parisi, former longtime editor of Poetry magazine, this brilliant collection brings together the greatest poems by all the classic authors, along with the choicest works by today's most accomplished artists in America and abroad. From W. H. ...
Inspired and inspirational, worldly wise, deeply felt, and often delightfully funny—here in one compact volume are 100 of the greatest poems written in English over the last century, memorable masterpieces that everyone should know and enjoy. Selected and introduced by Joseph Parisi, former longtime editor of Poetry magazine, this brilliant collection brings together the greatest poems by all the classic authors, along with the choicest works by today's most accomplished artists in America and abroad. From W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot to John Ashbery and A. R. Ammons; Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore to Sylvia Plath and Mary Oliver; Robert Frost and W. B. Yeats to Allen Ginsberg and Thom Gunn, this comprehensive anthology features the poems that have best expressed the spirit of our times and helped create modern culture. In addition to such ground-breaking works as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "Howl," Mr. Parisi has included the incisive social satire and whimsical wordplay of such wits as Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, and Frank O'Hara. Among contemporary poets in the book are Seamus Heaney, Jane Kenyon, Rita Dove, Sharon Olds, Paul Muldoon, Adrienne Rich, and the redoubtable Billy Collins, all of whom have already achieved wide popular acclaim for poems that speak compellingly about modern life and the perennial concerns of the human heart. Mr. Parisi provides a general introduction to the book and introduces each poem with a brief biographical and critical note. For anyone who wishes to discover or to re-experience the most important and vital poems of our time, 100 Essential Modern Poems is, quite simply, indispensable.
Looking over the large crowd at the first meeting of the Rhymers' Club in 1890, William Butler Yeats dryly observed, "The one thing certain is that we are too many." While he included himself in their number, all the assembled knew he was first among them. So he remained the rest of his life, and after, as one of the most acclaimed literary figures in the last hundred years and certainly the best known of Irish poets. Playwright and man of the theater, folklorist, scholar, adept in many a mysterious realm as well, Yeats had a gift for making music out of ordinary speech and an uncanny knack for finding striking metaphors and coining memorable phrases.
Decades before he became a senator in the newly independent Irish nation, the poet saw himself as a leader, indeed a symbol of his country, a bard in the grand tradition, equipped with special knowledge needed for his times. Perceiving the growing fragmentation of civilization, he had an apocalyptic vision and believed that poetry could provide "a last defense against the chaos of the world." Thus he developed a system of thought and personal symbols, attempting to organize his knowledge into an integrated whole. Few poets have been so ambitious or have made such extensive preparations for their vocation as Yeats, whose studies ran the gamut in literature, philosophy, and beyond,from myth and legend to arcane wisdom and esoteric lore.
Yeats's life was almost equally divided between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and his prolific work likewise falls into two major phases. Up to the early 1900s he was influenced by the English Romantic poetry of a century earlier and by his studies of the prophetic and mystical poetry of William Blake, French Symbolism, the occult, and the dreamy world of what he called "The Celtic Twilight," with its idealized view of Irish history and spirituality. Yeats became an expert on Irish folktales; steeped in the Irish past, he was not much concerned with modern-day life. But as he worked to establish an Irish theater and became more involved in politics, his subjects and style changed to accommodate the practical realities of contemporary society. Then he met a brash young American expatriate, Ezra Pound. Already world famous and twenty years his senior, Yeats submitted to Pound's tutelage and allowed himself to be "modernized" into a leaner, more dynamic author. The work for which he is most highly regarded was written after this renovation, including the three poems in this anthology.
William Butler Yeats was born into an Anglo-Irish Protestant family in Dublin in 1865. His father, John Butler Yeats, was a barrister who gave up the law for painting. His mother, Susan Pollexfen, came from a wealthy shipping family in the West of Ireland. As a boy Yeats spent much time at the family seat near Sligo, where his uncle, George Pollexfen, talked to him about astrology and folk religion. In 1867 the family moved to London, but returned to Ireland in the summers. Yeats attended grammar school in London and high school in Dublin. In 1884 he enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art, where he met the poet and painter George Russell ("AE"), who interested him in mysticism. After three years Yeats gave up art for a career as a writer. His first poems appeared in the Dublin University Review in 1885.
Reading Darwin and Huxley extinguished his faith in the Bible but not his spiritual impulses. As he recalled: "I had made a new religion, almost an infallible Church of poetic tradition, of a fardel [bundle] of stories." Mysticism, Indian philosophy, astrology, magic, supernatural systems, Rosicrucianism, reincarnation, Tarot cards, seances-all would continue to attract him. He met the Cabbalist MacGregor Mathers, who introduced him to the Order of the Golden Dawn, and in 1886 Yeats founded the Dublin Lodge of the Hermetic Society. The next year he conferred with the famed occultist Madame H. P. Blavatsky and joined the Esoteric Section of her Theosophical Society (but was later expelled by the madame herself). In London in 1887 he also met the other great Anglo-Irish author, Oscar Wilde, the designer William Morris, and Edwin J. Ellis, with whom he began the first complete edition of Blake. Over their years of labor (it was finally published in 1893) they transcribed a number of Blake's works for the first time and discussed the correspondences between Blake and the mystics Jacob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg.
In 1888 Yeats published, with George Russell and Douglas Hyde (the future first president of Eire), Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, and the next year The Wanderings of Oisin, a collection of poems inspired by his researches. They made his name, and soon Yeats began working to create what became the Irish Literary Renaissance-the cultural ground he believed was needed first to produce a nation. It was also in 1889 that Yeats had a fateful meeting with the beautiful actress and Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne, and (he remarked) "the troubles of my life began." Yeats was smitten with her, wrote a play for her, and became actively involved in the nationalist political movement, even the extremist Irish Republican Brotherhood for a while, in hopes of impressing her. He proposed several times but was rejected. Instead Gonne married Major John MacBride, also a revolutionary, who was executed by the British for his participation in the 1916 uprising, an event commemorated in Yeats's "Easter 1916." Gonne inspired a number of poems, notably the bitter "No Second Troy," which concludes: "Why, what could she have done, being what she is? / Was there another Troy for her to burn?"
Yeats co-founded the Rhymers' Club in London with Ernest Rhys, and at their gatherings in the Cheshire Cheese pub he conversed with the leading literary and artistic figures of the nineties. His essay collection The Celtic Twilight appeared in 1893, and the following year he visited Paris and encountered modern French poetry. Yeats was instinctively drawn to the Symbolists, about whose aesthetics he received excellent instruction from the poet-critic Arthur Symons when they shared rooms in 1895, the year Symons published The Symbolist Movement in Literature. (The book would have a profound effect on the young T. S. Eliot.) From his studies of Blake, Shelley, Dante, occult and mystical lore, Irish mythology, and the Symbolists, Yeats now believed that truly significant poetry was based on systems of images. He began to assemble his own symbols, chief among them the rose (emblem of beauty, eternity, completeness) and the cross (suffering, discord, incompleteness, mortality). To these were added many others, as well as an elaborate system involving phases of the moon. He came to envision cycles of history and saw consciousness as a conflict of opposites; these concepts he represented as two cones, or gyres, intersecting with the point of one in the base of the other.
In 1895 Yeats published a new volume of Poems, and in 1899 The Wind Among the Reeds, which made him indisputably the leading poet of his time. But for most of the late nineties and the first years of the new century Yeats concentrated on the theater, after meeting Lady Augusta Gregory and John Millington Synge, the future author of The Playboy of the Western World. The three became close friends and collaborators, and Yeats frequently visited Lady Gregory at her home at Coole in County Galway. As his interest in politics and drama grew, Yeats became president of the Irish National Dramatic Society and then director of the Abbey Theatre, which opened in 1904 with Lady Gregory's support. Yeats eventually wrote more than two dozen plays, notably The Land of Heart's Desire (1894) and Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), which starred Maud Gonne in the title role. Many of his theater pieces were experimental and based on Irish folk drama. After being introduced to Noh plays by Ezra Pound, Yeats incorporated techniques of the Japanese form in his own work, creating a "theater of the mind" in minimalist plays that later influenced Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett.
While the police kept watch and believed he was a revolutionary, Yeats was in fact spending ever more time training actors, running the theater, and dealing with its problems. (At the premiere of Playboy in 1907, for example, "a mob of howling devils" rioted at the mention of the word "shift"-petticoats then being unmentionables.) In 1908 his father relocated permanently to New York, where he was a successful portrait painter. He had urged his son to move too, away from abstractions and the Celtic Twilight, and turn his attention to concrete reality-advice Yeats now took. Pound helped in that endeavor while acting as his secretary in the mid-teens. With T. E. Hulme, Pound had already formulated principles, some derived from Japanese poetry, that became central tenets of the Modernist movement, particularly Imagism. Applying the stringent new criteria to Yeats's manuscripts, he deleted archaic diction, deflated lofty rhetoric, and otherwise tightened and strengthened the rhythms of the poems. Yeats was not always pleased with some of the blue-penciling. When Pound edited too zealously, and without permission, the first of his poems sent to Poetry magazine in 1912, he demanded the original lines be restored.
In 1914 Yeats published Responsibilities, in which the modernist effects are evident, and he began work on the first part of his Autobiographies. In 1917 he bought Thoor Ballyle, a Norman tower near Lady Gregory's Coole Park, which became his part-time residence as well as a subject and symbol in several of his poems. He also published a new collection, The Wild Swans at Coole. In 1917 too, after being turned down yet again by Maude Gonne and then by her daughter Iseult, Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lee. (George, as he called her, was the cousin of his former mistress, Olivia Shakespear, whose daughter Dorothy married Pound in 1914.) He was fifty-two, his bride twenty-six. Misgivings Yeats had about the marriage were dispelled when his wife began experimenting with automatic writing. The results were eerily close to his interests, and he integrated them into A Vision (1925), his strange compendium of prophecy, world philosophy, and symbology.
Early in 1918 Lady Gregory's son, a painter and a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, was killed in battle. In his memory Yeats composed "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," one of the finest poems to come out of the war, as well as a longer elegy, "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory." In 1919 the Yeatses' daughter was born, and a son in 1921, the year Michael Robartes and the Dancer and Four Plays for Dancers were published. In 1922, with the establishment at last of the independent Irish Free State at the end of the civil war, Yeats became a senator. He surprised many in the Dáil by defending divorce and arguing for restricted use of Gaelic. (He confessed he himself had "failed to learn any language but English.") The same year his father died in New York, and Yeats published his Later Poems and The Trembling of the Veil, the part of his autobiography dealing with the 1890s. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
In his later years Yeats liked to refer to himself as "a wild old wicked man," and he kept remarkably busy. Besides the first version of A Vision he published what is probably his strongest individual volume, The Tower (1928). In 1932 he founded the Irish Academy of Letters. The Winding Stair was issued in 1933, along with many prose pieces and more plays. The Collected Plays appeared in 1934. In 1936 he edited his highly idiosyncratic selections in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. The revised version of A Vision appeared in 1937 and the final two plays, Purgatory and The Death of Cuchulain, in 1938.
In "The Circus Animals' Desertion," included in his last book, Yeats wrote these concluding lines: "Now that my ladder's gone, / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart." He had suffered a series of heart attacks, and while resting on the French Riviera, he died on January 28, 1939. He was buried there; after World War II his body was returned to Ireland and laid to rest near Sligo, as he wished, "under Ben Bulben."
THE SECOND COMING
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When the vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkness drops again; but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? LEDA AND THE SWAN A sudden blow: the great wings beating still Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill. He holds her helpless breast upon his breast. How can those terrified vague fingers push The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? And how can body, laid in that white rush, But feel the strange heart beating where it lies? A shudder in the loins engenders there The broken wall, the burning roof and tower And Agamemnon dead. Being so caught up, So mastered by the brute blood of the air, Did she put on his knowledge with his power Before the indifferent break could let her drop? SAILING TO BYZANTIUM I That is no country for old men. The young In one another's arms, birds in the trees -Those dying generations-at their song, The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long Whatever is begotten, born, and dies. Caught in that sensual music, all neglect Monuments of unageing intellect. II An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick, unless Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing For every tatter in its mortal dress, Nor is there singing school but studying Monuments of its own magnificence; And therefore I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium. III O sages standing in God's holy fire As in the gold mosaic of a wall, Come from holy fire, perne in a gyre, And be the singing-masters of my soul. Consume my heart away; sick with desire And fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is; and gather me Into the artifice of eternity. IV Once out of nature I shall never take My bodily form from any natural thing, But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make Of hammered gold and gold enamelling To keep a drowsy Emperor awake; Or set upon a golden bough to sing To lords and ladies of Byzantium Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Excerpted from 100 ESSENTIAL MODERN POEMS by JOSEPH PARISI Copyright © 2005 by Joseph Parisi. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted April 24, 2009
The title refers to poems, not poets. But all the commentary in the parts I read, e.g., Dylan Thomas, discuss the poets' lives and works in general while saying nothing about the included poems. This book badly needed focused discussion of the specific poems and how they work and "mean." Not just recycled commentary.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.