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Thursday, 25 April 2013


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10 greatest poets? And in order of greatness? Gimme a break... if this doesn't wean you off lists, nothing will. It's like photography - there are thousands of "first among equals"

[You obviously never took a poetry creative writing class.... --Mike]

My anthology of Yeates is always in my camera roller bag, a comforting companion while waiting at shoots, I have been looking for a portrait of him for years too.

No Homer? No Aeschylus. I understand no Virgil.

WHAT111 No Chaucer??? Shame!!

Neruda looks like exactly like my Great Uncle, Jim-Uncle Jim..Uncle Jim was a total street thug in his day. So, when I see Neruda? I see a guy wearing prison stripes and writing poems in his jail cell. Nice, right? True...Neruda is pretty great.

My dog has died.
I buried him in the garden
next to a rusted old machine.

I can't really say whether they deserve to be among the top 10 or not, but two other great poets who aren't mentioned are John Milton and Robert Frost.

No reader of poetry here (a failing I aim to correct) but my late mother used to claim that the poems of Emily Dickinson could all be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas. And I understand this to cause an ear worm of her poems.

You're welcome.


Rumi is to me an odd choice from Persian. I'd have selected someone else, probably Manuchihri. But in the U.S., Persian poets are not widely studied.

He picks two male post-Romantics to represent English-language 20th century poetry. First, I'd say that you shouldn't select Stevens at all (thin output propped up by reflected academic luster); Yeats is potentially an acceptable choice. But they're extremely similar poets when compared with their coevals, and stronger consideration should be given to non-Romantic authors in this list. Louis Zukofsky would have been a better selection.

My bigger issue is that he picks no Latin poets at all. Or Greek. That seems hard to me. You could make a case for any of the biggies, but for sheer influence it would be hard to beat Catullus: he gave us as much as Dante in many ways.

[Catullus above Horace? Personally I love Ovid, mainly due to Arthur Golding. Generally however I'm sure the lack of Latin and Greek poets reflects the current popularity of learning and reading Latin and ancient Greek, wouldn't you say? --Mike]

I've never really understood lists of the top X best anything, except for utilitarian purposes, and then only if the criteria are very specific (and even better, limited to a range of dates). I can understand, for example, how one might be interested in the top ten DSLRs of 2012, or the five most effective replacements for buttermilk in a recipe. But listing the top ten best poets seems about as good, to me, as listing "ten random poets who, for a variety of reasons, you probably already know."

But then, It's possible that I make that complaint because as soon as I saw the list, I started making a counter-list of gripes. No Chaucer, for instance? Why Dante but not Petrarch? And surely Dante himself would give up his seat for the immortal Virgil.

I suppose that lists like this might be some fun after all. But why must it always be a competitive ranking, where no possible competition exists?

In my opinion Whitman wrote plenty of bad poetry, and he had a unique take on things, but he also wrote one of my favorite poems. I sometimes think of A Clear Midnight when I've stayed up too late working on something. It's short enough to quote in its entirety.

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

Not a bad list, I think. I've never read Neruda, so can't say about him. I think that Emily Dickinson should be rated higher, though.

Makes me wonder where one of my personal favorites, Dylan Thomas, would have ended up were it not for his untimely death at age 39.

As long as poetry is the topic I'll put a plug in for folks to watch the national Poetry Out Loud finals (a U.S. competition). I took my daughter to see our AK state final because her friend was in it. Frankly, I expected to be bored listening to a bunch of high school kids recite poems, but they were very, very good at it, and some were spectacular, having the audience laughing and even tearing up at times. Perhaps a poet from this top ten list will make the "out loud" cut. You can catch the live webcast here on April 29th...


My number one poet is Dylan Thomas - "Do not go gentle into that good night".

Before my stroke, I had memorized the entire poem.

Number two is Samuel Taylor Coleridge - "It is an ancient mariner, and he stoppeth one of three".

I can still recite the first four stanzas.

This list is not controversial because it's mostly irrelevant - as all listings of the kind are. One could go on complaining; Harold Bloom considers Fernando Pessoa the second most important poet of all times in all countries, which could make me immensely proud as a portuguese citizen, but it doesn't: it's just Mr Bloom's opinion. A respectable one, of course, but an opinion nonetheless. I'm not complaining Fernando Pessoa is not on Mr Rader's list. The french could complain for the omission of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, and they'd be right, but they don't because the list is not that important. Not everyone reads the San Francisco Chronicle, and I'm not even sure it is available in Paris or Lisbon.
It all comes down to relativity: a poet I find to be minor may be the greatest of all times for you (and vice-versa, of course).
The choice of Pablo Neruda seems to be a politically biased one. His poetry became a symbol of the resistance against General Pinochet's dictatorship, and his poems are certainly worth of high praising, but he tops Dean Rader's list, not necessarily anyone else's list.
In short, it is my opinion that making those listings is a bit futile. (But that's just my opinion; it won't change anyone's mind, so it's broadly incontroversial.)
Curiously, I once failed to convince people attending a poetry session that Yeats is pronounced "Yates". Among those people - all poetry lovers, as it might be expected - there were some university teachers. Everyone kept spelling «Yiets» in spite of me. I felt so insignificant...

Of course it's not controversial. 60% of top 10 poets wrote in language that 5% of population calls its own... Must be very poetic 5%. Either that, or self-important.

[Come now, it's not as bad as all that. From Wikipedia: "English...is now the most widely used language in the world. It is spoken as a first language by the majority populations of several sovereign states, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and a number of Caribbean nations. It is the third-most-common native language in the world, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. It is widely learned as a second language and is an official language of the European Union, many Commonwealth countries and the United Nations, as well as in many world organisations." It's also the language of the nation in which poetry has been for many centuries considered among the highest forms of art, which is not true in every nation or of every language. --Mike]

Neruda ahead of Shakespeare ?
I assume the ode to Stalin tipped the balance...

In any event, the idea of a top 10, 'uncontroversial' or not, seems pretty silly to me.

I realize he's unfashionable these days, but it's hard to believe John Milton didn't make the top 10. Like him or not, his mastery of English poetic form was almost unparalleled.

Coleridge should be on this list...

The complete absence of classical Greek and Latin poets rather striking, even granting a certain inevitable bias towards English-language poets.

Mike: OK, I'll bite. What is "history's greatest poem" as written by Eliott?

Because if you say The Waste Land, then you'll need to go back and read the The Four Quartets.

Strange not to find the author (or authors) of Iliad and Odyssey in there somewhere, preferably at No 1 with the rest nowhere. To anyone who has been captivated by translations and hasn't already had a go: It's never too late to learn a little ancient Greek and struggle with the originals (I made a start at 60). Sappho would surely be there if a little more of her work had survived. Catullus had better luck than she did with the 'copying on' process, and Latin is more familiar than Greek; so he should have been somewhere near the top ten. Much as I revere John Donne I wouldn't claim a place for him in final list though I might have cast a vote for Chaucer. It's for Americans to argue the case for or against their names.

I'm a Land Surveyor, not a literature specialist. As part of the general audience I do wonder if anyone on that list later than Dante is likely to have many readers a couple of hundred years from now, let alone in 2000 or 2700 years time?

Glad to see Stevens so high on the list; he's always been my favorite.

I didn't have strong feelings about Whitman one way or another until I read "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" which is just about my favorite poem. I, however, live in Brooklyn and frequently walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, which spans exactly the part of the East River where the Brooklyn Ferry crossed in Whitman's day, so it probably resonates more for me than it might for others.

As for Eliot, which poem are you referring to? From where I sit, he wrote two very strong contenders for history's greatest poem (which ought to have him in the running for greatest poet).

The one on the list that I'm not on board with is Dickinson. Gilligan's Island theme or Yellow Rose of Texas aside, any poet working in precisely the same rhyme scheme for every single work (very nearly, at any rate) is really just repeating herself too much.

What about Goethe, Edgar Allan Poe or one of my faorites -Alexander Pushkin.
Please-- I am an American but the poetry and literature world does not revolve around the English language.

I have no problem that the Iliad and the Odyssey were left off - they're not so much great poems as great stories, written as they were because they were being passed along orally, and a rhyme scheme works as a memory prompt. But the same images reoccur all the time (..."wine-dark sea"...) and overall, as poems, they don't have the literary intensity that poems qua poems have.

I agree with Dickinson's placement on the list, but would like to choke the guy who brought up the "Yellow Rose of Texas." I'm not sure how I'll be able to read her in the future...my current plan is to try to forget about the Yellow Rose.

The list is silly, of course, as all lists like this are, but if you were going to be silly (and that's okay, at least some of the time) I think the guy should probably have restricted himself to English language poetry. Poetry in translation just isn't the same because most poetry is in large measure musical, and the translator's music can't be the poet's.

My favorite poetry is Haiku, for its purity; I think the great Haiku poets, and Emily Dickinson, would have understood each other. Picasso, by the way, was a fairly decent poet in Spanish.

Moving away from the list itself, it's encouraging that translated authors could count. Enjoying translations often leads further. Do I deduce from a response above that you prefer Horace to Catullus? He certainly had more common sense! I love the lines from a verse letter (Epist. XI) translated (c.1760) as ".......those who run beyond the sea only change their climate, not the disposition of their mind. We are employed in luxurious idleness, while in ships and chariots we travel in pursuit of happiness: What you pursue is here at home; or it is at Ulubrae, if you have but an equal undisturbed mind." Even though I can read the Latin I certainly couldn't make a modern English translation sound half as good.

"The one on the list that I'm not on board with is Dickinson. Gilligan's Island theme or Yellow Rose of Texas aside, any poet working in precisely the same rhyme scheme for every single work (very nearly, at any rate) is really just repeating herself too much."

Ever read Shakespeare's sonnets? ;-)

(And yes, I realize that Shakespeare didn't just write sonnets...)

What is a poet?

Another of the tribe's customs is the discovery of poets. Six or seven words, generally enigmatic, may come to a man's mind. He cannot contain himself and shouts them out, standing in the center of a circle formed by the witch doctors and the common people, who are stretched out on the ground. If the poem does not stir them, nothing comes to pass, but if the poet's words strike them they all draw away from him, without a sound, under the command of a holy dread. Feeling then that the spirit has touched him, nobody, not even his own mother, will either speak to him or cast a glance at him.

Now he is a man no longer but a god, and anyone has license to kill him.

(Jorge Luis Borges, Doctor Brodie's Report, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with the author)

Savages kill their poets with stones. It takes the perversion of 'civilised' media to kill them with lists.

No Archilochos, no Sappho, no Omar Khayyam, no Basho, no Pushkin, no Heine, no Celan, no Auden, no Seamus Heaney, no René Char, no Saint-John Perse? Canto General, but no Antonio Machado? And Rilke, heavens, almost making it? But neither Gottfried Benn nor Bert Brecht? (The latter's poetry will be remembered or rediscovered long after everyone has forgotten that he was also a fashionable but mediocre playwright.) And if we must have a poet who disgraced himself with an ode to Stalin, let's pick a great one: Yannis Ritsos. For crying out loud, no Joseph Brodsky, the self-built bridge between Russian and English poetry? Such lists are but monuments of cultural parochialism.

> 6. John Donne

Pronounced "Dunn", in case you do not know (and still said that way even if you do).

Dear Mike,

Oh, what a marvelous topic to distract me while printing. Much to think about. Poetry was my favorite area of study while working on that English degree.

I, too, am surprised how few quibbles I have with the list of ten, considering how limited such a list has to be.

There are some more modern poets who I would imagine ought to be on the list, but when you're limiting it to ten, what can you do? It occurs to me that poetry may be a lot like painting; you may need some real distance from it, in time, before you can decide how great it really is. There are many contemporaries I can think of who might very well qualify for the list, but it's hard to get a sense of that so soon. I'd say that, in their time, Dickinson and Whitman were respected, but very few people (except their fanboys) would've called them "greatest."

In that vein, I think Allen Ginsberg, Marge Piercy, and Adrienne Rich would be on the very short list of "greatest" as determined fifty years from now. For right now? Too close to the work.

Conversely, I don't think time has been kind to Carl Sandburg or Robert Frost. Not that they would've been on my Ten Greatest list in their heyday, but even less so now.

Something similar may be at play with both T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings. I think neither of them made the list because they speak to a specific place and time, So perhaps they just don't resonate as well today.

Of the two, I think e.e. cummings is by far the superior poet (as well as more important and influential, although I don't think those should be in the criteria for "greatest"). In my always humble opinion, the reason he doesn't get proper recognition is because most poetry scholars Think "classical music" is inherently better than "jazz." And Elliott gets the whole "oh look, he's so serious and filled with masculine angst, what a sensitive artist he must be and he must be great because he is so weighty" buzz. Oh, don't get me started.

Whoops, too late.

Well, yes, there is one person I would take off the list. Shakespeare. Not even close to being one of history's greatest poets. I think having him there is a reflexive sop because he is so frequently considered the greatest English writer. That doesn't make it one of the greatest poets. His poetry production was very modest and while excellent, just not anywhere near "greatest" quality.

Yes, yes, many of this plays could be read as poetry. But that doesn't make him a poet. By that token, I could declare Kubrick to be one of the greatest photographers of all time, because so many of the stills from his movies make wonderful photographs. I would put Milton, T.S. Eliot, or e.e. cummings way above Shakespeare. In fact, I'm not even sure I would put Shakespeare on the list of the 25 Greatest Poets. His grasp of the English language was unparalleled, but his poetry just isn't that impressive. Not in the total scope of such.

If one wants to give him a Lifetime Achievement Award, I can totally get behind that. But, a Greatest Award? I don't think so.

pax / Ctein

Okay, so off the high-brow road. I'd like to suggest a fun movie, Il Postino. Its based on the year [1953] that Neruda spent in exile in Italy and features the late greats, Philippe Noiret [also in the great Cinema Paradiso] & Massimo Troisi, who died of a heart attack 12 hoursweek after the film wrapped at the age of 41. If you haven't seen it its a fun watch: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110877/

As a Scot (in exile) I surprised to see Robbie Burns miss out on a spot somewhere on the list. Looking through his reasons to give a place on the list - Robbie could tick all of them - but it's Mister Rader's list not mine.

Shouldn't all lists regarding the arts (as opposed to sports, with their clearly quantative measurements) be circular? That is, just listing or mentioning the artists you love, without upping the one above the other? Or wouldn't those lists be regarded as lists anymore (truth be told, I wouldn't give a damn)? Whichever way, I would like to see e.e. cummings included - and T.S. Eliot, polar opposites as they may seem to be.

I first came across his name through the film, Il Postino, which was obliquely about his life in exile and the effect of his poetry and politics on the local postman. It's a beguiling film and ultimately tragic.

However I would hardly rate his selection as #1 as being "uncontroversial", as all such selections are subjective.

Many of his English translations have been somewhat derided, but it's hard to translate poetry at the best of times. However you can read them here:


Dear Nigel,

Shakespeare's England was a police state second to none, and if you don't think Shakespeare wrote to curry favor with the tyrant running it, you ain't read much about Shakespeare.

If political leanings are litmus test for you and literature, you're gonna have to cross a lot of greats off the list (regardless of your leanings).

pax / Ctein

I'd be more comfortable with a list of poets writing in English. Rumi and Li Po may be splendid, but poetry is more than just ideas and they wrote in languages few contributing to that list could read. Neruda, and Alighieri a few more could get through untranslated, and it's not hard to pronounce those languages and get a feel for how the poems sound.

Of the rest, the only I doubt is Stevens, though I don't find his inclusion surprising. He's much loved, like Dickinson. What surprises me is the complete omission of the English Romantic poets. Sure, they're a bit out of fashion now, but their work is central to the history of poetry. I'd probably choose Keats, though that oddball Coleridge aligns better with modern tastes. But its Keats I enjoy more. I'd also have to find space for Eliot. He wrote more than one great poem and did so much to expand the boundaries of poetry. Stevens is a delightful poet, but Eliot is greater.

I'm fine with the omission of Homer, as there's a strong feeling among scholars that there was no such person, just tales told repeatedly until refined, and much later written down.

It is actually possible to compare great poets across time and culture. The really great poets had an impact on their people and in some cases changed the way people think.

My friend Marko, who died last year, was a huge Neruda fan. He went to Chile to find Neruda's best friends and interview them. I've watched hours of the footage and I can see how powerful a presence Neruda was.

In fact perhaps too much so. Like John Lennon, governments don't like anyone who gets too powerful.

There's a question as to whether he may have been poisoned as a result of his popularity.


sigh … i _enjoy_ Rumi & Dickinson, Whitman intrigues me, i feel i _should_ read more Neruda, i have no desire to return to Dante nor Donne

but the important thing is to keep reading poetry; my own feeble goal is to read one poem a day; sometimes i google for one (poetry is all over the web, in letters and in performance), or i go to old favorites (such as Phil Whalen, Gregory Corso), or i work to find inspiring new (to me) poets, or aspects of poets — Amanda Nadelberg being my latest "find", and Jackson MacLow's _154 Forties_ is a huge shift from my previous understanding of his work

Ten greatest poets writing in English or who have been translated into English, more like. Anyone whose native language is not English, and certainly anyone whose first language is non-European would find this list laughably self-important. No Russians? No Persians, but for one, and that too at No. 10? Japanese Poets? No Urdu poets? No Tamil poetry, which has a long history from the first millenium BC to the present day? Thank goodness at least someone has spoken up for the Greeks and Romans, though alas, not German poets.

I could go on to say how infuriating it is to come across this blissfully unaware and anglocentric mindset in the 21st century and explicate what exactly is wrong with it but instead I simply wish to say...


I keep two poems by my desk at work in case of ....whatever......: Robert Burns "To a Mouse" and Kiplings "IF". Burn's Poem touches my heart in that I might too feel as he did if I were to accidentally turn over a mouse nest while turning a field, and I am impressed with how Burns was so inspired to write about the event (assuming it really happened) and so eloquently describe how the mouse, although it lost its home, is "blessed" compared to Burns as it goes onto an unthinking fate, where he (we) may dread the future and lament the past. I also am "transported" to Burns' field, and I can "see" the stubbly land and dirt and the "sleek" mouse running away. I might say that Burns' short poem is "worth a thousand pictures". (Of course no cameras in his day)...Having Kipling's poem always at arm's reach should be self-explanatory. I guess I would rank Poets / Poems by their utility to me. Those are #1 and #2 for me based upon circumstance.

Li Bai was famous for his calligraphy as well, so he gets extra points for his brushwork.

I suspect that anyone who has read Shakespeare's sonnets will realise he is not on the list because of his plays

NB [You obviously never took a poetry creative writing class.... --Mike] - what's that got to do with it? In any case, you're wrong

Only one woman. So Rader's not read widely, then, or he has and doesn't think much or the perspective of the majority of people on the planet.

[N]obody loves poetry like a Russian.   Yevgraf Zhivago

Any Indian will be shocked, English language emphasis on this list not withstanding, that Tagore was not included. Neruda, a "non-controversial" poet? The charge that Neruda plagiarized Tagore in the former's most famous collection of poems had haunted Neruda throughout his life.

Here's my favorite modern poem. It's called "A Finger, Two Dots, Then Me". Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcoMiGiDRjg - it's performed by the poet, Derrick Brown.

Try Wisława Szymborska or Czesław Miłosz. They both got Nobel's prize, so there is a slight possibility that someone has translated them well ;-)

In fact, there are probably much more great poets then photographers, yet the language barrier is almost impossible to overcome. Strange thing this poetry.


Somewhere on my bookshelf I have Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading (which is, IIRC, his discussion of the relative merits of poets one should read). And Shakespeare's poetry doesn't fare too well with Pound either.


I'm an Italian that grew up in Chile. I came to this country when I was 5 years old. I did school and undergraduate studies here, then went to US for a PhD. I had to read Neruda when I was at School, I came to enjoy poetry very much and I regularly read it. Neruda is excellent but nowhere at the top. I don't know how did your friend came up whith the list.

Poetry must be read in the original language, translations are usually abominable. I like Giacomo Leopardi very much, but translated to Sspanish is nowhere near to the music that comes out from his Italian writing.

You cannot have Li Bai without Du Fu in Chinese poetry. One called the god of poem and the other saint. They just went together. If have to only one place, try both #8, a lucky number by the way. Also, it is said that you do not have no. 1 in poetry and hence it should start with no.2 to no.11. With this 2 changes, I have no argument.

the list reminds me of those camera reviews one comes across the are written by someone whose totally unable to make images that would interest anyone but themselves, other gearheads or perhaps family members . . . .

I miss Charles Bukowski in the list of english language poetry. And Cesar Vallejo from my mother language, Spanish. But all the lists are arbitrary as every edition of photos, music, etc

John Camp,

Please don't choke me! When I was in high school (in Tennessee, ironically), it was well-known that Dickinson's poetry could be read to both "Yellow Rose" and "Gilligan's Island." "Amazing Grace" also follows the Dickinson rhyme scheme, so maybe I can make it up to you by allowing you to imagine "Amazing Grace" to the theme of Gilligan's Island? Always makes me chuckle.


I knew that the sonnets would come to bite me in that regard, but the more I think of it, the more I think that Shakespeare is a questionable inclusion on this list, if taken solely on the basis of his poetry. The iambic pentameter of his dialogue could be taken as poetry, and that might earn his spot, but like Homer, he's a great storyteller but not necessarily a great poet.


A couple of us have asked... what's your Eliot pick?

[The Waste Land. —Mike]


I'd give it to Prufrock, but I allowed for The Waste Land. Another reader insisted it was The Four Quartets. Perhaps among the three of us, we've realized that Eliot deserves a place on the list?


I can understand if you don't think Shakespeare belongs on the list, although I happen to love his sonnets. But in any case, I think his sonnets show that it is possible to write in a fairly standard formal structure without repeating yourself too much.

And fortunately, as a reader, you don't have to limit yourself to a single formal style. There is infinite variation possible among German pilsners, and while I love exploring their differences, sometimes I just want a British ale instead!

Best regards,

Padraic and SoniaDeasy teach photography courses to portrait photographers all over the world. Their techniques of taking the courses is very good and also they teach how to take portrait photography as a business.

Serious British omissions from the list include Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and the author(s) of Beowulf .

From mainland Europe and also unmentioned so far, are Schiller, Mandelstam and the author(s) of the Kaleva (whose rhyming scheme Longfellow borrowed, unacknowledged, for Hiawatha).

My own top ten list would contain at least twenty-five poets!

> author(s) of the Kaleva...

Opps. Kalevala, of course.

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