Anthology games

The Most Anthologized Poems of the Last 25 Years

Back at the end of July, a friend waved this article at me, figuring I’d be interested… after all, it has the words “poem” and “anthology” in the title: something I do, and someplace I aspire to more frequently be. Plus there’s always the school-y part of me, that grooves on these sorts of tabulations and cross-references from which conclusions might be drawn.

You might get a kick out of skimming the list yourself, to see what of the titles you recognize show up.

It’s a rich trove for the armchair sociologist, especially those folk who notice the balance of backgrounds/points-of-view. Womens’ names don’t appear until “nine inclusions,” for example. Likewise African-American names… a single Asian-possible name first occurs at “five inclusions.” (That name and one other are the only Asian-appearing names in the whole list.)

Remember that these anthologies were all compiled after the upending that roiled through my undergraduate years. When I graduated in 1990, the American/English-language poetry canon was still being firmly reorganized, as professors were rummaging around looking for non-white-male poets. That the top end of commonality still skews white-male feels a little sad.

On the other hand, Robert Frost is now the king of “eight inclusions,” four entries sealing his crown. I’m cool with it; he writes more subtly than your early exposure to “Mending Wall” might indicate. I like that Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner” still makes it in at level eight; it’s one that my dad pointed out to me as a favorite of his, and since even back then I found it a bit dusty I was pleasantly surprised.

The 19th century doesn’t arrive until “seven inclusions.” (Except for Emily Dickinson, who doesn’t count among the ‘old war-horses’ because she has been one of the greatest gifts of The Great Rummaging.) Here we see Poe, and Whitman, and Sandburg, that hymn-writer to a genial  American exceptionalism. I guess after the 1970s the academy was more skittish about indoctrinating the young via Sandburg. Perhaps it’s all Ginsberg now.

At “six inclusions” we find Blake opening the door for the 18th century. Here’s where John Keats, Thomas Gray (the “Elegy, Churchyard” dude), and Percy Shelley are hanging out as well, plus Robert Herrick (gather, rosebuds, etc.) and Will Shakespeare to give a nod to the 17th. Props to Christopher Marlowe so we can have anything from the 16th at all-!

My beloved William Carlos Williams wins the prize with the only poem to have TEN inclusions (for ‘red wheelbarrow’), but then is banished down to “six inclusions.” Sad-face from Kimbol… but then, she’s an Imagist at heart.

It gets a lot more random from “five inclusions” down to “three inclusions,” as one might expect. At “five” is where Donne first shows up, and not for one of the ones I prefer, either. Anthology editors are continually plagued by “what were they thinking?!?!” commentary after they complete their difficult task… but despite my empathy, I say, What were they thinking, to routinely choose “The Good-Morrow” over… well… Valediction Forbidding Mourning, or any of a half-dozen others?? Pfffft.

On the other hand, “five” is where Wordsworth shows up. Good riddance.

I’m delighted to see that Gary Snyder, perhaps the most famous projective poet, shows up in “four.” Unfortunately the work named, “Riprap,” isn’t very projective. It is, however, the sort of work that makes high school English teachers clap for joy as they weave poetry into (wave poetry in front of?) their classes. Got it.


Part of me would love to make scatterplots, with a dot per poem, and a color or other signifier per dimension of identity, and play doctoral games with this list. But I haven’t finished reading my Barth and Calvin for class this afternoon!

So: even though you didn’t read the other-people poems I posted while I was in Alaska (don’t think I didn’t notice!), follow the link to the list and read a couple of poems that are recommended by multiple authorities. Pull down to the middle of the list! You might find something unexpected.


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