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Other titles in the Best American Poetry series:
The Best American Poetry (Best American Poetry)by Mark Doty
by David Lehman
A few years ago my wife and I moved into a New York apartment house with a flower shop on the ground level. As an inveterate anthologist who loves flowers and likes picking up a last-minute rose, I took it as an auspicious sign that the shop is called Anthology. It is a splendid name for a florist: “anthology” derives from the Greek words for “flower” and “collection.” The horticultural meaning preceded the literary sense, and editors of poetry books gathered “flowers of verse” long before a French revolutionist published his “flowers of evil.” It is good to have a daily reminder of this connection between poems and “glowing violets,” “fair musk-rose blooms,” and daffodils “with the green world they live in,” for the making of an anthology is only incidentally like the art of flower arrangement. In practice it can be a pretty fraught affair. If it is successful, the endeavor will generate discussion and debate, some of it heated, even pugnacious, and more appropriate to a fight club than to a quiet bower, where “the mind, from pleasure less, / Withdraws into its happiness.”
“If you want to start an argument, put together an anthology, especially one that claims to be comprehensive,” a jazz reviewer notes. “No matter how noble the intent, it invites disaffection. Make the subject area jazz, and you create a minefield of sensitive historical, political, social and musical issues. It’s a treacherous endeavor—as is reviewing it.”1 The statement remains true if you substitute “exclusive” for “comprehensive” and “poetry” for “jazz.” On the other hand, it’s a sure proof that you’re doing your job if your anthology quickens argument and dispute. People like anthologies—there’s something for everyone. Practitioners like being in them, spectators like knowing who’s in and who’s out, critics like laying down the law, and malcontents like the occasion to air their grievances. As for the maker of poetry anthologies in particular, there is the gratification of reaching an educated readership for the elusive but vital art form whose death has so often been predicted. Something beyond nobility, something in defiance of disaffection and even treachery, is at work here. Pascal’s aphorism has a special application to poetry and its devotees: the heart has its reasons that reason can only guess at.
The Best American Poetry 2012 is the twenty-fifth volume in the series—twenty-sixth if you count Harold Bloom’s 1998 distillation, The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988–1997. The books have provided a template for similar annuals from other nations. On my desk as I write, I have the 2009 volume of The Best Canadian Poetry in English (ed. A. F. Moritz, series ed. Molly Peacock) and The Best Australian Poems 2011 (ed. John Tranter), each with its compelling new voices. The Best Irish Poetry 2010, ed. Matthew Sweeney, joins the famous (Seamus Heaney) and the emerging (Leanne O’Sullivan) in the time-honored fashion. The Best New Zealand Poems, which got its start in 2001, explains on its home page that “We have shamelessly modeled this online project on the successful US paperback anthology, The Best American Poetry. Each year we publish twenty-five poems from recent literary magazines and poetry collections, where possible including notes about and by the poet, as well as links to related publishing and literary websites. In this way we hope that readers will be able to follow up fresh discoveries. There are plenty to be made.” Last year brought a welcome newcomer, The Best British Poetry 2011 (ed. Roddy Lumsden). Other than consisting of seventy rather than seventy-five poems, the venture employs the identical structure and even the same typeface and design as The Best American Poetry. If there is one assumption common to all these “best of” books, it is that poetry has managed to thrive in the face of all the technological changes that seem, on the surface at least, so hostile to the muse.
Reporters are interested in trends, and you, cornered, may feel the impulse to invent one out of whole cloth just to please an interviewer. But I feel confident in my prediction that more and more arranged marriages will be taking place between poetry and video—confident enough to call this development a trend. Tom Devaney’s online ONandOnScreen is devoted to poets’ pairing their work with a video of their choice. The aim is a dialogue between “moving words and moving images” in the expectation that the “essential strangeness” of each medium will be enhanced. In 2011, The Best American Poetry partnered with Motionpoems, a Minneapolis-based poetry and video initiative founded by Todd Boss, himself a poet whose work has appeared in this series, and the animator Angella Kassube. Motionpoems commissioned video artists—commercial and freelance animators, filmmakers, musicians, sound designers, and producers—to make short films of poems chosen from The Best American Poetry 2011.2 Where the poets choose their visual accompaniment in Devaney’s project, Motionpoems reverses the order. The animators pick the poems and take it from there. To this observer, the dozen Motionpoems screened in October 2011 vindicated the concept of such “passive collaborations” between poets and visual artists, passive only in the sense that the poet’s job is done after writing the poem and the video-maker is on his or her own. The idea of basing a video on a poem may one day seem as natural and inevitable as the setting of poems to music used to be.
While I am not sure that it constitutes a trend, exactly, I believe that the “uncanny” is a category too little invoked in discussions of American poetry. The poets of our time are drawn to ghostly demarcations, spectral presences. There are ghosts in the machine, ghosts in the martini, and they turn up regularly—angelic or demonic, benevolent or cruel—in poems. When, in late December, a senior editor at National Public Radio asked me to name three of my favorite poems of 2011 and to record some thoughts about them, I noticed only after assembling the trio that they share this quality of mystery and the uncanny, offering a spooky but also exhilarating glimpse of a spiritual world beyond our own. Mark Strand’s “The Mysterious Arrival of an Unusual Letter,” a prose poem, owes something of its effect to its brevity; it contains all of ten sentences, most of them short. The poet tells us about arriving home one night after a grueling day at the office. On the table he sees an envelope with his name on it. “The handwriting was my father’s, but he had been dead for forty years. As one might, I began to think that maybe, just maybe, he was alive, living a secret life somewhere nearby. How else to explain the envelope? To steady myself, I sat down, opened it, and pulled out the letter. ‘Dear Son,’ was the way it began. ‘Dear Son’ and then nothing.” The poem ends there, as eerie as a dream visitation from a deceased parent or lover.
Like Strand’s poem, Stephanie Brown’s “Notre Dame” was chosen by Mark Doty for The Best American Poetry 2012. Though not in prose, Brown’s lines approach plain speech, an unadorned directness, eschewing the glamour of rhyme or traditional form. Brown describes staying with her family in an apartment near the great cathedral in Paris. One morning she wakes up and apprehends “two angels hovering” to protect her younger son. Only when the poem ends do we get the full context of this vision or waking dream: “It’s sad to walk around the Seine when you are getting divorced while everyone else / Is kissing and filming their honeymoons or new loves. Even / My husband, after we got back together, laughed at that. / Because he, too, had been heartsick on another part of the planet.”
My third pick was Paul Violi’s “Now I’ll Never Be Able to Finish That Poem to Bob” in the Brooklyn-based literary magazine Hanging Loose.3 The poem is jolly and even madcap, featuring “a man in a chicken suit / handing out flyers on Houston Street” among other urban wonders. “It would have been a long poem,” the poem concludes, “and it would have made a lot of sense / and shown why I believe Bob Hershon is a wise man.” (Hershon edits Hanging Loose.) What makes the poem almost heartbreaking is the knowledge that Violi wrote it in the face of his own death. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2011, this amazingly inventive poet died on April 2 and yet was able to infuse the writing of this, his last poem, with such high spirits that it almost becomes a cheerful missive to us from that other world from which no traveler has ever returned.
Our poems are haunted, as our lives are, by that unknown territory on the other side of a wall too high to climb and see over. In The Best American Poetry 2012 the “spirit in the dark” comes to light in poems that consider “The Gods” and “The Afterlife,” the stories of Magdalene and the road to Emmaus. The poems wonder where “we go after we die”; they whisper rumors of the other side, about which all we know for certain is that it is “something entirely else.” Mark Doty, who chose the poems for this year’s volume, has a keen ear for the poetry of the uncanny. In his poems he has explored heaven as an earthly possibility, has delved into the realm of dreams more real than waking life, has encountered the apparition of a deceased poet obliviously enjoying his lunch at “the Eros Diner, corner / of 21st Street.” Doty has won acclaim for his poetry (Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2008) and his prose (Dog Years was a New York Times bestseller in 2007) not only in North America but in the United Kingdom, where he is the sole American ever to receive the T. S. Eliot Prize. He cares deeply about poetry and poets, loves the language, values good writing. He is as sympathetic a reader as I could have wanted, as generous, and as open to new voices. Mark writes about poetry with passion and acumen. Read him on Hart Crane or May Swenson, on William Blake’s “Ah! Sunflower” and on Alan Shapiro’s, in his book The Art of Description, and you will see why I felt he was an irresistible choice to edit this volume of The Best American Poetry.
To write poetry, to read it, to go to poetry readings, is a way of being in the world, and there will always be those who get suspicious and feel that maybe Plato was right to exclude the poets from his ideal Republic. Poetry, as they see it, is a form of “divine madness” that can lead you astray like a drug. It may be that all criticism has its origin in this rationalist rejection of the poet’s way of being in the world. Faced with uncomprehending or dismissive criticism, the young poet might take heart from something T. S. Eliot once wrote: “Upon giving the matter a little attention, we perceive that criticism, far from being a simple and orderly field of beneficent activity, from which impostors can be readily ejected, is no better than a Sunday park of contending and contentious orators, who have not even arrived at the articulation of their differences.” To counter the din of contentious oratory, very little of which will help the writer (or reader) in any useful way, I turn instinctively to the rhetorical question that animates Shakespeare’s sonnet sixty-five: “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?”
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