In honor of National Poetry Day this past Thursday, the BBC commissioned a poll to name "the nation's favourite poet." The Brits, interestingly, chose an American...sort of. T.S. Eliot was born in Saint Louis but moved to England at the age of 25, where he eventually became a British subject. Both countries like to claim him as their own, but Eliot once said of his work "in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America."
Eliot had a global impact on both poetry and criticism (how we read poetry). He is best known for his landmark poem "The Wasteland" and for the more accessible and beautiful "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock," which conflates cosmic thoughts with a lonely and suffocating insecurity:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?
"Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair--
(They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!")
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin--
(They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!")
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
John Donne, the 16-17th Century metaphysical poet, finished a close second in the poll. Donne's subject matter varied from saucy love poetry like "The Sun Rising," to the intense and devout Holy Sonnets, written after Donne became active in the Anglican Church. His poetry is always full of wit, as is evident in this famous sonnet (Holy Sonnet #10):
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy'or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
In third place was the only living poet on the list, the Rastafarian dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah. His poetry is evidence of the art's big tent, and of the growing popularity of spoken word or Slam poetry. You have to hear Zephaniah to really appreciate his work--and there's a great recording of him here--but I've included an excerpt from his poem "Talking Turkeys," just to give you a taste:
Be nice to yu turkeys dis Christmas
Cos' turkeys just wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas,
Don't eat it, keep it alive,
It could be yu mate,
an not on your plate
Say, Yo! Turkey I'm on your side.
It's a far cry from Eliot and Donne, and from everyone else who finished in the top ten, which includes World War I poet Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin, William Blake, William Butler Yeats, John Keats and Dylan Thomas. Rudyard Kipling, named the nation's favorite poet in 1995, did not make the list.