As a happy coincidence, I received a copy of The Best of the Best American Poetry just as I was about to begin teaching poetry in my class “College Writing.” The class was an introductory class, and for all my students their first attempt at college.
Not exactly delinquents, these students had dropped out of high school for one reason or another—they were bored, did drugs, had criminal records, etc.—and chose a military-style academy in which to earn their GED before taking my class.
In other words, they were not, as a whole, what I’d consider “poetry readers.” Yet surprisingly, they were excited to begin the poetry unit (maybe they were bored with hearing yet another version of how to write a personal narrative).
And so I began with a film about Sylvia Plath, but the somber, somewhat morbid film did not seem to catch their attention. I was enthralled when I was a teenager with Sylvia Plath. They were not. And so I tried other poets to my liking—Lucille Clifton, Joy Harjo, and Philip Levine. They seemed to respond to these poets better. When I finally got around to using the The Best of the Best, I introduced the students to Sherman Alexie with his poem “Terminal Nostalgia”:
The music of my youth was much better
Than the music of yours. So was the weather.
Before Columbus came, eagle feathers
Detached themselves for us. So did the weather.
During the war, the country fought together
Against all evil. So did the weather.
The cattle were happy to be leather
And made shoes that fit. So did the weather…
The poem continues like this with the refrain “so did the weather” juxtaposed against money, medicine, and the iconoclastic eagle, which reappears throughout the poem. The poem is a ghazal, a seventh-century Arabic form, and Alexie writes this about it, “I thought I’d write a ghazal that combined American pop culture nostalgia with Native American nostalgia. The result is, I believe, funny and sad at the same time, although, when I’ve performed it live, it seems that people are afraid to laugh.”
This is one of the things I love about the “best American” series, how the writers are encouraged to write about the poems (or stories) they’ve created. Some authors are reluctant to do this (they want the work to speak for itself), but many are willing to discuss the genesis of a poem, whether it be witnessing an argument between a lifeguard and his girlfriend (this was the catalyst for the poem “How It Will End” by Denise Duhamel in the selection) or listening to a poem about male desire in a workshop (the poem “Desire” by Stephen Dobyns). Sometimes—and I really hate admitting this—I read all the Contributors’ Notes and Comments before I even read a word of actual poetry.
My students weren’t as impressed with the Alexie poem as I expected them to be.
The refrain “So did the weather” was confusing to them and I don’t think they got the irony of the piece or the thin edge that tottered between seeing nostalgia as a harmless part of our culture and being a collaborator in oppression.
In any case, we moved on to Kevin Young’s “Lime Light Blues” which is an easier poem to enter with its short lines and jazz-like quality. Here’s a section of this poem:
I’m in an anger
When I walk
over the water
of parking lots
car doors lock—
When I wander
Or enter the elevator
their handbags close.
cops follow me in stores….
This poem was definitely one the students could relate to on an almost visceral level (many had been in trouble with the law and had been falsely accused of one thing or another), and they loved the rhythm of the poem.
I think the idea that the celebration of self can be tempered by the perceptions others have of us, but never obliterated, resonated with them.
And so, this is what my students thought of some of the poems, but what did I think? The poems included in The Best of the Best were selected by the poet Robert Pinsky from over two thousand poems in the series the Best American Poetry from the last 25 years (a book comes out annually for those unfamiliar with the series, so this year, for example, The Best American Poetry, 2012 was published). Choosing the best of the year is a difficult task, to be sure, and many guest editors rue the task; the idea of picking the best of the last twenty-five years must certainly have been daunting.
I immediately looked to see if certain poets were included—Donald Hall (check), Mark Strand (check), Jane Kenyon (check). Robert Wrigley (check), Sharon Olds (check), Philip Levine (check), but what about other poets, such as Lucille Clifton and Robert Bly, who have graced the poetry stage with their art through decades of work? Because of these omissions, I approached the book with a certain amount of orneriness.
I read the book slowly, and it took several months for me to read most of the poems. I began some poems, but abandoned them after not feelings the necessary pull. Other poems I didn’t finish, but were happy they were included anyway, such as “Pornography” by Lloyd Schwartz:
On his knees, his back to us: the pale honeydue melons of his
Bare buttocks, the shapely muscular hemispheres—
The voluptuous center.
His knees push into the worn plush of a velvet cushion
On the floral Oriental beside her cot.
Schwartz writes that his poem is “under fire not only from the conservative right but also from the politically correct left.” I’m glad that a poem can trace its heritage from the suggestive photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, and I’m also glad poetry can raise such an emotional reaction. All art should push boundaries. I remember discovering Bukowski when I was in my twenties. I did wonder at the time if I were reading pornography, and felt almost a sick sensation as I devoured his quirky love notes which resonated with beauty in spite of (or because of?) their explicitness.
In The Best of the Best, we encounter Bukowski again in “Three Oranges,” and it was fun for me to recollect why I had felt such a mixture of awe and discomfort when I read his work.
This is not to say, that the poems included in this collection are all of the “edgy” sort. In The Best of the Best many schools of poetry are represented—narrative, formal, and language poetry. So, language poet Lyn Hejinian, is represented with her piece “The Polar Circle,” along with Michael Palmer, whose poem “I Do Not” begins with the lines, “I do not know English.”
Many of the poems in the book blur the distinction between narrative and language poetry; in other words, there is some semblance of a story, but the story gets fragmented and can enter a strange, otherworldly realm. One poem that does this effectively is “Hell” by Sarah Manguso, one of the youngest poets in the book, born in 1974. The fragmented style gets heightened by the abrupt transitions between stanzas:
There is music in Hell. Wind of desolation! It
blows past the egg-eyed statues. The canopic
jars are full of secrets. The wind blows through me. I open my mouth
The purposeful flatness of the lines works against the underlying angst of the author. The idea of what she is describing as hell seems almost preposterous—hell as it relates to the ennui of life? But the ending turn makes the poem for me:
And that in Hell there is a gray tulip that grows without any sun.
It reminds me of everything I failed at,
And I water it carefully. It is all I have to remind me of you.
This “you” has not appeared in the poem until the end, and then it made me go back and read from the beginning with this ending in mind. Is hell our failures, our unborn children? And if so, why does this author hold on to hell by nurturing (watering) it?
While this poem remains opaque, some of my favorite poems in The Best of the Best are more straightforward ruminations (many on love and relationships). Stephen Dobyns’ poem “Desire” opens with a woman in Dobyns’ class writing that she was “sick of men wanting her body…”
Although this poem may start out apologetic, it ends on a note of exhilaration, saying that desire is (if at times inconvenient) surely necessary:
“…What is desire but the wish for some
relief from the self, the prisoner let out
into a small square of sunlight with a single
red flower and a bird crossing the sky, to lean back
against the bricks with the legs outstretched,
to feel the sun warming the brow, before returning
to one’s mortal cage, steel doors slamming
in the cell block, steel bolts sliding shut?
Similarly, Stanley Kunitz, whose career spanned many decades, and who was 91 when he wrote “Touch Me” (included in this collection) writes:
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire…
The question always comes up—what is the importance of poetry? Is poetry even relevant in our day and age? Are the MFA programs churning out mediocre poets who create mediocre poetry by the boatloads? Joseph Epstein writes in the Wall Street Journal, “…the poetry game is over, kaput, fini, fime, gentlemen, time. This even though reams and reams of the stuff gets published, prizes awarded, poets laureate appointed to the resounding boredom of all but those who either teach or write poetry (usually one and the same people).”
I’m so tired of this argument. Yes, it is disappointing that most of the poets in The Best of the Best are connected to a university, and few can make a living outside of the support of academia, but this doesn’t mean that good, vivid, exciting poems aren’t being written. My students, who couldn’t care less about awards or university affiliations, were still moved by the words of the poems themselves. (That’s what Epstein fails to look at—the work itself. Rather he relies on the assumption of what kind of poetry is being written. He assumes it’s about minor events such as “a tree of unusual shape.” Actually, most poems attempt to encompass the “big issues of life” I’ve found.)
So, in spite of the fact that poetry might not be popular, it can still be enjoyed and worked at. Even mastered. The poems in The Best of the Best demonstrate this mastery.