Contemporary Poetry Review

Reviewed By:
Kathleen Rooney

What It I

 

The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets. Edited by Dominic Luxford, Introduction by David Orr. McSweeney’s, 2007.


 


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          In the typically ironic (both self-effacing and self-aggrandizing) tone that McSweeney’s assumes when it comments on anything of its own devising, the jacket copy for The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets declares the book to be “an almighty treasury.” As anyone familiar with such hyperbole knows, that is not what the book is truly meant to be, exactly. The 211-page anthology—slim by the standards of its kind—is edited by Dominic Luxford, poetry editor of The Believer. But as he points out in his “About This Book” introduction, “We can’t take any credit, but we’re thrilled with how the collection turned out.” The reason for his disavowal of credit is because, as he puts it, “we tried to stay entirely out of the way, letting the poems in this book pick themselves.”  

Here is how the process of compilation worked: Luxford selected one poem apiece from ten different poets, including David Berman, Mark Doty, Lynn Emanuel, Denis Johnson, Mary Karr, Yusef Komunyakaa, Michael Ondaatje, Atsuro Riley, C.D. Wright, and Dean Young. These ten poets then selected one poem of their own and one by another poet. Those poets then did the same and so on and so forth until they hit five poets total, a system that yielded 100 poems in 10 chains with five poets per chain and two poems per poet.  

So though the book describes itself twice as “almighty”—once on the jacket and once again in Luxford’s intro where he dubs the project “one almighty collection of verse”—the whole point is that it isn’t almighty at all, whatever that might mean. The selection process for the book was not expansive, carefully considered, or all-inclusive, but rather was clubby, perhaps a bit random, and rather narrow. Unlike most anthologies which attempt to provide a thorough or at least thoughtful survey of a particular subject, Poets Picking Poets does not make any attempt to do so at all.

Lazy or inspired? The book is well worth reading, so I’d urge you to pick up a copy and then you can be the judge. I think it’s both. The anthology is, in a word or two, gimmicky but fun. This could the motto of the McSweeney’s Empire’s entire approach to poetry. Front and center on their guidelines page is their assertion that they do not accept submissions of what they term “the poetry type” for the website. For the print quarterly, their assessment is that “POETRY Can be wonderful, but is not something we publish.” Despite first appearances, they have not banished poets from their republic altogether. They were accepting submissions of sestinas (see? Gimmicky! Fun!) for their web edition until recently. And of the sestinas they published (you can see them all here), many were fantastic and clever, such as Daphne Gottlieb’s cento “Whitman’s Sampler: Killing the Father of Free Verse,” which consists entirely of lines taken from the work of Walt Whitman. They published Dean Young’s collection Embryoyo. And they published a piece on April Fool’s Day of this year in the list section of their website entitled “Ten Very Hip Poems That Didn’t Go Over So Well at the Poetry Slam Last Weekend.”

            Also, while they are no longer accepting sestinas, they are now accepting original, unpublished senryu and pantoums for a special issue of McSweeney’s print quarterly. Taking a look at this call for submissions lends further insight into how the McSweeney’s editors feel about poetry as an art form (or maybe it doesn’t, but it’s still interesting to consider):

“Dear Readers, We’re hoping to resurrect a couple of old but still worthy forms of poetry for a special issue of the McSweeney’s quarterly. Specifically, we’re looking for original, unpublished senryu and pantoums. If you’ve already written such poetry, please send your absolute best to endangeredspecies@mcsweeneys.net, with either “SENRYU” or “PANTOUM” in the subject line. No attachments, please. Those who write senryu, please submit no more than five poems; pantoum writers, send us no more than two. No other forms of poetry will be considered at this time. If you’d like to know more about these magnificent poetic forms, read on.”

 

As with everything they do and say, it is almost impossible to tell from their inscrutable tone and reckless use of superlatives whether or not the editors really believe that these forms are “magnificent,” but still—they are accepting them.

 

It is also worthwhile to consider the e-mail address created to accept the submission of these forms: “Endangered species”—as though poems are these once-majestic-but-now-harmless entities, like the silverback gorilla or the polar bear. Once, long ago, they may have dominated the landscape, but these days they are almost extinct, so McSweeney’s likes to hunt for them—a senryu safari!—and install them safely in their zoo. So whereas most other anthologies may treat poetry as something alive and even dangerous, McSweeney’s treats it as something cute. And cute means appealing, and nice to have around, but it also means toothless, inoffensive, to be taken lightly. And maybe poetry these days has lost its edge, and maybe it hasn’t. The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets won’t argue; if anything, it frustrates by its refusal to argue, or to assert itself as anything greater than the foregone outcome of its quirky method of selection.  

In any event, it seems fitting that McSweeney’s first foray into publishing a lot of poetry in one place comes with the same general air of treating poetry as a gimmicky diversion from prose. If one were feeling ungenerous, one could say they treat poetry in this book with the same dismissiveness as they do on their site, where poetry is relegated to little more than a kids’ game or parlor trick, interesting only if the rules are particularly elaborate. If one were feeling generous, one could say that they are committed to poetry as a Dadaist gesture or a formal exercise, not dissimilar to the approach taken by the Oulipo group.  

Regardless of their reasons or intentions, the book that results from this experiment makes the game worth playing, the trick worth seeing. This method of selection appears never to have been done before, so they do have novelty on their side (though it would serve as a parody of the shoddy manner in which many anthologies are actually assembled). The table of contents is a witty little family tree, indicating which poets are related to which other poets via a series of flow-chart style arrows, as in: “David Berman à Brett Eugene Ralph à Bernd Sauermann à James Tate à Charles Simic.” If one reads nothing more than the table of contents, one could still have hours of fun attempting to discern, just from this list of names, the connections among contributors, as well as speculating on the paths of influence and admiration. This diagrammatic approach to the table of contents puts into visual form the innovative editorial approach, and, even more than Luxford’s introduction, seems to raise the question: Does this approach to the act of anthologizing lead to a more surprisingly open anthology than one edited by a single person or committee, or does it really just reinforce a group of people who happen to know each other in an extended writerly careerist network? As with so many such questions, the answer is “both.” 

Calling attention to the very act of anthologizing itself is one of the most valuable things this book does. As such, David Orr’s introduction is one of the finest features of the book, as he seems to be the only one trying to make sense of this project, resulting in a smart and good-humored short treatise on anthologies in general, how they are made and how they are (or are not) read. He argues that there are essentially two methods of teaching and anthologizing poetry. The first, he says, is:

what you might call the systematic method (or if you’re feeling uncharitable, the boring method). As T.S. Eliot puts it in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” this way of looking at poetry focuses on the development of a historical sensibility that must be “obtained with great labor”; as you might expect, then, a teacher who favors systematic instruction typically stresses the mastery of poetry’s traditional building blocks—the sonnet, the ode and so forth—and refuses to let you skip the snoozy parts of Paradise Lost. At its best, this method can produce a writer or reader who is wise and humble; at its worst, it produces one who won’t shut up about dactylic hexameter. 

The second, he continues—”call it the improvisational method”—is:  

Pretty nearly the opposite of the first. The spirit of this method is best expressed by Philip Larkin in an interview with the Paris Review from 1982: Interviewer: You mention Auden, Thomas, Yeats and Hardy…What in particular did you learn from your study of those four? Larkin: Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? And that’s how you learn.  

Orr concludes that anthologies are typically assembled via the systematic method, even though they end up being read improvisationally. The drift of this argument is that The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets is superior to these traditional, systematic (i.e. boring) anthologies, for not only will it be read improvisationally, so too was it assembled that way. 

I’m not sure I agree—not that it is or is not superior to other anthologies, but whether or not it will be read improvisationally as most other anthologies are. Since I knew I was reading the book in order to review it, I had to read it all the way through in relatively short order. But I think that even if that had not been the case, I’d have wanted to just to follow the daisy chains and see who picked whom. I can’t help but think that many other readers will do the same. Reading this anthology, following the connections, has a celebrity-watching, Us Weekly feel to it, kind of like reading Perez Hilton to see which stars are cavorting with which other ones.  

Both Luxford and Orr seem pleased with how this book has managed to liberate itself from having to be “‘fair’ . . . comprehensive, judicious” and therefore “kind of bland.” The editors are less editors and more curators, and are therefore off the hook of having to be politically correct, balanced, footnoted, or academic. If many anthologies err on the side of being too democratic, too grandiose, then you could say this one errs on the side of lackadasicality—who cares, the chains seem to say, this is no big deal, this is nothing definitive; we’re just having fun, like in a meandering conversation. For example, David Berman’s “Now II,” in which he writes:

And the brown girl who reads the Bible by the pool

with a bookmark that says “ed called”

or “ed call ed,” must know that turtles

are screwed in the snow

 

and that everything strains to be inevitable

even as it’s being killed forever.  

converses fluidly with the Brett Eugene Ralph poem “Flowering Judas” that Berman selected to appear next, in which Ralph writes: 

            Every time I open my eyes

            The phantoms all expire

They could be klansmen, they could be little girls

            Wearing wedding dresses           

If this book is like a conversation, then it’s also like a list of Amazon.com recommendations, the ones that suggest that customers who bought X also bought Y. If you liked Olena Kalytiak Davis’s “Look at Lesbia Now!”, this book hazards, in its casual way, then you will probably love Alice Notley’s “World’s Bliss.” It is right about as much (which is to say, not that often) as Amazon in terms of actual similarity between selections. But then again, similarity was never the stated point of this anthology, and that is part of the pleasure: you do end up getting introduced to a bunch of poems you might like, but might have never happened upon otherwise. The book is full of happy almost-accidents, like when Kay Ryan selects her own distinctively lean and spare lyric “Dogleg” in which she writes:

Only two of

the dog’s legs

dogleg and

two of the cat’s.

Fifty-fifty: that’s

as bad as it

gets usually,

despite the

fear you feel

when life has

angled brutally.  

and then chooses to follow it with Sarah Lindsay’s narrative and discursive “Cheese Penguin” in which:

The penguins scurry for something to mother,

anyone’s egg will do, any egg

no matter how stiff and useless the contents,

even an egg-shaped stone to warm—

and one observer slips to a widow

a red tin that once held cheese.

Finally, the wooden ship sails, full of salted penguin,

dozens of notebooks, embryos,

explorers who missed as little as possible . . .  

Orr claims that “more than anything else, this anthology allows us to discover what a poet finds best in her own work alongside what she finds appealing in someone else’s.” But the word “discover” connotes clarity and a definitiveness that I don’t think this anthology can fairly claim. It lets us grope around for reasons why we think Mary Karr might have opted to have her poem “The Fall and Rise of the Domestically Violent Empire” followed by Courtney Queeney’s “The Anti-Leading Lady Dissociates.” No answer being readily apparent, one could Google a bit and “discover” that Mary Karr was Courtney Queeney’s teacher in the MFA program at Syracuse. 

Certainly nepotism is not the only force in play in this anthology. But because no one is saying what other forces are in play, we are left to draw our own conclusions, and when one finds that Tomaž Šalamun picked Thomas Kane, a poet whose bio says that he is a student whose translations of Šalamun are forthcoming in Crazyhorse, you begin to wonder. None of the authors provides any insight—not even a sentence or two along with their bios in the back—about why he or she selected anything: not why he or she selected his or her own poem, or why he or she selected the next person in the chain. Luxford, too, is tight-lipped about how he kicked the whole endeavor off, and we are left with no idea how he picked the first ten. Because they were famous? Because they owed him a favor? Because he had their email addresses lying around the McSweeney’s office?  

Yes, these are perhaps frivolous and even unkind guesses, but because Luxford refuses to engage in anything resembling a discussion of the aesthetics at play here, this is what one is left with. Luxford does begin his introduction with the statement, “Poetry is a notoriously subjective affair and the evaluation of it is notoriously unstable.” Simply to say that the act of separating good poetry from bad is difficult and sometimes subjective and leave it at that seems a lame dodge. More than that, it seems a shame, and makes this book feel as though it is filled with missed opportunities to hear from both leading and up-and-coming poets why they are attracted to a particular poem. If you are going to say that “what you hold in your hands now is one hundred favorite works of some of the most vital poets writing today,” it seems you should at least venture to say what makes them favorite and what makes them vital. Why is Denis Johnson’s opinion on a favorite poem worth having? Why is Harryette Mullen’s? John Ashbery’s?  

Even if the choices really were all made by some kind of personal relationship or cronyism, you at least want to hear these choices explained with semi-plausible explanations. I realize that that is too cynical, and that this collection can’t have been assembled solely on back-scratching and favoritism. And even if it had been, the resulting book is ultimately fun to read and think about. Still, even though you can understand why David Berman picked Brett Eugene Ralph, it would be interesting nevertheless to hear him say why he favors that vein of conversationalism and soft surrealism that runs thru his chain all the way to Charles Simic. And it would be equally fascinating to hear a bit about why some of the more seemingly counterintuitive chains came into being. 

All in all, The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets is an absorbing and an entertaining book. And as with so many absorbing books, it tempts you to put yourself in the position of the “characters” and think: who would I pick if I were given this assignment? Which poem of my own and which poem by someone else and why? And it does, through its adherence to the more or less improvisational method, allow for lots of serendipitous juxtapositions and surprises for the reader. I, for example, was unfamiliar with the work of Caroline Bergvall, but now, having read the Lisa Robertson-selected “Gong: 11 July 2003—48 lines,” I can’t get enough of her poetry. So aside from any tempting-albeit-prurient gossip about who knew who and how and why, this anthology makes many pleasing introductions and opens many doors to further reading, even though it appears to have exerted minimal effort to do so.  

As any cool kid can tell you, it’s not cool to try too hard, and by that criterion, this book is really cool. That’s not a criticism, nor is it a compliment; it is, in the inimitable and ubiquitous words of the phrase that was voted the number one cliché of 2004, what it is. And that’s probably the best short summary of this book. What is it? Well, you can explain the technique of its assembly, and you can say who’s in it, but beyond that, it is what it is—best just to enjoy it and not to overanalyze or over-think any of it too much. No one else did.

 


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