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The Classic Hundred: All-Time Favorite Poems.

Demographics supplant aesthetics. Race, gender, and class have replaced taste as the gauge for admission into the literary pantheon. Yet, here is a new collection of poetry that presumes to be canonical, but is devoid of a single work by an African-American, American Indian, Asian- American , Jewish, Latino, or even Canadian author. Except for Emily Dickinson, every one of its contributors is that bogeyman of the current culture wars-the dead white male.

Editor William Harmon has assembled the 100 works that he claims provide "the best available record of the poems that have achieved the greatest success for the longest time with the largest number of readers." Functioning more as polister than connoisseur, he relied on statistics rather than acumen to make his selections. Using the latest edition of The Columbia Granger's Index to Poetry, he tabulated the poems that have been anthologized most and reprinted the top 100 in order of their frequency of appearance in earlier collections. The result, which-echoing the hype of pop music-he calls "The Greatest Hits of Poetry in English," is a treasury of familiar recitations.

Leading the pack, forever burning brightily], is William Blake's "The Tyger," though William Shakespeare contributes more entries (eight) than any other author. John Donne is represented by six selections; William Blake, John Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and William Butler Yeats by five each. The Classic Hundred comprises works by 47 named poets and three by Anon. The Classic Hundred is not so much vox populi as it is the voice of the people who put together anthologies. it counts each appearance in an anthology equally, regardless of the number of copies sold or the ultimate influence of each volume. The absence of any translation testifies to the parochialism of Anglophonic publishing. The presence of Harmon's brief and pithy commentary tempers the contempt that might be bred by the familiarity likely felt toward most of his selections.

Yet, for all the imperfection .in how they were chosen, these are enduring and endearing poems. Like the statue of Ozymandias that Shelley contemplates in his famous sonnet, they survive the decay of civilization. Like the solitary reaper, the highland lass whom Wordsworth ponders, they leave behind a haunting music that achoes in the heart "Long after it was heard no more."
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Author:Kellman, Steven G.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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