You know, last year, I started noodling on Google, to see what Google’s search engine had to say about 20th century poets. It’s not a very big crowd, and their collective import isn’t that impressive, but even so, I thought I’d take their measure, anyways.
Robert Frost: About 50,000,000 results.
Ah, Frost…widely purported to be the most popular of the century. My uncle liked Frost, keeping a record of his works read by Frost, himself. He’s not very post modern, though, which means he was none-too-influential with those who came after him. Which brings us, though, to:
T. S. Eliot: About 24,600,000 results
T. S. is generally deemed the most influential poet of the century, yet for all that, I’ve never really studied him, which I probably should. He’s the one that first depicted our socio-cultural world as a wasteland, and it’s pretty much an accurate observation, if you ask me. I don’t buy into despairing aznd world-weariness, though, hear he’s into some of that.
Eliot seem to stand at some sort of (dismal) highwater mark of poetic influence during the century’s interregnum period. Compared to recognition of Eliot, the bards that come up after him just seem to reflect the obscurity that poetry as an art form was becoming. The Google searches reflect this:
W. H. Auden: About 845,000 results
Ezra Pound: About 3,610,000 results.
Pound was an experimenter, which is fine, but was also hard to read, which predictably limited his reach to intellectual and academics (and certainly not folks like my uncle). Serious poetry, dare I say, was becoming too serious, and the result was ossification. In the fifties, though, the art form found one last opportunity make a large, cultural splash in the Beats:
Allen Ginsberg: About 5,140,000 results
Jack Kerouac About 2,940,000 results
WIth with impassioned societal frustrations, the Beat not only managed to be heard, they imparted even a stylistic imapcty to the mainstream, but that was just it–poetry wasn’t mainstream, anymore–at least not like Eliot, a few decades previous. ANd, being no longer mainstream, they capitalized on it with applying the shock value of being foul-mouths, and the like. Ginsberg’s Howl typifies this.
So where are the “great” poets of today? Banished to academia, where they belong..relatively speaking, of course. Most of the poetic talent that would have competed the Blakes and Coleridges in another era have gone the way of :
Bob Dylan: About 84,000,000 results
He’s the successor to the Beats, as I see it, and given he preferred their kind of company to musicians, I think that confirms it. The line of poets, which had run for generations, was dying out, to be replaced by floks like Like Dylan and Leonard Cohen who could straddle the divide between hardcore peotry and the lyricism necessary to at least survive, if not thrive within the current rock era.
Literary acclaim was increasingly coming through forms other than just poems, and Kerouac, though a Beat typifies this; in all fairness, he’s probably better known for being a novelist than for anything he wrote in verse.
WHich brought up an intriguing question, I thought: If Google hits in any way reflect influence (and I think they do), how do popular and influential novelists of the 20th century stack up? Hm….
E. M. Forster: About 1,900,000 results.
H. P. Lovecraft: About 3,450,000
L. Ron Hubbard: About 3,460,000 results.
Forster came up with the well-read Horatio Hornblower series which maintains a fan following, but ranks well-below all of the poets cited, save for Auden. What does that say in terms of imapct…?
Hubbard and Lovecraft are both scifi-fantasy types who seem to have fared better. Lovecraft’s stock which was pretty obscure in his own time, has risen in cultish popularity, whereas Hubbard, who literally has his cult, and had pretty high recognition in his own day, barely eclipses him.
Power to you, Mr. Lovecraft, but moving on…
William Burroughs: About 7,760,000 results.
Guy who played around with narrative sequencing, opium, and psychedelics, all of which had an impact in his masterpiece, Naked Lunch. (Why he’d want to call it that is beyond me, but such is nary here nor there, is it?) Rather remarkable, though, that he beat out:
Ayn Rand: About 6,600,000 results.
She seems extremely well-talked of, today, and her books keep dominating polls taken of the most influential books on readers. After having read, her, I can certainly see why, but as she eclipsed by Burroughs, who doesn’t seem to be, well, I truly wonder. It’s a puzzle, but this blog post is getting long–again, moving forward….
J. R. R. Tolkien: About 8,580,000 results.
Ah, Tolkien…in an era where “outstanding” writers were mostly praised for playing tricks with the story sequencing, or else flooring the jaw with gritty realism, or at least stories sharing contemporary “moral” lessons, Tolkien’s power stems from the premodern, demonstrating the appeal of sheer fantasy without having to be “current.” No, his writing may not be as sophisticated as others on this list, but he took ownerhip of his work like none other. I might wish he were higher on this list, but so be it–the works of the other writers upstream from him can’t light a candle to his box office–nya, nya.
George Orwell: About 12,500,000 results.
When we’re talking “moral” lessons, we’re talking Orwell, and, after having read 1984 and Animal Farm, well his besting Tolkien seems fair. The 20th-century was either dis-illusioning, or illusion-shattering, bepending on your take, and none captured this better than Orwell.
Ernerst Hemingway: About 13,000,000 results.
Dunno much about him, but his writing’s supposed be very bleak. And masculine. CLearly he’s left his mark, but what’s so great about him, I cannot say.
Call me lazy.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: About 16,800,000 results.
Never read The Great Gatsby, but my siter did, and last year I saw the movie by DiCaprio, which impressed me. From what she said it’s true to the tale, and what a tale. Still, I would’ve thought Fitzgerald would go lower on this list, just by how critics today talk about him, damning with faint praise. The Orwells and Hemikngways are still lionized, and yet, measured by the searches….
C. S. Lewis: About 26,600,000 results.
My main man. When I first read Mere Christianity, as a naive teen coming of age, his words hit like a revelation. Contemporary critics may find him retrograde, but as the only Christian thinker from times with any import, I like to think of him rising above Eliot’s wasteland (Lewis hated Eliot, by the way) liike a mighty stroghold.
Lewis is well known for more than his Chronicles of Narnia (whose allegorical weight irked me to no end), yet they are seen as his masterwork, and as it’s fiction, decided it fair to put him on the list. As to the criticism that it’s only a children’s work, well, consider who we’re dealing with.
After having read some of his densest non-fiction like the Problem with Pain, it’s remarkable that he could write children’s fiction at all! FOr its preaching, Chronicles is one one of the most influential children’s works in and out of Christian circles, and more I think of it, more of a walking dog it becomes. (Either that, or I just didn’t have the right appreciation for Aslan’s death.)
As I grew older, I’ve come to realize that in terms of sheer prose, Lewis can’t hold to Rand, or even far less, to:
Friedrich Nietzsche: About 3,330,000 results.
Thing is, while they may have burned both brighter and hotter, Lewis burned warmer, and whereas they burned out ,and are now remembered as much for the excesses of their fanatical followers as for their ideas.
Rand used her fiction to advocate “new” ideas, and Lewis, “old” ones, but who aged more gracefully? Rand’s vision was riddled with hate, scorn, and ridicule whereas Lewis’s work’s were not. Such shows in the long run, and I think the Google numbers bear this out.
Much as I wish, though, Lewis ain’t no. 1. That, my friends, goes to:
James Joyce: About 81,200,000 results
James Joyce? I thought? Why him? His fame rests on just two main novels, and while he’s cited as an influential author, Google sure was giving far, far greater credence than anyone I knew. He was just another author among great authors, but not much more.
After having read Ulysses, though, I can only compare him to:
William Shakespeare: About 35,900,000 results.
And Bob Dylan. They all tossed around metaphors like hand grenades, and while it’s not not exactly my style, it’s clearly an absorbing taste.
Dylan is the only one the trio I like, but they all have the power to stagger the mind with imagery, and such is not to be under-estimated.
So says Google.