Unsung Classics

            Some books have come to immortality through a side door.  They do not carry the names Pulitzer or Nobel, and you won’t find blurbs from great and powerful literary figures on their covers.  They just came into being, and slipped into a role of perennial being: on the oldest bookcase in the house, a shelf in the public library, and, of course, a table at the Newberry Book Fair.

            I am moved to this observation by the arrival of a very nice copy of Roy Jay Cook’s magnum opus, a book which quietly describes itself as “strikingly good” and, if you read a little of the advertising material at the back of some editions, claims to be the ultimate example of its genre, carefully prepared to contain nothing inessential.  I have seen this book in many guises and, checking around the webwide world, I find it is still available for purchase in hardcover, paperback, and electronic versions, though there is some criticism about the difficulty of reading it on an iPhone.

            You know Roy merely as R.J. Cook, the name which appears on the titlepage of the magnificently titled “One Hundred and One Famous Poems With a Prose Supplement Strikingly Good”  It first appeared in 1916, and was published by…well, lots of people.  It was available for sale, but I suspect one of its main uses in the early days was as a premium.  The Cable Company, a Chicago pianomaker, seems to have produced a lot of copies found in these parts, but I have seen an edition published by Harley-Davidson, and one by a grocery supplier whose name I can’t recall (it may have been A&P).  I suppose there are plenty of others.  I also suppose there is somebody out there collecting them who will immediately email me.

            The ad in the back describes this book as “convenient, authoritative, adequate” and states that these are simply the world’s best poems.  Not a single poem in this collection is anything but indispensable.  (The ad also states that it has Over 100 Poems, which I really think the title of the book had already covered.)  A leading educator worked with them for two years on the list of poems (One R.M. Allen of Stanford is mentioned in a footnote, but this doesn’t mean he was the Leading Educator in question.)

            Each poem includes a little picture of the poet, with birth and death dates where possible.  It does contain necessary poems: I have used it for years to recall the lines of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (I can never remember whether he has a little round belly or a round little belly).  You will also find “O Captain!  My Captain!”, “If”, “The Daffodils”, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, and a number of other poems which are certainly still right up there in any survey of poems necessary for understanding cultural refrences.

            I do kind of worry about “Cuddle Doon”, “The Minuet”, and “Keep A-Goin’”, and wonder why no lit textbook of my youth included poets of the stature of Josiah Gilbert Holland or Henry Holcomb Bennett.  But I grew up in permissive days.  And I wonder if a reader from outside the United States would have included among the “world’s best poetry” such lyrics as “America for Me” or “Sheridan’s Ride”.

            And the text was not constant.  I see by a footnote that “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” was added for the 1917 edition, as the world’s greatest war poem.  Here again, there isn’t enough information: did they drop some less essential poem for Alan Seeger’s contribution, or was the book originally just “100 Poems”, and he made it 101?

            Of the 101 poems, 93 are by men and 8 by women (Emily Dickinson made it, and so did Lucy Larcom).  Most come from the 19th century, but Shakespeare is represented.  In the prose supplement, Abraham Lincoln makes two appearances out of a mere seven selections (one of which is a recommended reading list for children.)

            It’s really a useful book—not that it needs my review or anyone else’s review.  Any time you want to recall exactly how the gingham dog and the calico cat finished up, or what happened to the fly after the spider said what he said, this is a handy reference.  Or perhaps you need a handy picture of Percy Bysshe Shelley or Mary Mapes Dodge.  (Or perhaps you needed to know that poets—real poets—almost always had three names in the 19th century.)  I’d recommend you pick up a copy at this year’s Book Fair.  I generally charge a dollar for it.

            And, as R.J. Cook might have pointed out himself, that’s Less Than One Penny Per Poem.

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