BOOK REVIEW: 100 American Poems ed. by Selden Rodman

100 American Poems100 American Poems by Selden Rodman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I picked this book up in a used bookshop (the edition is copyrighted 1948) and was excited to get to reading some poems from my native land. However, I was a little off-put when I read this sentence in the editor’s introduction: “… Poe’s ‘The Raven’ and Whitman’s ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ are inferior and unrepresentative poems by any discriminating standard.”

I thought, “Oh, no. This is one of those editors who only likes works that are too cryptic and incomprehensible for the common man (or woman) to enjoy.” The type who’ll rave about Joyce’s “Ulysses,” but will mock Huxley’s “Brave New World” as lowbrow tripe. Surely, being beloved by massive numbers of readers counts for something.

Having read the book, I’m pleased that the editor took the attitude he did — not because it presented me with “better” poems, but because it offered more obscure poems than one would expect to see in most such collections. (And they weren’t particularly arduous or tiresome examples.) The book does include all the poets who one would expect to appear, e.g. Emerson, Longfellow, Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and E.E. Cummings, but there are many lesser known (i.e. lesser remembered) poets as well. The 100 poems include works by about 60 different poets. And, while the big names tend to have more poems per poet, their selections almost invariably don’t include the best-known works of the given poet. Long story short, if you get a chance to pick up this collection, you’re likely to find some selections that are more obscure but none-the-less great.

As one can imagine from the fact that it includes examples from those twin pillars of American poetry – Dickinson and Whitman – one can expect both metered / rhymed poems as well as free verse. [More of the former in the early part and the latter among the latter pieces.] Poems that are longer than about three pages are generally excerpted. So, there’s a mix of short and intermediate length poems, but only excerpts of long ones. The only ancillary matter is the Introduction, which does give the reader an overview of not only what he / she will be reading, but also some general information on the flow of the American poetry from colonial times through the first half of the 20th century.

I enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it for readers interested in American poetry from the early 18th through the early 20th centuries.

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