by David Lehman
There are many reasons for the surge in prestige and popularity that American poetry has enjoyed, but surely some credit has to go to the initiatives of poets and other interested parties. Some of these projects involve a media event or program; just about all of them end in an anthology. Catherine Bowman had the idea of covering poetry for NPR's All Things Considered, and the book of poems culled from her radio reports, Word of Mouth (Vintage, 2003), makes a lively case for the art. The Favorite Poem Project launched by Robert Pinsky when he was U.S. Poet Laureate -- in which ordinary citizens recite favorite poems for an archive and sometimes for a live TV audience -- has generated two anthologies, most recently An Invitation to Poetry (edited by Pinsky, Maggie Dietz, and Rosemarie Ellis; W. W. Norton, 2004). Billy Collins, when he was Poet Laureate, campaigned to get the high school teachers of America to read a poem aloud each school day, and selected an academic year's worth for Poetry 180 (Random House, 2003) and an equal amount for 180 More (Random House, 2005). The success of the Poetry Daily website led Diane Boller, Don Selby, and Chryss Yost to organize Poetry Daily on the model of a calendar (Sourcebooks, 2003). The calendar is also a driving principle for Garrison Keillor, whose Good Poems (Penguin, 2003) collects poems he has read on his Writer's Almanac show, which airs on public radio five (in some areas seven) days a week.
The last several years have given us, in addition, high-quality anthologies organized around themes (Isn't It Romantic, eds. Aimee Kelley and Brett Fletcher Lauer; Verse Press, 2004); genres (Blues Poems, ed. Kevin Young; Everyman's Library, 2003), and historical periods (Poets of the Civil War, ed. J. D. McClatchy; Library of America, 2005). The number and variety of these (and yet other) anthologies make a double point about the poetry-reading public: it is larger than critics grant though smaller than many of us would like it to be; it reflects a period of eclectic taste rather than one dominated by an orthodoxy, as American poetry fifty years ago seemed dominated by the T. S. Eliot-inflected New Criticism.
As a rule, poetry anthologies receive even less critical attention than individual collections, but Keillor's Good Poems had a curious fate. Two reviews of the book appeared in the April 2004 issue of Poetry, the venerable Chicago-based magazine that inherited more than $100 million from pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly in 2002. Both reviews were written by respected poets. NEA Chairman Dana Gioia wrote a courtly piece, employing a familiar book-reviewing strategy: begin with advance doubts (anticipation of "good poems, but probably not good enough"), acknowledge relief (pleasure in Keillor's "high spirits and determination to have fun, even when talking about poetry"), and progress to appreciation of the finished product. Gioia complimented the anthologist on "the intelligent inclusion of neglected writers" and praised Keillor for his Writer's Almanac show. Keillor "has probably done more to expand the audience of American poetry over the past ten years than all the learned journals of New England," Gioia wrote. He "has engaged a mass audience without either pretension or condescension."
When you turned the page to August Kleinzahler's critique of Keillor's anthology, your eyebrows had to go up. It was less a review than an attack on the Minnesota-based creator of public radio's long-running Prairie Home Companion, a weekly variety show with skits, songs, a monologue from the host, and occasionally poems from a visiting poet. Kleinzahler called the Companion "comfort food for the philistines, a contemporary, bittersweet equivalent to the Lawrence Welk Show of years past." That was gentle compared with his treatment of the "execrable" Writer's Almanac. Keillor has "appalling" taste, Kleinzahler wrote. Any good poems in Good Poems probably got there because a staffer slipped them in; a "superannuated former MFA from the Iowa Workshop would be my guess." (Though to my knowledge, there is no such thing as a "former MFA" -- the degree is something you have for life and is not shed upon graduation -- Kleinzahler's point was clear enough.) Keillor should be "burned," or perhaps merely locked up "in a Quonset hut" until he renounces his daily radio poem. In brief, Kleinzahler avoids the sound of Keillor's "treacly baritone" voice just as he avoids "sneezing, choking, rheumy-eyed passengers" on the streetcars of San Francisco.
When he gets around to talking about Good Poems, Kleinzahler articulates the anti-populist argument that underscores his contempt for Keillor. In every age, Kleinzahler says, there are "very, very few" poets whose work "will matter down the road." The effort to spread the word and enlarge the audience for poetry -- an effort that Keillor enthusiastically participates in -- is a bad thing, because reading poetry often results in writing poetry, and most poetry is bad, and bad poetry is bad for you and bad for the art. Kleinzahler is vehement to the point of hyperbole: "Poetry not only isn't good for you, bad poetry has been shown to cause lymphomas." Keillor's brand of "boosterism" may sell books and spur more poets to write, but it amounts to a form of "merchandising" that is itself "the problem, not the solution."
The anti-populist argument has its attractions. Many of us love poetry as a high art and regard our commitment to it as a vocation. And high art has its hierarchies, its idea of greatness or genius as something that few possess. As a poet you are continually inventing yourself by eliminating some models and electing others, defining your idea of what constitutes "good" and "bad." And if your aesthetic commitment is extreme, or your revolt against a prevalent style is desperate, you may come to regard bad poetry as almost a moral offense. This is one reason we need criticism: it can help us to understand those crucial terms, "good" and "bad," whose meaning seems almost always in flux.
But anti-populist arguments tend by their nature to be defeatist and somewhat self-fulfilling. The dubious assumption is that if, against great odds, a poet or a poem wins some public acceptance, the work must be bad to the precise degree that it has become popular. The dubious assumption is that if, against great odds, a poet or a poem wins some public acceptance, it must be bad to the precise degree that it has become popular, and not merely bad but contagious. Yet Gresham's Law -- the economic doctrine that says that bad money shall drive out good -- does not really apply here. No one hated bad poetry more genuinely and with greater feeling than Kenneth Koch. But as a teacher of children and nursing home residents, and as the author of a genial "Art of Poetry," he suspended the natural arrogance of the avant-garde artist. Poems, he says, are "esthetecologically harmless and psychodegradable / And never would they choke the spirits of the world. For a poem only affects us / And 'exists,' really, if it is worth it, and there can't be too many of those." It may turn out that the enlargement of poetry's community of readers depends on a toleration not of bad poems but of other people's ideas of what constitutes a good poem. Moreover, if few poets in any given era will achieve the fame of a Keats or Whitman, it does not follow that the appreciation of poetry -- great, good, and otherwise -- is an activity for only a chosen few. Nor does it follow that the several originals among us are, in Kleinzahler's words, "drowning in the waste products spewing from graduate writing programs." Kleinzahler feels that the great talent of the nineteenth century went into the novel and that poetry's competition today is even stiffer and more diverse. He names "movies, television, MTV, advertising, rock 'n' roll, and the Internet." I don't buy it. The amazing thing is that despite all discouragement, significant numbers of brilliant young people today are drawn to poetry. Many are willing to make pecuniary sacrifices in support of their literary habit; more each year enroll in the degree-granting writing programs at which Kleinzahler sneers. Consider the growth of low-residency programs, in which faculty and students convene for ten days twice a year and do the rest of the work by correspondence. In 1994 when the Bennington Writing Workshop began, it was the fourth such program in the country; today there are more than two dozen. Sure, there are those who associate the rise of the creative writing workshop with the fall of civilization, but it remains a pedagogic structure of unusual popularity, and a talented instructor will know how to use its conventions to promote literary knowledge, judgment, and skill. As for Kleinzahler's contention that "American poetry is now an international joke," I think rather the opposite is true. But then he offers no evidence to support his position, while the evidence I could present to support mine -- books published, copies sold, translations made, international conferences devoted to American poetry -- Kleinzahler might dismiss out of hand.
The surplus contempt in Kleinzahler's piece -- the anger so out of proportion with what had nominally occasioned it, and in such sharp contrast to the mild-mannered article that preceded it -- generated a lasting wonder. It was as if one of the two reviews of Good Poems was in favor of civilization and the other in favor of its discontents; as if one spoke with the adjudicating voice of the ego, while the other let loose with the rebellious rant of the id. That the two pieces when juxtaposed failed to produce any ground for good-faith discussion seemed perfectly in accordance with the corrosive level of political discourse in 2004. "We campaign in poetry but govern in prose," former New York governor Mario Cuomo has said. But there was no poetry in last year's campaign rhetoric. I noted also that Good Poems, the modest and inoffensive title Keillor had chosen for his anthology, had not proved any more resistant to hostile comment than an anthology whose title dares to make greater claims for its contents.
The idea of running two reviews of the same book is one innovation that Christian Wiman has made since becoming editor of Poetry. There remains a problem with the criticism of poetry in America -- too little of it is valuable -- and Wiman is trying to do something about that. He is trying to create dialogue and exchange, and though not all attempts succeed, sometimes the failure is so spectacular that we're still talking about it months later. He seems to be discouraging easy pats on the back and encouraging people to go public with their peeves. And he prints letters arguing with the critics. All this has made Poetry a little livelier, more compelling magazine than it had been. But it is also worrisome that the back of the book -- the part devoted to criticism -- has grown steadily. More voices, more pages, do not equal greater clarification. It is sometimes said with heavy tones of lamentation than in this day and age everyone's a poet. The criticism in Poetry implies that on the contrary everyone's a critic. And criticism is too often the sound of a gripe and the taste of sour grapes expressed with all the sensitivity and thoughtfulness of a midnight blogger.
Wiman spruced up the October 2004 issue by asking a band of poets to register their antagonisms and talk about them. In his editorial note Wiman says in passing that only the rare student will have the requisite "acuity and temerity" to challenge professors and anthologies by suggesting that "'Tintern Abbey' would be better without its last fifty lines." As Wiman notes, every editor has the right to be wrong, especially when the goal is to stimulate debate. But as one who cannot read "Tintern Abbey" aloud without tears at the end, and is all too familiar with college students' aversion to Wordsworth (though their own first-person-singular work may owe more to Wordsworth than to any of the other Romantic poets), I must rise to the defense of the poem as Wordsworth designed it. The last stanza, the poem's second climax, culminates in Wordsworth's moving prayer for his sister, Dorothy, as lovely a tribute in verse as ever brother penned for sister. But it is the passage just before the prayer itself -- a single serpentine sentence spun out across sixteen lines of Miltonic blank verse -- that is astonishing. It is like an equation in which either "nature" or "the mind," or the latter as a reflection of the former, triumphantly opposes evil and woe. The poet speaks
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.
The passage is like a bridge across an abyss, with the reader progressing from joy across the chasm of low spite to a place of safety and blessing. It is a passage that you might quote for its smart use of line breaks. It expresses the "cheerful faith" that is the heart and soul of Romanticism -- the conviction that the mind is superior to what it beholds and that imagination can redeem bitter experience. There then follows the "Therefore" -- the prayer for Dorothy -- that completes and unifies the poem, just as the address to the infant son completes and unifies Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," the model for "Tintern Abbey." The "conversation poem" that Coleridge initiated and Wordsworth perfected has a form, and "Tintern Abbey" needs its last forty-nine lines to fulfill the demands of that form. Lop off the last stanza and you risk grave peril to the whole; as with the butchering of a cherry tree's branch, it could cause the death of the tree.
Defender that I am of "good poems" and advocate of great ones such as "Tintern Abbey" and "Frost at Midnight," I know it is up to readers present and readers future to decide whether The Best American Poetry 2005 lives up to its name. Like its predecessors in a series now eighteen volumes strong, it reflects the best efforts of a guest editor, himself a distinguished poet, who went through the periodicals of 2004 looking for seventy-five poems that merit and reward our attention. Paul Muldoon, who made the selections, brings a unique transatlantic perspective to the task. Born in Belfast, an eminent figure in contemporary Irish and British poetry, Muldoon has lived in the United States since 1987 and is an American citizen. He holds a titled professorship at Princeton University, and when he began reading for this anthology, he had just completed a five-year stint as the Oxford Professor of Poetry, which is pretty much the highest academic appointment you can get in the United Kingdom. He had also recently won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Moy Sand and Gravel. I have admired his poetry since discovering Why Brownlee Left (1980) and Quoof (1983) when I worked on a Newsweek piece in 1986 about the extravagance of literary talent to have emerged in Northern Ireland, site of the "troubles." Muldoon's handling of a form like the sestina -- "The Last Time I Saw Chris" in The Best American Poetry 2004, for example -- or an ad hoc form like the errata slip ("For 'ludic' read 'lucid'"), his expert use of rhyme and off-rhyme, make his work exemplary. He is crafty, skillful, able to reconcile rival traditions, and I believe his take on American poetry will prove valuable for many years to come. Like Paul, I am proud of this year's book, and delighted to have had this chance to collaborate with him.
The late Thom Gunn observed that it may make sense to have movements and sects, with or without manifestos, when there is a "monolithic central tradition," as was true when Eliot and the New Critics ruled the roost. But when there is no central tradition, as now, the "divide and conquer" mentality -- with poets "separating ourselves into armed camps" -- seems less defensible. No volume in this series has been the exclusive province of a sect. While each editor will naturally represent most amply the poems he or she feels most in sympathy with, all have worked to transcend a narrow bias and labored to bring to the fore talents unlike their own. Lyn Hejinian, guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2004, when asked about the omission of certain redoubtable poets known to be her friends, said pointedly that she did not want to represent somebody with less than that person's best work.
Though poems may do no harm, the life of the poet is still felt to be full of perils. In April 2004, an article in the Journal of Death Studies reflecting a professor's study of 1,987 dead writers from different countries and different centuries revealed that poets tend to die younger than do other writers. Poets on average die at sixty-two, playwrights at sixty-three, novelists at sixty-six, and nonfiction writers at sixty-eight. This study in comparative lifespans came as news to CNN and the New York Times, which ran stories speculating on the psyche of poets. James Kaufman of the Learning Research Institute at California State University at San Bernardino, whose study caused the fuss, suggested that the poets' higher death rates might correspond to their higher rates of mental illness. Franz Wright, who learned earlier in the same month that he had won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, was asked to comment on Professor Kaufman's study. "Since in the U.S., the worse you write the better your chances of survival, it stands to reason that poets would be the youngest to die," he said gloomily. Meanwhile, the backlash against National Poetry Month continues, as witness a brief item that ran in the satirical newspaper The Onion in late April 2005: "This month marks the 10th National Poetry Month, a campaign created in 1996 to raise public awareness of the growing problem of poetry. 'We must stop this scourge before more lives are exposed to poetry,' said Dr. John Nieman of the American Poetry Prevention Society at a Monday fundraising luncheon. 'It doesn't just affect women. Young people, particularly morose high-school and college students, are very susceptible to this terrible affliction. It is imperative that we eradicate poetry now, before more rainy afternoons are lost to it.' Nieman said some early signs of poetry infection include increased self-absorption and tea consumption."
Nevertheless, despite the glum news, more people are writing poetry, and going public with it. Rosie O'Donnell's blog features what she calls "the unedited rantings of a fat 43 year old menopausal ex-talk show host," mostly in verse. From a typically lively March 2005 entry: "marriot marquee / lois walks me in thru the kitchen -- / I felt like elvis presley -- a head of state / a great fake important me." Who says poetry and Wall Street are incompatible? Business Week began a profile of Robert Smith, the fund manager of T. Rowe Price's Growth Stock mutual fund, with eight lines from Smith's "Up on Deck," which he says is a metaphor for risk-taking in the stock market. (The poem's risk-averse speaker "never saw how close the wreck / And never cheered the winds first still / As I might have up on deck.") Calvin Trillin gathered some of the politically charged doggerel he has written for The Nation and the book became a surprise best seller. "A lot of people in America hear the words 'rhyme' and 'poetry' and think it might as well be Canadian," Trillin quipped. He has no plans to give up what he calls his "deadline poetry." In "A Poem of Republican Populism" from The Nation of October 11, 2004, the Republican Party is the collective speaker. Here's the poem's conclusion: "Yes, though we always represent / The folks who sit in corporate boxes, / The gratifying paradox is -- / And this we love; it's just the neatest -- / The other party's called elitist."
News reports circulated that Saddam Hussein writes poetry in his air-conditioned cell in a U.S. military prison. One poem concerned George Bush, though the leak did not specify whether it was number forty-one or forty-three. In the New York Times "men's fashion" supplement of September 19, 2004, Michael Bastian, the "man behind Bergdorf Goodman Men," held up Frank O'Hara as a fashion template. "We wanted to capture that whole tweedy, rumpled city-gun feeling, like a character in Cheever or Salinger, or like the poet Frank O'Hara," said Bastian, sporting a $995 Cantarelli tweed jacket and $390 Marc Jacobs chinos. Poetry is glamorous! For a reality check, we had the movie We Don't Live Here Anymore. Peter Krause ("Hank") plays a blocked writer, who looks sad despite getting word that The New Yorker has accepted one of his poems. Laura Dern ("Terri") tries to cheer him up. "You're getting published," she says. "It doesn't get much better than that." He replies sharply, "It's a poem, Terri. It's really nothing important."
One other celebrity almost made news as a closet poet last year. In March 2004, a senior editor at Us Weekly asked me to read and comment on a poem that Jennifer Lopez had written. The poem had three stanzas. The phrase "I am lovely" appears in two of the stanzas; in the first, the line reads, "I am lonely." Wanting to praise something in the poem prior to suggesting revisions or making criticisms, I singled out the progress from "lonely" to "lovely" -- only to learn that the variation was the product of a typo in an editor's e-mail. In the end, the story didn't run, because more pressing news bumped it: Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz had broken up. It remains a pleasure to welcome J.Lo to the poets' club, which is as democratic among the living as it is elitist when canons are fixed and all entrants are posthumous.
Copyright © 2005 by David Lehman