Who is the Greatest American Poet of the 20th Century?

Solmaz Sharif
September 22, 2013
Comments 3

The question was posed in a workshop. The workshop seemed mostly divided between Stevens and Frost. “No one is suggesting a female poet,” a colleague whispered to me, sympathetically, then offered: “Marianne Moore!”

Greatness is, to me, the least interesting qualifier of the question. I want to know what we mean when we say 20th Century and American. Is claiming Frost or Stevens or Moore the best way to exemplify such things? And by such things I’m thinking some of the great debates around 20th century American poetics—free verse, open field, locality, the politicization of form, Black Arts Movement, &c—and, for that matter, America—the vote, years and years of global warfare, urbanization, factory farming, Civil Rights Movements, separatist movements, jazz, &c. Even this attempt to tease out these qualifiers, to find someone exemplary of these abstractions, I risk the pitfalls of greatness, but when I think of 20th Century and American, I think of Gwendolyn Brooks.

For example: Her first book of poetry is titled A Street in Bronzeville, which itself makes clear her vantage point, and the tactics she will use throughout her career—portraits and places, often black and working class, concrete and mythic.

Also: Her poem in that American pronoun, “The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel.” Overrated by her own account, a poem that threatens to overshadow the rest of her contribution to American letters, nonetheless, a poem whose music is that of 20th Century America—decentered, propulsive, falling, open to the sounds it finds in its proximity.

And then: She changed. For better or worse, after winning the Pulitzer and winning the support of the Establishment (e.g. academic gigs, publication via major trade publisher, invitations to fancy readings), she allowed herself to be changed by the times. “I thought,” she says in a 1991 reading for Poets in Person, “that if blacks were nice enough and proper enough, all would be ok,” but some young black poets at a conference in Fisk University, who were creating the Black Arts Movement, changed that perspective.

And: She left Harper and Row for smaller, independent, black publishing houses—namely Broadside Press and Third World Press.

But of course: Before Fisk, she questioned inherited stanzaic and metrical forms as dictatorial and even within them she fought. Or as she said in her second book, Annie Allen, “First fight. Then fiddle.”

Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late

For having first to civilize a space

Wherein to play your violin with grace.

I could continue to point to many examples of her poems that are 20th Century America named. And I think this is important to do, for while Brooks is rather well-anthologized, the gatekeepers and the quick conversations alike have a funny way of writing certain folks out. What I mean is that her name did not enter, for example, that aforementioned chat on the Greats. I didn’t add it there.

In a recent blog post, Carmen Giménez Smith wrote a rather moving rallying cry for more poets to write about injustice, to write under government surveillance and “watch them back.” She says there is a tradition of poets doing this important work:

poets such as Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, Brenda Hillman, and, more recently, Mark Nowak, Shane McCrae, Jena Osman, and Craig Santos Perez have utilized their privilege and platform to uncover, expose, and counter accepted narratives about living in a declining empire in which our agency as citizens is shrinking. While the government watches us, more and more poets and writers are watching back, documenting the injustices that stain our present moment.

Granted, this is from a blog, meaning, like this post, it is meant to be quick and disposable, a mere attempt at starting a conversation. Still, here is my attempt to continue the conversation: why is it that in naming poets that take on the State, Giménez Smith cites two men of color in the contemporary scene, but the past is utterly white? How is it that writers of color are often dropped from anthologies in subsequent editions? Is their work deemed irrelevant? By whom? I do not have a statistical breakdown of this phenomena, but an eyeball guess, informed by the American myth of getting over things, makes me want to argue the chance of an enforced decline of significance, the chance of erasure is rather large. Even when speaking of the anthologized.

At a Fisk University conference, young black poets also took Brooks’s  contemporary, Robert Hayden, to task, more or less, over his following view:

To put it succinctly, I feel that Afro-American poets ought to be looked at as poets first, if that’s what they truly are. And as one of them I dare to hope that if my work means anything, if it’s any good at all, it’s going to have a human impact, not a narrowly racial or ethnic or political and overspecialized impact.

This is, perhaps, the response Greatness requires. A response that is resistant to its corporeal time. I would add Hayden and Brooks to the list Giménez Smith offers, as I would countless others (Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, Juan Felipe Herrera, &c—I’m assuming CGS’s “poets of privilege” means poets in the academy). I would tell Hayden, don’t worry, even in those narrow, overspecialized definitions, your place is not guaranteed. It’s tenuous. It is, as Brooks wrote, “Definitionless in this strict atmosphere.”

3 thoughts on “Who is the Greatest American Poet of the 20th Century?

  1. Subjective tripe. There are greater poets than these that you’ve never heard of, just as there are greater painters languishing in lamented obscurity. Do some deeper reading.

  2. Thank you for remembering Gwendolyn Brooks when discussing “the Greatest American Poet of the 20th Century.” Gwendolyn Brooks left us with an impressive body of work that still brings readers of all ages to and back to poetry, and throughout her life she was one of the most extraordinary ambassadors for poetry ever.

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