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100 Essential Modern Poems, Selected & Introduced by Joseph Parisi

In 2006 my Aunt, a retired museum curator in New York City, sent me a book called, “100 Essential Modern Poems.” At the time I was still living on the road, working in deserts and rivers and cooking on a little stove I kept in the back of my car. I made zines. I drank cheap wine with my friends and we howled at the moon. It was great. What kind of time did I have to read some stuffy academics idea of the most “essential” poems of “modern” times. Take 100 days out of my life that year and I’ll give you the 100 essential poems of my modernity, you know what I mean?

And then I picked it up the other day. Started reading it. I realized it’s a history book- that it tells the story of poetry in the last century, or at least part of it, and certainly the roots of it quite well.

Now I live in San Francisco, I don’t travel much, and I get to write all the time. It’s a very different life. I still howl at the moon on occasion, I do drink better wine, and my stove pulls gas from the wall. That all has changed- but what hasn’t is these poems. And though it’s 3 years later, I get the sense that the editor would not have picked any different poems if the book had been published now, rather than 3 or 4 years ago. (Ok, I guess it’s actually 5 or 6. Man…)

And that is the beauty of this book. Are these 100 poems the best that the world has to offer? No. Does this book give everyone a fair shake and choose across cultures and languages? No. It is decidedly focused on British and American poetry written in English- it is firmly rooted in the canon, with nods to the sixties and to whatever is going on with poetry right now. The first person in there is William Butler Yeats, and the last is Rita Dove. It is heavy on the love of poetry and very, very light on analysis and criticism.

This book is a love note from the editor to modern poetry- and for a poetry geek like me, that’s a great thing. It’s fun to read, and it’s not going to put you to sleep. The editor chooses 1 poem by 100 different poets and writes a 1-3 page background on the poet. It’s like sitting down next to that crotchety and fascinating professor you had back in college and actually getting the undivided attention of their best lecture about a given author ever, intended just for you.

And then there are the poems. They are wonderful, though I tend to find them let downs after the historical pieces about the people. The true worth of a book like this is not the poetry that is in them, nor the fact that there is a list of 100 poems that meets that kind of title- what is important is that there is enough love for poetry for this book to be written and for the history of poetry to be kept alive lovingly.

Photo Credit: PoetryFoundation