Wednesday, 4 January 2006

Review: Best American Poetry 2005

The idea - a good one, admittedly - was no doubt originally to provide one way through the jungle of poetry publication, as if with a fine-toothed machete - and, so, when the first "Best American" annual review, featuring the best 75 poems, was published in 1988, with none other than the great John Ashbery as Farley Granger, all seemed well.

Well, since then, the series has produced its own in-a-mirror self-round-up, from Harold Bloom, no less, whose 1988-1997 compendium drew on the best from the first ten years.

Now, the 2005 issue is out, and it looks better than ever: a stunning cover (see to the right) and selected poems by Paul Muldoon, arguably one of the more playful, original, influential and significant poets now writing in English.

What's not to like?

Well, mostly the book is very much worth reading - though what it says about the current state of poetry affairs (in American) may be vaguely depressing to some.

Firstly, the Series Editor, David Lehman, has opened with a rambling, occasionally witty and informative, Foreword, that takes potshots at, among others, August Kleinzhaler, in defense of democratic poetry against what seems to be AK's rage against folksy poetry-for-the-people radio broadcasts and Keillor's Good Poems anthology. Kleinzhaler, apparently, is one of those poets (I could name fifteen right now) who like to claim there are only about five real poets writing at any moment (thus usually cancelling at least 66% of themselves out) - and Lehman wants a far more open and welcoming perspective - naturally enough, since his enterprise is based on the idea that at least 75 poets are worth reading every year.

My own experience, as an editor, is that there are currently several hundred poets now writing somewhere in the world, in English, who should be taken fairly seriously - though not all are canonically major, of course.

Then the hard part - Paul Muldoon (whose own Introduction is cursory) has to select the best poems. He's done a curious job. Compared to other years, the selection seems somewhat thin on the ground, and I am not sure why. The poets mustered can, at first glance, hardly be described as unimportant - in fact, Muldoon has chosen more than anyone's fair share of canonical, dead poets whose posthumous work rather movingly weights the anthology as a whole, along with other heavy-hitters: A.R. Ammons, John Ashbery, Charles Bukowski, Marilyn Hacker, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Galway Kinnell, Adrienne Rich, Charles Simic, Louis Simpson, W.D. Snodgrass, Gary Snyder, James Tate, David Wagoner and Charles Wright.

After such an impressive valedictory role-call, that leaves 60 newer poets to be discovered and celebrated by Muldoon - and presumably what had been hoped for was that this gently-post-modern poet would astonish and delight with quirky, witty choices off the beaten track...

Well, he does this, a little, drawing from a few online or relatively indie journals, but also sticking to a large number of established mid-career folks, too, like Mary Jo Salter. The collection includes younger poets, many from creative writing backgrounds with MFAs from places like Iowa, but also perhaps one of the oldest ever captured in the series: the wonderfully-named Dorothea Tanning, born in 1910 - and last year's editor, the Language poet Lynn Hejinian even finds a place. The whole thing feels a bit like Aslan's rag tag army of animals, where no one with a heart in the right place gets left out, except the Polar Bears (who presumbaly want it to be winter always just because).

In general, the poems tend to be rather less eclectic than might have been expected, and several partake of "Muldoonian" strategy - most curiously Wilbur does this, with his children's poem (this hardly seemed necessary to say, but he does) titled "Some Words Inside of Words" with lines like "At heart, ambassadors are always sad". When will poets ever get over words?

One of the nice surprises is that Muldoon acknowledges the impact of the Iraq war on poetry (if not vice versa), and includes several poems (and by no means the best of their kind) to represent this fact. Given the work done since 2003 in this field, such a note of recognition seems belated, though still welcome.

More often than not, though, the younger poets respresented are trying very hard to be Paul or John - witty, flowing, rhetorically masterful, and vaguely weird or abstract. This seems to be the North American poetic tic of the moment, and as far as it opens the wardrobe and gets those mothballs rocking and rolling, I'm all for it, but too many zany poems in one night is like dancing to The B-52s for six hours straight - one's penchant for "Rock Lobster" diminishes as the clock turns ever on.

I was very glad to see poems by Richard Garcia, Vicki Hudspith, D. Nurkse (all previously published by Nthposition) among some others.

My own four favorite poems of the lot were by Charles Wright (whose "A Short History of my Life" will be read in 100 years as one of the major poems of this decade - its last lines alone makes one shiver as late-Cantos Pound does - "The world in its dark grace./ I have tried to record it.") and by Stephen Dunn and Tony Hoagland. Dunn's short poem on roses, his honeymoon, and the start of the Iraq war is as simple and moving in its use of image as William Carlos Williams at his best. Hoagland's work is funny, and well-turned at the end. Donald Justice's brief poem is also a treat, in a Yeatsian sort of way.

So, not a bad year, though perhaps a somewhat conservative harvest.
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