Monthly Archives: August 2013

Too Big to Fail: The Best of 2008

A global financial crisis in the middle of a U.S. presidential election toppled financial institutions and triggered government bail-outs.  In the midst of it all, Americans elected their first African-American President, Barack Obama.  In other news, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan and the Olympics were held in Beijing.  Take a trip back to 2008 – the year that was too big to fail.  I’ve compiled lists of the best films, music and books of 2008, according to the critics and bloggers who make those “Best of the Year” lists every December.

Best Films of 2008
Best Books of 2008
Best Music of 2008

Not Averse to Verse – The Best Poetry Ever

I’ve compiled a new list – The Best Poetry of All Time – The Critics’ Picks.  It includes the best poems by dozens (hundreds?  I didn’t count) of poets, both named and anonymous.  I organized it by poet, chronologically by date of birth.  Because that seemed like the thing to do.

To give you a sampling of what’s in store when you peruse the list, I’ve created two mini-lists from it: Best Epic Poems and Best Lyric Poems.  The numbers in bold indicate how many of the original lists the poem was on.

BEST EPIC POEMS
Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2000-1200 BCE) – Anonymous
The Iliad (c. 750-650 BCE) – Homer
The Odyssey (c. 750-650 BCE) – Homer
The Aeneid (29-19 BCE) – Virgil
Ramayana  (c. 500 BCE – 100 CE) – Valmiki (attrib.)
Mahabarata (c. 800 BCE – 300 CE) – Vyasa (attrib.)
The Book of Kings (Shanameh) (1010) – Ferdowsi
Beowulf (c. 700-1025) – Anonymous
The Divine Comedy  (1265-1321) – Dante Alighieri
The Canterbury Tales (1343-1400) – Geoffrey Chaucer
Paradise Lost (1667) – John Milton

BEST LYRIC POEMS

10
The Tyger (1794) – William Blake

9
My Love is Like A Red, Red Rose (1794)Robert Burns
A Noiseless Patient Spider (1882) – Walt Whitman
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (1951) – Dylan Thomas

8
A Poison Tree (1794) – William Blake
Ozymandias (1818) – Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Canti (1835) – Giacomo Leopardi
O Captain! My Captain! (1865) – Walt Whitman
Dover Beach (1867) – Matthew Arnold
Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923) – Robert Frost

7
Holy Sonnet 10: “Death Be Not Proud” (1609) – John Donne
Jerusalem (1804-1810) – William Blake
The Raven (1845) – Edgar Allan Poe
When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer (1867) – Walt Whitman
I Hear America Singing
(1867) – Walt Whitman
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers (c. 1850-1886) – Emily Dickinson
The Road Not Taken (1916) – Robert Frost
The Waste Land (1922) – T.S. Eliot

6
Daffodils (I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud) (1807) – William Wordsworth
How Do I Love Thee? (1845) – Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Jabberwocky (1871) – Lewis Carroll
The Listeners (1912) – Walter de la Mare
When You Are Old (1892) – William Butler Yeats
The Darkling Thrush (1901) – Thomas Hardy
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915) – T.S. Eliot
Dulce et Decorum Est  (1917) – Wilfred Owen

5
Sonnet 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” (1609) – William Shakespeare
Sonnet 30 “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought” (1609) – William Shakespeare
Sonnet 65 “Since neither brass nor stone”  (1609) – William Shakespeare
Sonnet 73 “That Time of year thou mayst in me behold” (1609) – William Shakespeare
To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough (1785) – Robert Burns
The Garden Of Love (1794) – William Blake
The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner (1798) –  Samuel Taylor Coleridge
She Walks In Beauty (1814) – Lord Byron
Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819) – John Keats
Ode on Melancholy (1819) – John Keats
Ode to a Nightingale (1819) – John Keats
Two in the Campagna (1855) – Robert Browning
Remember (1862) – Christina Rossetti
Because I could not stop for death (c. 1850-1886) – Emily Dickinson
Anthem For Doomed Youth (1917) – Wilfred Owen
The Bridge (1930) – Hart Crane
Lullaby (1940) – W.H. Auden
Death Fugue (1948) – Paul Celan
We Real Cool (1959) – Gwendolyn Brooks
Those Winter Sundays (1962) – Robert Hayden
Daddy (1962) – Sylvia Plath
The Cantos (1917-1969) – Ezra Pound

Since this original post, I have arranged the poetry list in chronological order: Best Poems of All Time – Chronological.

Songs and Stories

I’d like to announce my latest lists.  Like many of my lists, these are meta-lists, in that I have combined numerous “best of” lists I found in books and on the Internet.  One is the best short stories of all time and the second is the best songs of all time (see links below).  I tried my best to make both lists diverse, but as usual, the resources out there in English are biased toward English-language stories and songs (especially songs!)  Nevertheless, I think the lists are interesting and provide some ideas about what to read and listen to.

Best Short Stories of All Time
Best Short Stories of All Time – Chronological

Best Songs of All Time
Best Songs of All Time – Chronological

Authors and Auteurs: The Individual As Creative Force

There appears to be a human impulse to attribute a work of art to a single creator.  Maybe this is a consequence of the monotheistic religions that so many humans embrace (or perhaps monotheism is a result of the same human impulse).  We honor and celebrate the skill and imagination, the creative power of book authors, playwrights, poets, painters, sculptors, songwriters, musicians, and film directors.  The underlying theory, I suppose, is that it takes the creative vision of a single mind to produce a fully-realized work of art.  The most controversial application of this theory is the auteur theory developed by French film critics in the 1950s and championed in the U.S. by Andrew Sarris.  According to the theory, a film’s director is its author, in the same way that the single person who writes a book is its author.  The trouble with the theory is that movies are also a collaborative art – an enterprise involving the coordinated artistic and technical skills of many individuals in addition to the director, such as the screenwriter, the cinematographer, the editor, the sound crew, the set designer, costumers, as well as the actors.  The auteur critics used their theory to champion lesser-known directors like Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk by showing how they used the relative obscurity of genre and “B” movies to put forth a personal artistic vision.  But the theory works less well for many of the films produced by the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s and 1940s, when the director may have been just another cog in the machine.  Gone With the Wind seems more a product of its producer, David O. Selznick’s vision, than than of its director, Victor Fleming.

Music can also be a collaborative art, especially in the ensembles of rock and jazz, where songwriting and performing are often spread among a number of talented individuals, working together but also taking opportunities to “solo” and improvise, temporarily elevating the individual above the ensemble.  Even classical music, in which the composer’s manuscript is usually sacred, conductors and musicians “interpret” the piece, bringing something of their own style and personality to the final performance.

Painting and sculpture, which are now seen as extremely individualistic, were not always so (and, for massive public art projects, are not so even now).  A painter or sculptor in the Renaissance, for example, had many assistants, who often executed some of the work. Painters were even known to charge higher rates depending on the percentage of the work they did themselves.  Furthermore, those clients commissioning paintings and sculptures often had very specific requirements about the content of the work.  The notion of a painter sitting down to a blank canvas and painting whatever he or she pleased is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Are book authors (and poets and playwrights), then, the only true auteurs?  In many cases, the author sits down, writes his or her book alone and then sees it published in substantially the same form.  But in other cases, this image ignores the reality of publishers and editors who influence not just the subject of books but the style.  (Thomas Wolfe is one famous example of a writer who delivered a mass of disorganized writing to his editor, who then whipped it into shape.  Yet the editor is not considered a co-author.)  There are also ‘authors’, like Homer and those to whom many ancient manuscripts are attributed, who are merely symbols for the centuries of oral tradition that led to the Iliad, the Odyssey and other works handed down over time.  And all artists are influenced by other artists – some steal directly, others unconsciously.  Some are rebels; some are reformers, and some wish to return to times gone by.  They are influenced by the market – what will sell, what will not.  The political climate affects them as well as their personal circumstances.

I have raised all these complications as a preface to introducing a number of new lists.  Actually, they are mostly reworkings of older lists (although a few of them dig deeper than the lists I’ve already published).  These new lists all have one thing in common: they are organized by artist (as in performer, author, director).  Some are alphabetical; some are chronological.  The main idea is to see the lists in a different way: through the lens of the individual creator and their body of work.  They are particularly useful in answering the question: “Which one should I try first?” (E.g., Which David Bowie  or Charles Mingus album?  Which Titian painting?  Which Dickens book?  Which Godard film?)  Or, for those who have dabbled already, “Which should I try next?”

Rock, pop, R&B, etc.:  Musicians and Their Best Albums
JazzJazz Artists and their Best Recordings
BooksGreat Authors and their Masterworks, Part 1: 850 BCE – 1870
BooksGreat Authors and their Masterworks, Part 2: 1871-Present
FilmFilm Directors and their Best Films
Visual Arts: Great Artists and Their Masterpieces