Monday, January 6, 2014


I said to my eleven year old recently: "Poetry is the most important thing in life." His response: "No it isn't." He is probably right, but poetry is certainly among the most important things in life; and the lives of those who lack it in their souls and in their education are the poorer for it. However, I think they are in some sense fortunate in that they do not know what they are missing.

Poetry, as I have said, is the highest form of literature because it is closest to music, which is the highest form of art. Only poetry - great poetry - can come close to great music in its ability to frame truth and reflect the spiritual essence which lies behind art. I cannot imagine living without poetry in my life; I read, recite, listen to or think about poetry every day. It seems to me very important to understand how poems work, and what separates bad poetry from good poetry, and good poetry from great poetry. Poetry is the music of the soul in words and rhythm and rhyme (though rhyme, which is normally thought to characterize poetry, is not indispensable to it, and often degrades it to the point of vulgarity).

I have said earlier that, to my mind, the essential qualities of poetry are rhythm, intensity, and meaning. The more highly these qualities are developed, the greater the poetry. All are inter-related, and none can be dispensed with if a poem is to rise above the ordinary and merely charming. Now, there is nothing wrong with poetry that is merely charming - much of Robert Frost's work possesses this quality to a very high degree. But, while pleasing, even delightful, such work does not attain to the level of great poetry, just as the program music of, say, Grieg or Mussorgsky, while very good, does not approach the pure music of Bach or Beethoven. And while rhythm, intensity, and meaning are the chief characteristics of all good poetry, the essential quality of great poetry is its proximity to truth. To the extent that it transports the reader to those realms in which truth resides, as Beethoven's late string quartets do, poetry may be identified as being great.

With all this said, I have been thinking lately about twentieth century poetry, in which there is a great deal of good work and rather less of great. And that, naturally, led me to wonder which are the greatest poems of the twentieth century. I have thought a good deal about this, and I have devised a list, which I offer for your comment.

To me, the greatest poems of the twentieth century, in roughly descending order, are:

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot,
"Exposure," by Wilfred Owen,
"The Lake Isle of Innisfree," by W.B. Yeats,
"Fern Hill," by Dylan Thomas, and
"As I Walked Out One Evening," by W.H. Auden.

I may be overlooking something blazingly obvious, and if I am, I hope someone will come to my aid. But these poems, to me at least, stand alone in their beauty, craft, and proximity to truth. I love them as I have loved few things in my life, and I keep them always in my mind.

And so, one of my new year's resolutions being to keep my blog postings as short as possible, I will leave it there for you to puzzle at if you are not inclined to poetry, and to mull over if you are.

Happy new year to you all.