Fiction » Poetry

The Best American Poetry

recommended by Elisa New

Interview by Eve Gerber

With the help of a good anthology and a heaping dose of American classics, anyone can be converted to being a lover of poetry. Elisa New, Harvard scholar and host of the new PBS series Poetry in America, recommends her favorite American poets, from Emily Dickinson to Elizabeth Bishop.

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Elisa New

Elisa New is the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University. She is the author of The Regenerate Lyric: Theology and Innovation in American Poetry (1992), The Line's Eye: Poetic Experience, American Sight (1999), and Jacob's Cane (2009). Her latest book is New England Beyond Criticism: In Defense of America's First Literature (2014). Most recently, she is the creator and host of the PBS television series Poetry in America.

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You proselytize for poetry as a professor at Harvard and through Poetry in America, a multi-platform program that includes online courses and an intensely-entertaining television series. What inspires you to be such a spirited self-described “poetry evangelist”?

People are so phobic about poetry and so easy to convert. An ‘aha’ moment often occurs after just one poem; people just need a nudge to incorporate poetry into their lives. Plus, the process of opening poetry up is really fun.

Your television series Poetry in America throws off what you’ve called “the scholarly harness.” Tell us about this approach to poetics.

The series endeavors to enhance the experience of poetry using tools that are unique to TV. When I taught Langston Hughes to students, to relay how he was influenced by jazz and blues, I brought a clumsy cassette player to class. When I taught Edna St Vincent Millay, to convey how she embodied ‘the new woman,’ I brought in 1920s magazines so students could see how she wore her hair and her hemlines.

Television allows us to portray the world of a poem in a multimedia way, mixing in images and music. And when a poem holds itself aloof from the world, television allows us to empty our screens and give words new vibrancy. The toolkit of television gives viewers an intellectual and emotional immersion in poetry that is quite magical. It’s wonderful to be part of the reemergence of smart small screen entertainment.

What characteristics classify a poem as American, by your lights?

This is a great question, because there are all sorts of border cases. Do we call T S Eliot, who became a British subject, an American poet? Do we call W H Auden, who was born a British subject but immigrated to America, an American poet? Is poetry just the stuff published in books and written in lines rather than in paragraphs? If the words are set to music or performed on a stage by a hip-hop artist, can it still be called poetry? I don’t like to police the classification too closely.

The Cambridge History of American Poetry is your first title. Tell us about it.

This forbidding-looking tome weighs about five pounds; it makes quite a doorstop. As a person who teaches survey courses, I know students love surveys. We love sampling. When you asked me to make this list, I was thinking about a reader with an appetite for learning more about poetry. Such a reader might enjoy a smorgasbord of fascinating stuff about American poetry—like this book.

There is no better scholarly compendium than The Cambridge History of American Poetry. In its pages, one finds many of the best critics of the last thirty years, absolute authorities, in fine form, distilling their classic takes. For instance, Ed Folsom, who is the editor of The Walt Whitman Archive, covers Whitman. This book also includes emerging scholars and scholar-poets. The sheer variety of topics is stunning. Maybe you’re interested in “Poets of the South”, or in the weird world in which Edgar Allan Poe published, or in poetry’s role in the emergence of first-wave feminism. It’s nice to have a book full of so many nuggets.

While the writers are mostly from the academy, they put away the apparatus of scholarly argument and write really brilliantly. It’s a pleasure to read. You might want to start at the beginning and read all the way through, but I just like to dip in to it whenever I’m wrestling with a poem from a period I might not know that much about.

It’s an interesting fact that some of the best critical work these days comes out in books like the The Cambridge History of American Poetry. Many of the best critics understand that books purchased as reference works are probably going to have more readers than scholarly monographs; the critics give books like this the best that they’ve got.

The editors of this volume note in their introduction that W S Merwin said “We have what might be thought of as a gene pool of poetry by now.” What does he mean?

I think what Merwin means is that American poetic traditions have evolved from identifiable progenitors. A capacious, democratic, culturally-enmeshed, and politically-alert tradition grows from the root of Whitman. A spiritually-attuned, perceptually-focused, inward-looking family of poetry flows from Emily Dickinson’s work. An environmental tradition that comes to us from Frost, Emerson, and Mary Oliver. Many poets from groups who struggle for equity trace the roots of their work to 1920s Harlem.

Next you name an open-access website, the Emily Dickinson Archive.

The Emily Dickinson Archive is a feat of scholarly effort and a cutting-edge digital project. It’s like Costco, an enormous warehouse for her enormous body of work.

Dickinson never willingly published anything. Fewer than a dozen of her poems saw print in her lifetime. She didn’t ask for them to be printed; friends did. She wrote nearly 1,800 poems, often working on many poems at one time, like a painter working on a bunch of canvases or a gardener tending flowers.

You can now buy the collected works of Emily Dickinson, from her Poems: As She Preserved Them to collections of her Letters and even her Envelope Poems, but it’s better to experience Emily Dickinson through this archive. You can read each poem in her distinctive handwriting, with distinctive punctuation. We no longer live in a world with much handwriting. But penmanship is a form of self-presentation that writers once thought about while crafting their work. Dickinson’s poems work as visual, as well as verbal, art. So this archive allows you to experience her work more fully than would an ordinary anthology.

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” You feature an excerpt of this quote of Dickinson’s at the start of your American Poetry series. Why?

Poems can be electrifying; you feel a great poem in your body. One doesn’t go to poetry for patient exposition; you go for an experience. In our series, the architect Frank Gehry tells me that poetry is like “a shot of Tequila.” Poetry is language distilled to a thrill: sometimes the thrill is emotional, sometimes it’s intellectual and sometimes it’s even analytical, the thrill of understanding, at last, what the poem is about.

The City Lights Books edition of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems is your next choice. Why?

I chose two books that deliver a reader into a style and worldview that is completely its own. Great poets create not just a set of discrete poems that say something about the world in which we abide, but a way of looking at the world encoded in their style.

Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems are so much fun. He wrote them during his lunch breaks. What is lunch break? It’s a part of our day when we’re alive and jazzed and hungry for more, probably hungry for lunch, but also hungry for a little leisure, a little stimulation outside the office.

O’Hara writes these poems in a casual voice that’s characteristically his. He called them ‘I do this, I do that’ poems. You follow him around New York City and watch his imagination hunger after and take satisfaction in things. It’s like entering into intimacy with an extraordinary human being.

O’Hara was part of the New York School of poets, allied with Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s and 60s. He was known as “a poet among painters” who often wrote poems in the Cedar Tavern while listening to artists argue and gossip. He was also a critic of mid-century art and a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. All of which is a preface to asking: what is poetry’s place in America’s art ecosystem?

Poetry and other arts have been essential to each other at times in their development, including during the moment of Modernism. Modernists were reimaging the form of art, with Cubism, mobiles, and fresh poetic forms. At O’Hara’s height, during the 1950s, avant-garde poets and painters discovered each other and became friends.

I love poets in whom one sees openness towards other arts. As I said earlier, Langston Hughes loved emerging jazz music. Walt Whitman loved the opera. Emily Dickinson played the piano. These poets’ conversancy with music tell us about the poems they wrote.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III, published in 1977, is the fourth collection you selected. Why?

As I noted, I thought my list should have two volumes of poetry that allow you to enter not just a poet’s work but a poet’s world. The work of Elizabeth Bishop is its own world, that has its own mesmerizing power.

She has become, for many American poets, the 20th-century progenitor. She is the person in the American poetry gene pool who manages to talk about feelings, including uncomfortable feelings, at the deepest registers. Her poetry is highly emotional, she shows a fidelity to experience, an honesty that is not exhibitionistic.

Geography III was Elizabeth Bishop’s last book. There isn’t a poem in it that isn’t great.

The canon of American poetry—Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, all the way back to Phyllis Wheatley, it seems for every Robert Lowell there’s an Amy Lowell—has a remarkable degree of gender parity. What does the remarkable prominence of female American poets tell us?

Women were cheap. A lot of early American women poets who published did so for very little money; they were happy to appear in print. So, there were economic reasons why American women were published.

But it wasn’t until the 1970s that 18th-century poets like Phillis Wheatley and Anne Bradstreet and nineteenth century women, whose poems had been dismissed, were rediscovered. Before then, there was no gender parity among poets in the American canon.

The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry, edited by Pulitzer-winning US Poet Laureate Rita Dove, is your final selection.

People who don’t know a lot about poetry, including whether they like it, need a great anthology, that is not so heavy to carry it around. For years I’ve used David Lehman’s Oxford Book of American Poetry. But Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry brings readers right up to the poets of today; there isn’t another anthology that does that. She devotes about half of its pages to recent poets.

To save room for the poets of today, Dove made the radical decision to reduce selections from the early twentieth century to some representative examples. Rita Dove has a great instinct for the best poetry to lead readers to other poems. What Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens poems prompt readers to find more? Rita Dove chooses them with real skill.

Dove thinks of American poetry as telling the story of who we think we are as Americans. That definition leads Dove to include many poets who were not included in major anthologies before, poets who may not have had access to publication because of their race or class. This anthology offers a more complete picture of American poetry. It’s very compelling and Dove’s introduction is unpretentious and fun to read.

This book generated a lot of dialogue. What is poetry’s agenda, beyond aesthetics?

Limiting the poems given prominence to those that fulfill certain aesthetic criteria leaves to the side too much great work. Readers don’t only read poetry to admire craftsmanship. Poems help us understand who we are, they help us understand our culture. Like Dove, I think of poetry as having a much broader set of functions than simply achieving formal excellence. That is why I value this book.

Poetry reading is on the rise in America, according to a recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Poetry is an art form that is perfect for our digital world. It is accessible, not only though the books I’ve named, but also through websites like the Poetry Foundation. One can have an intense intellectual experience, a deeply pleasurable experience, sometimes a deeply personal experience, with a small portable work of art. Many poems fit into five minutes of spare time. Isn’t it better to read a poem than the your 40th blog of the day? What else refreshes our senses and our sense of the world—and fits on our phone?

Interview by Eve Gerber

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Elisa New

Elisa New is the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University. She is the author of The Regenerate Lyric: Theology and Innovation in American Poetry (1992), The Line's Eye: Poetic Experience, American Sight (1999), and Jacob's Cane (2009). Her latest book is New England Beyond Criticism: In Defense of America's First Literature (2014). Most recently, she is the creator and host of the PBS television series Poetry in America.