20th-Century Poetry and Poetics

I was assigned this text for an advanced poetry workshop as part of my undergraduate degree in creative writing. I remember it angered me greatly that the list price was over a hundred dollars, there was no digital copy available, and that for the first time since returning to university in 2016 I’d have to acquire a physical copy of a book. I was only just beginning to rekindle an appreciation for physical books at this time, and it hadn’t quite taken hold, but really—it was the cost that was fueling my rage.

I ended up snagging a used and only slightly dog-eared copy from a textbook reseller for under thirty dollars, and over the course of the semester I may have referred to its contents a handful of times. I passed the class with an A+ and slid like a lizard into my summer vacation.

I usually read poetry on the toilet. I’ve said this elsewhere: poetry is the perfect medium for potty time. For the most part, poems are short enough to get a few in during the worst of bowel movements, and not the sort of thing that keeps you glued to the seat to the point of developing deep vein thrombosis—unlike, say, a mobile phone. I’ve been a subscriber to POETRY magazine since June of ’22, and every year they do a double issue in July, which means no August issue. I was stuck without poetry in the latrine until I remembered Geddes’s book.

This is not a lightweight read. At nine-hundred and thirty-five pages, it qualifies as a tome. It covers the work of fifty-nine poets, from Yeats to Atwood. Each poet’s work is prefaced with interesting biographies that can lead to other readings; I read at least five other books off the back of this one. A section on poetics closes the book, with a selection of interviews and excerpts from books detailing the thought and process behind the poems.

It took fifty-two days to read. I read all the poems aloud, and this gave me a deep appreciation for the breath, line, and structure. I have a clear idea in my head of how to read poetry now, whereas prior to this I felt as though I was just winging it. There are many cases where a poet has chosen line breaks and structure that make sense only to them, and to hear them read their work is enough to make you wonder why they even bother with a structure at all. To me, all the punctuation and carriage returns should inform the reader on how I meant for the poem to be read. And I believe that poetry is meant to be read aloud. It is dead on the page. It is dead in the mind of the reader. It’s not until it’s verbally evoked through speech that life is, quite actually, breathed into the work.

I understand this is a subject of great debate. Now you know where I stand.

Something that struck me while I was working my way through the book was how Geddes had chosen to put the lifespan of the poet next to their names as headings for each section, i.e., William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). As the book was published in ’96, it got me wondering how many of the then-living poets were now deceased. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and after I finished reading, I assembled an Excel spreadsheet entitled “Dead Poet’s Society” and figured out how many had passed. Twenty. The average age was seventy-two. A full twenty, living and dead, were/are over eighty-two years old. Poets who aren’t driven completely over the edge tend to live a long time.

I also developed a new habit during this read: highlighting. For many, this is an elementary study technique, but it’s one that I’ve never employed throughout my academic career. I never wanted to deface a textbook, particularly one that I would be later selling back to the school. But about halfway through 20th-Century I decided I should highlight the poems that resonated with me. At some point in the future, I will have to give the first half the same treatment, but for now here are the ones that stood out to me:

I found the poetics section unusually engaging. Unusual in that I personally don’t like talking about process very much but reading about how these big names in 20th century poetry worked was fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the ones who said they had no idea how any of it came together, and glanced sidelong at the ones who believed they had something figured out.

And that’s another interesting thing that struck me after reading this book: I’m a child of the 20th century and yet I wouldn’t call any of these poets contemporaries. When she died, Gwendolyn MacEwen was as old as I was when I started this academic study of creative writing (forty-six) but the still-living ones are of my parent’s generation. Poets of my generation are likely slinging their verses on Instagram, Medium, or Patreon. Whoever they are, if I’ve read them in POETRY they’ve not stood out to me, and they’ve certainly never come up in any of the classes I’ve taken over the past two years. The period of artwork that Geddes captures in his book represents a fading Polaroid of a time when print mattered more, and these poets all knew each other by close degrees and were part of actual movements. If any of that is going on today, I am woefully ignorant of it, but from what I’ve read of William Carlos Williams’s autobiography I might not be missing much.


Next: Ways Of Knowing
Previous: Poetry September 2023