Saturday, December 29, 2007

BEST AMERICAN POETRY? I DON’T THINK SO

I spent a lot of this holiday season in bookstores, buying gifts on impulse that I intuit those I love will love. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

But it also gives me the opportunity to see what’s hot, what’s being pushed, what’s being discounted and remaindered and what’s new in the book world.

One of the most obvious places for catching up on what’s happening in the literary world is “THE BEST” series. Like THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007.

In my younger years, from say when I first started sending poems out for publication at fifteen to oh, last year, I looked at these year-end collections or any kind of anthology, as either a book I thought I deserved to be included in, and would be someday, or as a book I deserved to be included in and the assholes who edited them obviously had no taste!

Lately, thankfully, I mostly have no envy or ambitions for these things because first of all I know how ephemeral they can be but also because I finally understand that I would not want to be a part of a club that doesn’t want people like me in it, sort of the opposite of the famous Groucho Marx comment about not wanting to belong to a club that would have him, which is the way I felt too often throughout my life.

But the point of this post is not my feelings about my absence in so many anthologies and end-of-the-year-best-of collections, but the absence of all kinds of other talented creators whose work is also never included in these things.

THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007 includes a handful, if that, of poems deserving to be in a book with that title (like Elaine Equi’s great poem) while the rest are mediocre at best, even ones from poets I can often dig (like Galway Kinnel’s poem in this volume).

In the poetry workshop I host in the tiny living room of my apartment, the working people, who also happen to be poets, write poems that are so far beyond most of the “poetry” in this volume, it’s embarrassing to even think that readers will pick up a book like this and think it represents anything near “the best” of poetry.

The same goes for “the best” short stories and essays, etc.

It’s like the poetry in THE NEW YORKER, or the fiction for that matter. How can a magazine that includes such incredible non-fiction (if I edited a year-end “best of the year” anthology of essays, I could easily just pick them from THE NEW YORKER) which almost all the time engage and enlighten, also include short stories and poems that fall flat on the page, that make no impression other than preciousness or irony.

Not that the fiction in THE NEW YORKER isn’t well crafted, or the poems, to some extent, but almost every short story in the magazine leads me to get engaged with characters who end up most of the time doing nothing, revealing nothing, learning nothing, etc. The stories end in mid-air with the implication that it’s all meaningless anyway, so why bother. Well, why bother printing the stuff then?!

The poems do more or less the same, make the point that life is full of mundane moments that add up to, well, life.

You would think that all the “experimental” and avant-garde breakthroughs of the 20th century, or even the 19th for that matter, never occurred, except the one that opened poetry to plain speech and “free verse” and the one that allowed short stories to be pointless, as part of the point.

(Though THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007 does contain some more “experimental” poets, like an old favorite Rae Armantrout, most of it falls into the category I just created above.)

Best thing to do with THE BEST books is pick one up in the bookstore and browse through it and when, or if, you find something you dig, remember the name of the author and go and buy their books, not the "THE BEST (whatever) 2007" which is ultimately either "the friends of” or the “most influential, with whom I have to curry favor” or “the ones who are getting the most hype because they have 'the best' agents or editors or publishers…” or just “my poor taste and judgment for all to see.”

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Lal--Well, knock me over with a feather if your reactions to Best American Poetry 2007 aren't exactly the same ones I had on Christmas Eve at the Barnes and Noble at Yale Bookstore as I browsed the contents of this year's "Best" collection and noted the names that were NOT there: Michael Lally, Tad Richards, Vern Rutsala, Horace Coleman, Naomi Ayala, or Ray McNiece, to name just a few. You could make your own list, but that's the point: everyone could make a list of people who deserve to be in these collections and never are, because they never get published in the magazines from which the "Best" are selected.
And didn't you, in fact, identify the real underlying bias of the quality-lit uber-bosses when you talked about the "working people" who do informal workshops at your apartment? Poems by working people inevitably are about real things discussed in everyday language, anathema to the academically trained and the literarily genteel, a class issue I used to characterize, in the 60s and 70s, by calling literature an "entertainment for the idle rich and the lumpen-bourgeoisie."
And I couldn't agree more with your conclusion--read the "Bests" and then buy the collections of the individual writers whose work you like, recalling all the while that "the man who says he loves poetry and never buys any is a sonofabitch."
And may we all have

A Gut Neu Jahr Of No War,

Bob Berner

-K- said...

The last time I was interested in a Best American Poetry edition was when they put a Joe Brainard painting on the cover. But once they also had Robert Creeley edit one year's edition so I give them credit for that.

And as much as I can literally lose myself in the New Yorker, I never find an interesting poem.

harryn said...

thanks again michael - i'm doin' the same thing at b&n over the holidays but mostly rummaging through art books and mags with the same results - starbuck's probably heightens the frustration - thankfully, i've matured past ambition, anger, and envy into bewilderment as to how these 'collections' can be offered - most times i attribute it to the pressure of year-end publication deadlines until i see choices so blatantly stupid it yields to nothing more than being completely uninformed ...
not even as tastefully stupid as some of the group shows or biennials ...
the real losers here are the people who are seeking wisdom ...
meanwhile, i know hundreds of friends/associates that have rooms of wonderful unshown paintings, cartons of drawings, and boxes of rejection letters ...
i guess the best is yet to come ...

TheOldMole said...

I don't object to any "Best of" collection for precisely the reason Mike mentions offhandedly -- you can find a few poems you like, and follow up on those poets.

I suspect that Mike is right about his working-class poets being better than most of what's in the book -- and good for you, Mike, for running this workshop -- but Adrienne Rich's outsider-poet "Best of" collection was pretty much of a disaster, so that's not a guaranteed route, either.

In my youth, or young middle age, I lobbied Bill Henderson for the position of overall poetry editor of the Pushcart Prize series, but he wouldn't go for it. I think the state of American poetry would be immeasurably better if he'd given me the gig.

Anonymous said...

Since I know the old mole personally and can vouch for his talent as a writer and his taste as a reader, I completely agree with him that the state of American poetry, at least those chosen for a Pushcart Prize, would have been immeasurably improved had he been the editor.
Bob Berner

tpw said...

Dear M:

Having been included in several Best American Poetrys, I have, not surprisingly, a different take on the subject from yours. I doubt if anyone involved in the series---David Lehman as the overall editor and the many poets who have served as editors for particular years---would claim any sort of infallible comprehensiveness. It all comes down to taste---as you know, having edited an anthology yourself. And any selection involves much painful choosing and de-selecting. But I think David L. has been an exceedingly fair-minded broker of the series, inviting an impressively diverse line-up of poets---everyone from Ashbery, Creeley, and Hejinian to Collins, Simic, and Komunyakaa---to serve as editors. Over the years, these books have accommodated all kinds of schools and esthetics. I always read BAP, and always find these anthologies to be eye-opening and engaging (though I admit that the 2007 edition wasn’t my favorite). In the end, I salute anyone who labors for the increase and diffusion of poetry---whether by editing anthologies, managing a reading series, reading poems on the radio, running small presses and magazines, or producing provocative & articulate blogs day after day. The pay stinks and the criticism is plentiful.
TPW

Lally said...

Yep. There's certainly some fine poems to be found in these "Best Of" collections, and it is all a matter of taste, and I too appreciate anyone creating a venue for poetry. But there are venues and venues. THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY of whatever year, is allowed to differ from my taste or yours or anyone's, obviously, but if the series continues to ignore an entire segment of "American Poetry" year after year no matter who the editor is, then something's fishy. I'm glad they included poems of yours over the years, as I am they included poems of other poets who are friends or just poets whose work I admire. But, I could easily list a hundred poets who have great followings, who give great readings, who write great poetry, and are never—never—included in any of these "Best" or other major-publisher anthology or academic textbook etc. Not just me, though that's a good enough place to start the hundred. Maybe I'll do a list like that someday. It reminds me of a Rolling Stone list of the hundred most important American poets, according to them, back in the early 1970s. No one whose work I dug was on it, so I sat down and wrote a quick hundred off the top of my head and sent it to them, which, of course, they ignored. It included not only you, but Ted Berrigan, and others I no longer remember (never kept copies). Maybe I'll do another, one hundred great American poets not in any of THE BEST anthologies...someday.

Anonymous said...

Lal--Love the idea of an Alternative Best list. By all means, DO IT.
Bob Berner