100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century
Mark Strand, ed.
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100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century
Mark Strand, ed.
W.W. Norton
320 pages
June 2005
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Poet Laureate Mark Strand has selected well-known voices, as well as the more obscure poets, "a carefully chosen sampler juxtaposing long and short form, experimental and traditional style, expected and surprising choices."

These are the voices of the twentieth century, an international collection (half from outside of the United States), some translated from other languages, a mix of humor and drama designed for those who love poetry and those who are just discovering the beauty of this form.

The editor makes a distinction: these are not the hundred great poems of the century, but a hundred poems, surely enough to whet any appetite, a kaleidoscope of images as viewed by individuals, representing North and South America and Europe, the North American poets limited to those born after 1927.

In the twentieth century, the voice of war rings loud, the memory of loss still palpable, wounding, the world scarred by conflict and horrors endured:

“Up there in the Aleutians
they are knocking the gold
teeth out of the dead Japanese”
“You know by now there
isn’t much to live for
except to spite Hitler-
The war is so lurid
that everything else is dull.”
(Ruth Stone, “That Winter”)
Richard Wright’s “I Have Seen Black Hands” calls a nation to acknowledge the struggle, the great anguish of bent backs, hard work and irreconcilable loss:
“And the black hands strained and clawed and struggled in vain at
the noose that tightened about the black throat,
And the black hands waved and beat fearfully at the tall flames that
cooked and charred the black flesh...

And some day- and it is only this which sustains me-
Someday there shall be millions and millions of them,
On some red day in a burst of fists on a new horizon!”
Through the passage of the years, memories cling, fragments of the past, forgotten until discovered in the bottom of a drawer, or glimpsed in a faded photograph:
“No it was not because it was too far
you failed to visit me that day or night.
From year to year it grows in us until it takes hold
I understood it as you did: indifference.”
(Czeslaw Milosz, “Elegy for N.N.”)
For those who live day to day in managed care, white-sheathed nurses watching, evening brings quiet, one more passing of a burdened day:
“It is the hour of the complicated knitting on the safe bone needles
of the games of anagram and bridge;
The deadly game of chess; the book held up like a mask.”
(Louise Bogan, “Evening in the Sanitarium”)
There are musings of death, choices made and wisdom gleaned in flashes, images that strike like lightning, illuminating:
“I am bound by my own thirty-year-old
decision: who drinks the wine
Should take the dregs; even in the bitter lees and sediment
New discovery may lie. The deer in that beautiful place lay down
their bones: I must wear mine.”
(Robinson Jeffers, “The Deer Lay Down Their Bones”)
These are the words of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, W.H. Auden, Jorge Luis Borges, Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Michaux, Ranier Maria Rilke, Theodore Roethke and Dylan Thomas, to name a few. Including biographies and index, this volume reflects a century of events that changed the face of the globe, coexisting with intimate moments and small solitudes, all part of the whole, food for the soul, carefully selected, one hundred voices ringing.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Luan Gaines, 2005

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