Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

The Best of the Best

coverThe Best American Poetry 2000 edited by Rita Dove. Series Editor, David Lehman;  Scribner, 2000. $16.00.
(Click on book cover to order.)

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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.     First, let's get some things said that need to be gotten straight about this anthology. David Lehman's guest-edited Best American Poetry collections have been with us now for some some thirteen years (John Ashbery having kicked off the series as first Guest Editor back in 1988), but Rita Dove's selection of poems for this year's edition seems, to this reviewer at least, second to none in liveliness and consistently high level of accomplishment. Never mind that earlier volumes were edited by figures no less august than Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, A. R. Ammons, Louise Glück, Mark Strand, Richard Howard, and others as gifted and well laureled. This year's batch of poems literally pulses, hums, crackles with whatever is turned to these days for cobweb clearance when putting together anthologies of new verse. If there is anything to be said against Rita Dove's taste in poetry, it is that it occasionally confuses thwacks of sentiment with pangs of real emotion, or a haste to enshrine disruptions of Existenz with a gift for schmoozing deep themes not seen since Robert Frost stopped writing and went crackerbarrel.
     It's to be expected when activity in any medium reaches the stage of supply exceeding demand that much that comes off the assembly line will be yard goods of one kind or another. And that, more often than not, is what we find when we leaf through many of the poetry journals currently being published in this country. Whether this is to be attributed to the poetry revival we are told is going on or to be seen as happening despite it, the fact remains that an enormous quantity of verse finding its way into print fails to rise above the level of "poetry by the yard."
     Nonetheless, the odd and interesting thing about poetry--and The Best American Poetry 2000, edited by Rita Dove, makes this very point on page after page--is that in the best of times even yard goods--well, certain yard goods--can be made to seem not all that bad. Let's face it: all that Creative Writing being done on campuses, from Iowa and Stanford to Amherst and Florida, was sooner or later bound to produce a higher level of technical competency, even only among fledgling poets and their slightly more experienced peers. It is generally agreed that verse appearing in some of the tonier publications (such as The New Yorker) is now on a plane where poor quality is less consequent upon production than overproduction. "Good" in matters of poetry is a much different term of praise (whether real or merely faint) than it was even twenty years ago.
     For one thing, younger aspirants to the craft seem finally to have put the counterculture of the '60s and '70s behind them and settled into a kind of one-size-fits-all idiom in which John Ashbery meets the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets at the (Jesse) Ventura & (Ted) Nugent bar. Or at a poetry bar just about anywhere in the English speaking world, since the average magazine of new verse tends to fall open to something that looks very much like this, if not on every page, then far more frequently than coincidence alone might allow:

I can't remember how old I was,
but I used to stand in front
of the bathroom mirror, trying to imagine
what it would be like to be dead.
I thought I'd have some sense of it
If I looked far enough into my own eyes,
As if my gaze, meeting itself, would make
An absence, and exclude me.

Titled "Permanence," this poem by Lawrence Raab opens to the strains of a melody lifted into prominence what seems like an eon ago by the author of "The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers," from Some Trees (1956)--

Yet I cannot escape the picture
Of my small self in that bank of flowers:
My head among the blazing phlox
Seemed a pale and gigantic fungus.
I had a hard stare, accepting

Everything, taking nothing,
As though the rolled-up future might stink
As loud as stood the sick moment
The shutter clicked-

and ends on a similar note, no less derivative, from the same poet's stash of motifs:

You look into your own eyes in a mirror
and that's all you can see.
Until you notice the window
behind you, sunlight on the leaves
of the oak, and then the sky,
and then the clouds passing through it.

No doubt Rita Dove, when she decided to include this poem in The Best American Poetry 2000 knew that Ashbery'd been there, done that; and even managed in "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," twenty years further on from Some Trees, to anticipate how the error of his own early surrealist ways might later show up, radiantly renormalized, in later poetry's decodings of the obvious:

            . . . "Play" is something else;
It exists, in a society specifically
Organized as a demonstration of itself.
There is no other way, and those assholes
Who would confuse everything with their mirror games
Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or
At least confuse issues by means of investing
Aura that would corrode the architecture
Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery,
Are beside the point . . .

     All of which might convey the impression, falsely uncomplimentary to Raab and those of his contemporaries who, wittingly or unwittingly, might have fallen under the spell of a poet as "strong" (in the sense adduced by Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence) as John Ashbery; that theirs is a style less of their own making than one put together by a master couturier and illusionist. Raab himself would appear immune to any predations of undue influence, having to date authored five collections of poetry and earned additional recognition as a National Book Award finalist in 1993.
     Still, it is hard to dispel the notion that much new verse in our time is as bestridden by the colossus of the "Ashberian model" and its accompanying vocalics as was the verse of the 1930's and 1940's by the hypnotic legerdemain of Auden and his clones. In fact, it took a virtual tsunami of Beat media hype, whipped to an even thicker froth by a fascination with the (then in vogue) stylistics of Objectivist and "open field" particularization, itself fueled by the neo-Modernist revival of poets like Pound, Williams, Zukofsky and Reznickoff, to significantly dent Auden's mystique.
     So, what are the identifying hallmarks of omnipresent "Ashberian model"? Well, an interview in the current (Fall 2000) Bookforum has the Master breezily weighing in on the issue, and he characterizes the template in question as a "stop-making-sense type of poem." This description is cute but it has fuzzy edges. Ashbery's singular contribution to the postmodern Olympics is the digitalization of the poem as we know it to the point of miniaturizing its thematic largesse and seizing upon the Achilles heel--swollen in his verse to elephantine proportions--of its lack of motivating rationale. To assure that all this be swallowable by l'homme moyen sensuel, he drives his elaborately rubber-banded inventions through a protracted series of motions that not infrequently suggests a battery powered artichoke peeler designed by Swift (that's Tom--not Jonathan), which is then made further recognizable as Ashberian by the low, surrealist hum it emits at any reading speed. None of which requiring any great resourcefulness or talent to whip up, a fact to which the poetry journals abundantly attest.
     The upshot of this is that there isn't any more disgrace to having trace amounts (or even more) of Ashbery in your verse than there was for English poets in the 1740's, who had their own difficulty being heard against the din of Popean infallibility; or for Russian poets in the following century, who had the dubious privilege of being weighed down by the universalizing bon mots of yet another Pope Alexander--in this case, Pushkin. On the other hand, when such quantities are consistently present to an extent larger than most would consider subtle, they should be traces one kicks against, though to be honest I found few contributors to Rita Dove's anthology functioning on "automatic pilot" or anything resembling it.
     But just as T. S. Eliot insisted long ago it was impossible to be a classical poet in a Romantic age, it is no less quixotic today to try to circumvent what is for all intents and purposes the lingua franca of Anglo-American poetry in our time. Any full-scale revolt launched against it would likely result in a state of affairs pleasing to few and conducive to the sort of verse capable of giving pleasure to fewer still. One envisages in such a reactionary shift a return to the Yvor Winters of everyone's discontent--which is to say, a "rule of thumbscrew" whose austere stylistics once roused the great South African poet Roy Campbell to what was, even for him, an uncommon fit of pique. Driven to protest (among other things) the priggish asperity of what passed for verse among his contemporaries, he expressed his disdain with a quip that more than a half-century later is still flirting with immortality: "I see the the bit, the snaffle, and the curb, but where's the bloody horse?"
    Campbell's "bloody horse" has been given a long tether and may be found roaming just about everywhere in this anthology. Its cavortings have clearly not been restricted to those V.I.P. precincts only where works by the Gunns, Justices, Walcotts, or Wilburs are to be found quartered. Among the goals unanimously trumpeted by the Best American Poetry series' guest editors was the combing of journals for poets who are not household names. While the average age of the contributors to Ms. Dove's anthology hardly suggests wetness behind the ears--most are at least 40--there is not at all the sense that any of them are reduced to running on empty or rooting about old couches, theme-wise, for abandoned coins. Even where pastiche is the opted-for game, as in Paul Perry's "Paris," "after Celan," the homage effects more than a "translation" of a non-existent poem, and in fact makes one think of a Celan poem stranded in English and begging to be put back into that poet's never quite heimlich, German idiom:

                                             . . .
In the swell of wandering words.
You fill the urns and feed your heart.
Without words, too.
Under the angels.

You fill the urns and feed your heart.
And I lie with you, you in the refuse.
Under the angels,
Twelvemouthed. . . .

The sense of a German tongue almost too lingually germane is marvelously well captured here: the labials sink under the sibilants (quite Celan-wise) like dutiful whores doing a whoremaster's bidding. And similar conjuries grace Yusef Komunyakaa's 16-line pondering of the unstated compact between hatemongers and "the most gorgeous / Spots on earth," "The Goddess of Quotas Laments."

George Wallace is dead.
Few recant as he did, dropping
Skeins & masks, but I still see
The army of dragon's teeth

He planted like Cadmus of Tyre.
Fists of oak clutch barbed wire.
How many replicas of him relume,
Wheedling east & west, here

To Kingdom Come, in vernal
Valleys & on igneous hillocks
That overlook god knows where? . . .

The tongue negotiates this salad of vocables with all the gusto a plateful of collard greens is met with down George Wallace's way. The poem virtually bristles in its chain mail of quatrains as its subject retreats, brandishing its pithy aperçu about racists and garden spots, into the asseverative shade that having "watched / Choke vines & sunlight in cahoots, / Edging toward a cornered begonia" has backed him into.
    The blighted life and career of a Southern demagogue might leave one kind of detritus for poets to mull over, but poets leave still another kind for one another, one perhaps more caught up in personal causes and effects. Thom Gunn's contribution to this anthology also connects with what death leaves behind, though in this case the hill-cum-cliff of discarded notebooks and matchcovers--an entire lifetime's "spillage" of drafts and papers--on which the "I" of his poem feels stranded is not at all like, say, the boneyard "full of images" where reality in one of the last century's more famous poems, "The Man on the Dump" by Wallace Stevens, goes to die. Gunn's poem, titled simply "The Dump," is not just about how to leave a man behind, but also about how to travel light and not incur the additional levy (imposed selectively on some by fame and on the rest by mortality) of seeing one's survivors saddled with guilt and, in the even more cumbersome instance of poets dying intestate, the gratuitous gilt-edged albatross of an untended flame. Not that any of this is the dead poet's fault. "He died," the speaker asserts flatly, "and I admired / the crisp vehemence / of a lifetime reduced to / half a foot of shelf space." Unfortunately, "others," also his admirers, have rather different ideas about how to dispose of his remains, saying, "let us take you / to the place of our love," where "they showed me / everything, everything-." Gunn's spokesperson is of the opinion that one lives with death by clearing it of all incitements to romanticize its oddments and shards. Certainly the point is not, as Stevens's leveler of options muses ponderously, "to sit among mattresses of the dead, / Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve."
    But death is more than just a marginal motif occasionally deferred to in The Best American American Poetry 2000. It rises up through the surrealist haze of many of Rita Dove's inclusions like an Excalibur proferred for extracurricular study credit. Jim Daniels's "Between Periods," for example, sets out on a deflatable raft of possibilities, already bereft of much of its air--

Last night, a friend called
to say she's dying of brain cancer--

and then floats aimlessly on the meager capitalizations of unscathed survival in a place where, before the breaking and entering of mortality, "the big play-off game / between my team and her team" was, along with tilts and wilts of young children, a major concern. Thus, being confronted with death is to watch the buffer zone disappear between loving insouciance and caring shaped indifferently by loss. Or, as yet another poet, Susan Wood, suggests in her mordantly elegiac "Analysis of the Rose As Sentimental Despair," by way of coming to a conclusion in which nothing whatever is concluded, nor is meant to be,

To know death, to breathe deeply

of its aroma, to hold it close to the heart
as one might hold a rose, and still desire
to go on living, that is the human,
the remarkable thing. . .   

But, more commonly, Cathy Song's "Mother of Us All" instructs us, death merely interposes itself like a rictus, leaving us with little composure with which to countenance its faceless grin:

Mother of the diminishing voice
that broke into chalk,
how could we have known there were things
you had wanted to tell us?

Mother of the disappearance
that shadowed Father's face,
when did you decide you had to leave us.

On a different wavelength, David Kirby's "At the Grave of Harold Goldstein" does serve, rather more light-heartedly, to dispel all such strains of morbidity by blowing death's cover as not just a practical joker, but one with a special eye for grieving mothers:

                                  . . . Because sooner or later,
    we all turn upside down: you're zipping along nicely,
a hot-shot, and everybody's checking you out, when boom,
     over you go. And look! There goes your mother!
She's driving away slowly across the ceiling of the world!

     Yet, readers shouldn't get the idea that everything in this anthology is death-tinged. Here and there, a poem reanimates a rage out of contestations past (Brenda Shaughnessy's "Postfeminism" reminds women that "Men will crack your glaze / even if you leave them before morning"), while still others, like Olena Kalytiak Davis's "Six Apologies, Lord," subject a capital object of humor and disdain (in this case, prayer), not a bit less stridently, to, well, capitalized humor and disdain--with perhaps just a hint of veneration for the idiom--now gone to earth--of abject supplication:

Lord It Over Me,
Lord It Over Me, Lord. Feed Me

Hope, Lord. Feed Me
Hope, Lord, Or Break My Teeth.

Break My Teeth, Sir.

In This My Mouth.

Nor are today's poets, either in or out of the mainstream, unacquainted with the ubiquitous benighted of our--for all the affluence their folderol avails--ubiquitously benighted times. Lucille Clifton in "Signs" wonders disturbingly what it means when those without means meaninglessly prompt those rudely demeaned by the order of things to defy statistics and awfully conflate birds and men:

and what does it mean this morning
when a man runs wild eyed from his car
shirtless and shoeless his palms spread wide
into the jungle of traffic into a world
gone awry the birds beginning to walk
the man almost naked almost cawing
almost lifting straining to fly

     The Best American Poetry 2000, it should by now be obvious, leaves few notes of the diapason of themes harped on by contemporary poets unstruck. Having brought together a group of authors clearly intent on not keeping their wildness--and occasional woolliness--to themselves, its editor Rita Dove shows herself to be anything but insensitive to some of the tendencies that her search for exceptional poems led her to uncover. In her "Introduction" to the anthology she writes that she "could not help but notice certain trends, like reading the route of the landscape of our time: a yearning to break down the barrier of small talk by fracturing the well as the deliberate fracturing of small talk by embracing it." What she doesn't go on to say (perhaps feeling it already contained in what she did say) is that all talk is small talk unless or until it is enlarged and suitably brought to life by a poet. As for the most part it has been, in page after page of this anthology.

A Concluding Note: Given the "millennial" nature of this edition of The Best American Poetry, the series editor, David Lehman, devised a project to mark the occasion. He, along with the fifteen guest editors he had asked to serve, from 1988 through the present year, were to list, from among the entire body of poems produced during the 20th Century, the fifteen poems that in their opinion could be considered indispensable. (Two of the guest editors, Louise Glück and Adrienne Rich, declined to participate in the survey.) Following this conscription of personal choices, would appear a "Composite List" of the "Best American Poets of the 20th Century."
     The results were, to say the least, interesting. Not surprisingly, The Waste Land turned up several times. (John Ashbery listed it among six additional "runner up" works, preferring, among others, Christopher Edgar's "Birthday"--a poem appearing in the present volume under review--and John Yau's "Predella.") Rather less predictable were the poets most often elevated to the Immortality Roster. So honored were Robert Frost (with eleven mentions), followed by Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens (each with ten), and William Carlos Williams (with nine). Hardly any individual poems (outside of The Waste Land) made the cut, with the most notable name omitted from the Composite List being perhaps that of Charles Olson.
     Is it surprising how little genuine surprise there is to be found in all this? Or how many now unfamiliar names would likely replace the present ones when the Composite List for 2001 is drawn up?

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