May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
Many overrated poets are no longer overrated. The same goes for the sadly neglected and ignored. History is a wonderful corrective. In her niche in eternity Emily Dickinson, who did not have a reputation in her lifetime, might manage a tight smile at knowing that she reigns as the queen of American poets.
Elizabeth Bishop’s achievement was long overshadowed by that of her more flamboyant contemporaries. In the early 1970s everyone seemed to agree that Bishop was the most underrated American poet. As a result, readers rediscovered her, and she is now probably the most beloved poet of the second half of the century.
Robert Lowell remains our most overrated poet if only because his significance as a public figure—he seems to many people the American poet incarnate—was so disproportionate to the quality of his writing. Lowell’s literary reputation has been waning, and I think that trend will continue, even as his historical importance (as the initiator of the confessional style of poetry) will continue to be recognized.
Gertrude Stein. Her Tender Buttons defies classification, though I suppose we could call it a book of prose poems. Widely derided when published in 1914, the book remains as radical a linguistic experiment as any poet has perpetrated in a century notable for wild experimentation. Here is the entire text of “A Dog": “A little monkey goes like a donkey that means to say that means to say that more sighs last goes. Leave with it. A little monkey goes like a donkey.”
Few people today read Stein’s long poem “Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded.” It is an abstract masterpiece, and readers conditioned by what the abstract expressionists did in painting will have no trouble enjoying it.
Stein was used to being ridiculed. Smart people chortled over the most famous of her lines, “Rose is a rose is a rose.” “Laugh all you want,” she said. “But I think in that line the rose is red again for the first time in a hundred years.”