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The Best American Poetry (Best American Poetry)by David Lehman
"Anthologies are, ideally, an essential species of criticism," wrote Randall Jarrell in Poetry and the Age. "Nothing expresses and exposes your taste so completely — nothing is your taste so nearly — as that vague final treasury of the really best poems that grows in your head all your life." Every reader is perennially compiling, enlarging, and revising such an anthology, which can never be "final" or definitive any more than a published anthology can be or should be exhaustive or complete. Anthologies are selective; they project an editor's taste, but they are also exercises in criticism. Their job is not only to reflect accurately what is out there but to pick and choose among the possibilities. Whether they set out to reinforce the prevailing taste or to modify it, they sometimes end up doing a bit of both. Anthologies can educate, can recruit new readers, can even create the conditions by which the new poetry may be savored and in time perhaps even understood, it being the usual case that enjoyment precedes understanding. All anthologies perform an evaluative function. Even where the claim is less absolute than in the title of The Best American Poetry, anthologies praise their contents. Donald Allen's New American Poetry, 1945-1960, the most influential anthology of the 1960s, which introduced a generation of readers to the Beats and Black Mountain, the New York School and the San Francisco Renaissance, may seem to have a neutral, descriptive title. But does anyone doubt that new here means best? Anthologies single out works worthy of perpetuation and as such they always constitute a prediction, an assertion, and a gamble.
Anthologies have played an even larger part in the education of modern poets than critics have noticed. Take the numerous poetry editions prepared by the long-lived Louis Untermeyer (1885-
1977), who attained eminence despite dropping out of high school and working full-time in his father's jewelry business until he was thirty-eight. Untermeyer was a prolific poet and a skillful parodist, but his real talent went into his carefully annotated poetry compilations. Both John Ashbery and A. R. Ammons, guest editors of the 1988 and 1994 editions of The Best American Poetry, have spoken of the powerful effect that Untermeyer's anthologies had on them when they were young men. In grade school, Ashbery won a current events contest sponsored by Time magazine and received Untermeyer's Modern American and British Poetry as a prize. The volume taught him that verse need not rhyme, that the pleasures of Robert Frost and Elinor Wylie were easily had but that the more "baffling" pleasures of Auden and Dylan Thomas ultimately held more charm. It was an Untermeyer anthology, perhaps the same one, that the late A. R. Ammons discovered as a nineteen-year-old sailor on a U.S. Navy destroyer escort in 1945. Reading it felt like a rite of initiation: "I began to imitate those poems then, and I wrote from then on." A generation later, Untermeyer's anthologies were still in circulation. They had a great effect on me in my teens. To his Concise Treasury of Great Poems I owe my first acquaintance with Milton, Keats, Yeats, Frost, Eliot. I remember prizing the editor's running comments. He had an eye for the quirky biographical detail. From Untermeyer I learned, for example, that William Cullen Bryant's father, a country doctor in Cummington, Massachusetts, "attempted to reduce his son's abnormally large head by soaking it every morning in a spring of cold water" and that Bryant died in New York City at age eighty-four upon climbing a flight of stairs shortly after dedicating a statue to Mazzini in Central Park.
There are pitfalls in every anthologist's path. Some are more avoidable than others. The editor who includes his or her own work runs a grave risk. In a 1939 revision of an anthology originally compiled in 1922, Untermeyer put in five of his poems and wrote about himself in the third person: "In 1928 he achieved a lifelong desire by acquiring a farm, a trout-stream, and half a mountain of sugar-maples in the Adirondacks, where he lives when he is not traveling and lecturing. He loves to talk and listens with difficulty." About Untermeyer, E. E. Cummings wrote scornfully: "mr u will not be missed / who as an anthologist / sold the many on the few / not excluding mr u." (This was a sort of proleptic obituary: Untermeyer outlived Cummings by fifteen years.) Similar complaints were voiced against Oscar Williams, the inveterate anthologist whose books introduced the young Ashbery to the new (and in some cases now undeservedly forgotten) poetry of the 1940s. In a generally favorable review, Randall Jarrell pointed out that an Oscar Williams production contained nine of Oscar Williams's poems and five by Thomas Hardy. "It takes a lot of courage to like your own poetry almost twice as well as Hardy's," Jarrell commented.
Some problems are inherent in the structure of any anthology. On what basis were these poems chosen, and not others? What claim can be made for these works? With what practical effect? The first question is the hardest to answer. The recognition of a great or even a very good poem precedes any articulation of reasons for the choice. A true lover of poetry will know it and savor it when the right thing comes along — though sometimes he or she may need the tug that anthologies and critical essays are supposed to provide. My own criteria as a reader begin with an insistent pleasure principle. "Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible," W. H. Auden observed. There is fierce competition for the reader's attention, and where impatience may once have expressed itself only after pages, today you can lose your reader in your opening line. A poem must capture the reader before it can do anything else, and to do that it must give pleasure.
An anthology aspiring to represent the best work in the field requires faith and trust: the editor's faith that a serious general audience for poetry does exist; the reader's trust in the editor's judgment. From the start, the governing assumption of The Best American Poetry has been that poetry worthy of reading and reading again is being written in such quantity and of such variety that it would be possible for an annual volume showcasing it to live up to the series name. The challenge is not only to select that work but to present it so attractively that it will connect with readers who have the curiosity and the goodwill but lack the time and the access to the plethora of print and electronic magazines in which the new poetry is appearing.
There are anthologies that organize themselves by region, genre, gender, movement, theme. Some of these beg the question of quality. Enough for a poem to be written about zucchini to warrant its inclusion in a volume of vegetable poems. But with anthologies that do not thus delimit themselves — anthologies that would speak to an American audience generously conceived — we expect that criteria of excellence have been invoked if not necessarily explained and defended. Helen Vendler has written cogently against "historically representative anthologies" in which the aim is the comprehensive coverage of a given era. She noted that the first two volumes of a Library of America anthology devoted to twentieth-century American poetry added up to eighteen hundred pages: "So many feeble poets; so many non-moving poems; so many withered dictions; so many sterile experiments. And so much pretentiousness; so much well-meaning polemic; so much prose masquerading as poetry; so many dubious poetics." An unsympathetic person might say the same about many a poetry anthology, even one fourteen hundred pages shorter. But while I disagree with Vendler's assessment of the two volumes under review, I believe that a contemporary anthology invites ridicule in precisely these harsh terms if it professes to be value-free in the aesthetic sense, or if it subordinates poetry to sociology, ethics, or politics.
As people groan ritually at puns, even the cleverest ones, some guest editors of The Best American Poetry have balked at the word Best in the title. This may reflect a culture-wide distrust of hierarchy and anything smacking of elitism. Still, it is noteworthy that editors of similarly titled anthologies of essays and short stories seem to feel little of the compunction that the poets bring to the table. Open a book of the year's best stories or essays and you will not encounter an expression of misgivings about the enterprise. Whatever else it intimates, the poets' self-consciousness about the word "best" is an acknowledgment that there is nothing scientific about the process of selection, that reading and judging are subjective and partial, and that some terms are best used with invisible quote marks around them. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for taking a stand, making a claim. Year after year The Best American Poetry recognizes that competition often accompanies the creation of art, which is made by persons of complexity and ambition who compete not only with peers but with ancestors. To be chosen by an admired poet for inclusion in a book that has "best" in its title must feel like an honor to all but the most jaded, and it means something because the ratio of poems considered to poems chosen is so extraordinarily one-sided. Thousands of poems are read multiple times in order to arrive in the end at a choice seventy-five. "No poet or novelist wishes he were the only one who ever lived," Auden has written, "but most of them wish they were the only one alive, and quite a number fondly believe their wish has been granted." There's a lot of truth to that. But The Best American Poetry also shows that poets who may have little in common, who come from different regions or movements and espouse clashing ideas or traditions, can coexist to each other's benefit in a single book.
In a relativist universe, where to be nonjudgmental is sometimes held up as a great virtue, there may be something quixotic about an enterprise labeling itself "the best." The use of the word may be written off as an example of American hyperbole. But it seems to me that this anthology series is also an attempt to redefine "best" and render it credible by conceiving of each year's edition as initially a clean slate and ultimately an overhaul of the previous year's book. Each year a distinguished poet of national reputation does the selecting. The idea is not to fix a canon but to suggest possible orderings: to acknowledge that canons do not remain fixed for long, and to act on the notion by shifting perspective annually in surveying new poetry in print or electronic circulation. Each volume in the series records the encounters of one poet with the contents of many magazines in one twelve-month stretch. Place the volumes side by side on a shelf, and they also chronicle the taste and judgment of some of our leading poets.
Neal Bowers feels that there is something in the atmosphere of universities that jeopardizes our ability to separate good from bad, best from second-rate, and that the dependence of poets on academic institutions is therefore at the root of this problem as well as others. "To say that something is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, worthwhile or a waste of time is to 'privilege' one thing over another," he writes in the Summer 2003 issue of Sewanee Review. "Anyone who makes such distinctions had best keep his views to himself else he risk being tarred as a monocultural, nondiverse reactionary." Bowers, a recently retired university poet, was continuing a critique of the creative writing profession that he began a year earlier in the July 2002 issue of Poetry. "Students emerge from graduate writing programs with an understanding of poetry as something manufactured for the exclusive inspection of their peers," he laments. Bowers likes employing metaphors drawn from economics. There has been, he charges, an assault on standards with the result that "the undifferentiated supply [of poems] far outstrips demand." The university has a monopoly on poetry: "With a rate of success unmatched even by Wal-Mart, the university has driven almost all independent operations into ruin, controlling the production and distribution of poetry and regulating its worth."
The voicing of objections to the institution of the creative writing workshop is not exactly a groundbreaking event, but Bowers's essays are so obviously heartfelt that they seem worthy of consideration. Though there may be elements of caricature in his description of how writing programs work, he would do us a service nonetheless if his essays provoked students and teachers in MFA programs to mount a defense of what they do. When Bowers argues that writing programs mark "the transformation of poetry from a passion to a professional undertaking," he makes me want to challenge the dichotomy. Why can't poetry be both a passion and a serious professional undertaking? Aren't our best teachers those who inspire and sustain the young poet's passion for the art — and do so in a professional manner? Bowers attacks the notion that the only career path available to an MFA student is as a teacher in an MFA program. "Because poetry matters in and of itself and not as an aspect of employment, [people] can make time to write, whatever job they do to earn an income," he says. I agree. Go forth into the world is good advice. But Bowers's plea for "poetry professors" to rise up as one and renounce the "concept and common practices of the poetry workshop" is as absurd as it is unlikely to happen. To ditch the workshop is to ditch the writing programs' raison d'être as well as their most popular and effective structural innovation. Bowers reasons that instructors can reinvent themselves as old-fashioned literature professors. "Because their English-department colleagues have abandoned literature in favor of literary theory, poet-professors could seize the opportunity to restore the reading and discussion of literature." But writing programs do require their students to study the literature of the past; they can perhaps do it better, or more rigorously, but they do it, they keep literature alive as a subject of study and as an indispensable concomitant of the creative imagination. A bad workshop is going to be as painful and wasteful as any failed pedagogical endeavor. A good workshop can change your life.
Poets have recently given us new versions of Dante, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Aeschylus' Oresteia, Sophocles' Philoctetes. And poets, whether they come from the ranks of writing programs or not, will contrive new ways to perpetuate the many traditions, movements, schools, and personalities that are conjoined in modern poetry. It is important that poetry have a base in the university. It is even better to find poetry in shops, cafés, bars, and clubs; spilling into the street; entering people's lives. This anthology series is predicated on the profoundly democratic notion that there are readers out there, in some cases far from museums and libraries, who are desperate for poetry to be in their lives.
Lyn Hejinian and I met at a poetry conference in Copenhagen in August 2001. Our Danish hosts had hoped that she and I would come to blows on a panel at which it was thought that she would represent the Language School and I the New York School in a debate. Instead we began a dialogue that lasted months, took different forms on different continents, and gave us both, I think, much pleasure. I knew in what great esteem she is held by the many young writers who consider her autobiographical sequence, My Life, to be a modern masterpiece. "I saw a juxtaposition / It happened to be between an acrobat and a sense of obligation / Pure poetry," she wrote in "Nights," a group of "night thoughts intended as an homage to Scheherazade," which Robert Hass picked for the 2001 edition of this anthology. I felt that this respected and admired writer with her eye for poetry, pure and otherwise, would make an excellent choice to serve as guest editor of this year's Best American Poetry, and I am glad I enlisted her. The Berkeley-based Hejinian threw herself into the task, reading as generously as she could while remaining true to her esthetic convictions and her commitment to poetry of a high experimental bent. One reason the volume is exciting is its strong accent on youth. But we also rejoice in the fact that a book containing a poem written by a high school senior (Marc Jaffee, now an undergraduate at Vassar) also contains a poem by Carl Rakosi, the Objectivist poet who celebrated his hundredth birthday in 2003. Above all, there is satisfaction in knowing that the contents of this book represent a coherent vision of what one important poet considers to be American poetry at its most vital, daring, and aggressively new.
In 2003 Louise Glück became the nation's twelfth poet laureate, succeeding Billy Collins in the post. Glück, who edited the 1993 volume in this series, has made few pronouncements in her new official capacity. She has given us a new poem instead: the beautiful October, published as a chapbook by Sarabande. It is a quiet and intimate poem and it has nothing political in it, yet it seems to have a public dimension, speaking to all who can identify themselves with that time of year when the light begins to fail and yellow leaves or none or few still cling to branches. At the end of the poem we reach the ultimate condition of lyric poetry: the lonely self contemplating the naked universe.
From within the earth's bitter disgrace, coldness and barrenness
The publication of such a poem — or of seventy-five of them, gleaned from a year's intense reading — creates the place where the private consciousness of the creative mind intersects with its most generous impulses toward community.
Foreword copyright © 2004 by David Lehman
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