With captivating and revelatory notes from the poets on their works and sage and erudite introductory essays by Wright and series editor David Lehman, The Best American Poetry 2008 will be read, discussed, debated, and prized for years to come.
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In a wonderful essay in The Dyer's Hand (1962) -- an essay written far in advance of the ubiquitous writing workshop -- W. H. Auden prescribed the curriculum of his "daydream College for Bards." Matriculated students in the "daydream college" must learn at least one ancient and two modern languages. They have to memorize thousands of lines of verse. Forbidden from reading criticism, they must exercise their critical faculties by writing parodies. They need to take courses in prosody, rhetoric, and comparative philology. Most unconventionally, they are required to study three subjects from a varied group, including "archaeology, mythology, liturgics, cooking," and they are expected also to take up gardening or to adopt a four-legged pet.
While the proposed banning of literary criticism from the college library may go too far, I think Auden is right about a lot of things. The value of knowing a poem by heart lies not in the public recitation but in the inward recollection of the lines when one is in a vacant or a pensive mood; there is simply no better way to possess a poem than to memorize it. A good parody is an act of practical criticism, as instructive and more amusing than most. Among the most efficacious exercises are those that involve writing in set forms and handling various metrical and stanzaic patterns. I agree, too, on the value of such nonliterary activities as cooking and gardening, which in their creative processes and structures bear more than a passing resemblance to the act of writing. Given the sheer number of graduate writing programs in the country today -- urban or pastoral, low or high residency, fancy or no frills, traditional or innovative -- it's a wonder, in a way, that none has given Auden's curriculum a try.
Auden begins "The Poet & the City" with the observation that a great many young people of limited talent, "when asked what they want to do in life," answer neither sensibly ("I want to be a lawyer, an innkeeper, a farmer") nor romantically ("I want to be an explorer, a racing motorist, a missionary, President of the United States"). Instead they want to become writers, "creative" writers. The phenomenon had long astonished and vexed the author. In "The Prolific and the Devourer," written in 1939, the year Auden first took up residence in America, he asserts that the secret meaning of "I want to write" is "I don't want to work." Art as a form of play, he adds, "is the least dependent on the good-will of others and looks the easiest." For the shirkers, Auden's message is that you must work very hard not only at becoming a poet but at earning a living. He goes on to recommend learning a craft or taking up a trade that does not "involve the manipulation of words," a very Audenesque piece of advice that his own industrious practice as an essayist and anthologist belies. Perhaps, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing to do with good advice is pass it on and assume that it doesn't apply to you. Richard Howard, the guest editor of the 1995 volume in this series, recollects the time that "Wystan [Auden's first name] scolded me for translating books from the French. He thought manual labor was a much more suitable idea." On another occasion, Auden voiced his opinion that "poets should dress like businessmen," while he wore, in James Schuyler's words, "an incredible peach / -colored nylon shirt."
Such inconsistencies are amusing but do not affect the central point, and we may thank Auden for raising the whole question of what job options there are for, in his phrase, "the average poet." Many young writers today can see their lives unfold in a seamless transition from one side of the classroom to the other without an intervening period of living in the place that professors sometimes call the "quote-unquote real world." The importance of going out into the world and encountering its complexity and range of possibility is surely one thing we might stress in our latter-day College for Bards.
The proliferation of graduate, degree-granting writing programs in the thirty-five years since Auden's death may not have surprised one so suspicious of the vanity of young writers. Yet even a critic of the workshop structure, centering as it does on the student rather than on canonical texts, might welcome the news that MFA programs continue to flourish -- if only because writing requires reading and because we may owe to these programs the perpetuation of the art that we practice and the "influences" we honor and sometimes contend with like uncles and aunts and grandparents. The Association of Writing Programs (AWP) held its annual conference in New York City in 2008, and the sold-out event, attracting more participants and book exhibits than any in the organization's history, was nothing if not a sign of a profession in vigorous health. In undergraduate education, too, creative writing has become a vital force. The Association of Departments of English (ADE), a branch of the Modern Languages Association (MLA), periodically takes up a recurrent problem: the decline in the percentage of undergraduates majoring in English.1 In response to the predicament, a number of English departments have expanded their offerings in creative writing. This has proved a shrewd maneuver. The success of the gambit attests not just to the lure of self-expression but to the assertion of the pleasure principle in matters of art and literature. Who would not choose the pleasure of making narratives and lyrics if the alternative is to "problematize a text"?
We who teach writing know how pure and strong the literary impulse remains among our students. We are impressed with their ambition and their commitment. But we know also that reading and writing exist in a symbiotic relationship, and many of us wonder how it came about that even some of our most talented and energetic young writers got through college with having read so little. When I wrote Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (1991), the joke in currency was that if you crossed a mafioso and a deconstructionist, what you got was someone who makes you "an offer that you can't understand." The beauty of the joke was that it did three things at once: it confirmed the iconic status of The Godfather; it made the point that jargon and abstruse terminology result in incomprehensible prose; and it attributed a mob mentality to a clique that was reputedly skillful, even ruthless, at the academic game of chutes and tenure ladders. I worried then that the hegemony of critical theory may serve to rationalize and would probably accelerate the neglect of authors and the decay of practical criticism. It gives the maker of that prediction little satisfaction to see it come true.
Something larger than the ideological and political conflicts between and within academic departments is at stake here. In the real culture war, the war for the survival of the literary culture, the dummies seem to be winning. There are days when even an unflagging champion of the written word may fear that his or her best efforts may turn out to have the same effect as a prayer to the patron saint of lost causes. The force against literacy in the old-fashioned sense of reading books, understanding traditions, and recollecting history is, in the old-fashioned sense, awesome. In 2004 the National Endowment for the Arts issued its grim report Reading at Risk, and a year ago the NEA followed up with To Read or Not to Read. The reports make the case that "reading skills" correlate directly to individual achievement and career success, not to mention the health of the culture and the education of the citizenry. And by all standards, we are failing. The percentage of the U.S. population that reads books went down from an estimated 61 percent in 1992 to under 57 percent ten years later. That's a slow but steady rate of decline. There's little surprise and less comfort in learning that the rate of decline is faster when it comes to works of fiction and poetry. Between 1982 and 2002, the percentage of the population that had read a "creative" book in the previous twelve months went down from 56.9 to 46.7. "More alarming [than the decline in newspaper circulation and in household spending on books] are indications that Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability," Caleb Crain writes in The New Yorker. Crain summarizes the view of some sociologists that reading books for pleasure may someday become "an increasingly arcane hobby."2 If one culprit among many is television, one effect is the "dumbing down" of culture -- a trend so powerful it brought a new phrase into currency. People know astoundingly little about, say, American history, and this (they think) is no big deal. Every now and then an author risks being called a "curmudgeon" or a "crank" for airing misgivings about this state of affairs, while indulging the guilty pleasure of circulating anecdotes of epic American ignorance. Patricia Cohen's New York Times piece on Susan Jacoby's book The Age of American Unreason begins with the "adorable platinum blonde" who thought that Europe was a country. She was a contestant on the FOX game show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? -- the whole premise of which is that Americans are stupider than ever and reveling in it. Jacoby herself says she wrote her book because (in Cohen's paraphrase) "anti-intellectualism (the attitude that 'too much learning can be a dangerous thing') and anti-rationalism ('the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion') have fused in a particularly insidious way." Jacoby's immediate trigger was an overheard conversation in which one well-dressed man told another that "Pearl Harbor" "was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War."3
In the teeth of an epidemic of ignorance, we must decide what and how to teach the young people who come to us convinced that they have a poetic vocation. We should encourage them to read widely -- to read everything they can. But we should assuredly not mock anyone for what they do not know or have not yet read. Rather, respond with ardor to their list of unread books: for though rereading is a great art, nothing can beat the first time you live with Crime and Punishment or Keats's odes and letters or Genesis or Homer or Dante or Emily Dickinson or Byron's Don Juan. It's a list-maker's delight, devising the syllabus for a course on, say, what Keats called the "vale of soul-making" -- the making of a poet. We may take as our motto this line from Ben Jonson's ode to the memory of Shakespeare: "For a good poet's made, as well as born." On my syllabus I'd include some of the aforementioned works, as well as Emerson's essays, Gertrude Stein's lectures and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Wordsworth's Prelude, and Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. What, gentle reader, would you choose?
Our obligations to our students do not stop at texts and assignments, instruction on the preparation of a manuscript, information about the literary marketplace, methods of dealing with writer's block, models for how to disagree without resort to fisticuffs. By our example we can prove that a conversation or debate about poetry need not reflect the corrosive nature of the national political discourse. There is also the need for students -- for all of us, really -- to come to terms with the likelihood of rejection and the inevitability of injustice. Someday someone else in the room will win the award or the fellowship or the honor that you deserved. But envy is always an error, and to win a prize or an award is not the reason you wrote poetry in the first place. Return to that original impulse. Don't give in to resentment and bitterness, the enemies of poetry. We could probably devote an entire course in the "daydream College" to one aphorism from Auden's prologue to The Dyer's Hand: "No poet or novelist wishes he were the only one who ever lived, but most of them wish they were the only one alive, and quite a number fondly believe their wish has been granted."4
When the Best American Poetry series was new, I would use this space to explain our rules and procedures. Years have gone by since I last explained that each year a different guest editor, himself or herself a distinguished poet, chooses the seventy-five poems in a volume, and that usually the seventy-five poems are by as many poets, though there have been exceptions (1996 and 2007, for example). It's unwise to take too much for granted, and it can't hurt to reiterate here that we construe "American" as broadly as possible, counting resident aliens and temporary residents (if the guest editor feels passionately about the poem) and routinely including Canadian poets. Since the 1991 volume, poems have been chosen exclusively from print or electronic magazines and periodicals, not from individual books, collections, or anthologies. Translations are ineligible. The poets are asked to comment on their poems, and the majority of them do so, transforming the genre of contributors' notes from an afterthought into a feature of the anthology that many readers find particularly valuable. The guest editor makes the selections and contributes an introductory essay; the series editor contributes a foreword, works with the guest editor in ways that vary from year to year, and assembles the manuscript. The guest editor's decisions are final and definitive.
Undoubtedly the most important decision we have to make annually is the identity of the person who will put his or her stamp on a volume in a series that chronicles the taste of our leading practitioners. Honored among his peers, Charles Wright seemed a natural for this editorial job and brought a keen sense of responsibility to it. He worked hard to be ecumenical, balancing the desire to be inclusive with the unrelenting need to favor excellence. Born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, Wright discovered his poetic vocation while serving in U.S. Army Intelligence in Italy in the 1950s. After completing four years of active duty, he left the army in 1961 and soon was studying with Donald Justice at the University of Iowa. Since 1983 Wright has taught at the University of Virginia. His poetry has a spiritual, even a religious flavor -- "each line is a station of the cross," he has said -- though it calls to mind a religion based on doubt more than faith. In a poem in Scar Tissue (2006), Wright depicts himself as a song and dance man -- but one who has the west wind whistling and Dante's souls dancing in his brain. The urge to pray outlasts the conviction that God will hear the prayer. Yet the capital G in the opening phrase of this arresting passage performs a little miracle of poetic transformation:
A God-fearing agnostic,
I tend to look in the corners of things,
Those out-of-the-way places,
The half-dark and half-hidden,
the passed-by and over-looked,
Whenever I want to be sure I can't find something.
As this excerpt from "Confessions of a Song and Dance Man" illustrates, Wright has a distinctive way of breaking his lines in the middle: the second half begins where the first left off, one line space lower on the page. The device in his hands is a potent means of punctuating space, as well suited to his poetic pursuits as A. R. Ammons's colons are to his project of "colonizing" the known universe.
The year 2007 was favorable for guest editors past and present of The Best American Poetry. Charles Simic, who edited The Best American Poetry 1992, succeeded Donald Hall (BAP 1989) as U.S. poet laureate. (Counting Simic, seven Best American Poetry guest editors have held the post.) During that same week in August, the Academy of American Poets announced that Simic had won this year's prestigious Wallace Stevens Award. Robert Hass (BAP 2001) garnered the National Book Award and a Pulitzer for Time and Materials. Paul Muldoon (BAP 2005) became poetry editor of The New Yorker. John Ashbery (BAP 1988) was named poet laureate of MTV. And the 2007 Griffin Prize went to Charles Wright for Scar Tissue.
On February 14, 2008, Scribner published The Best American Erotic Poems: From 1800 to the Present. On the same day, an assistant principal of a high school in Springfield, Ohio, was suspended (and was eventually obliged to resign) when school officials learned he had posted erotic poems on the net under the pseudonym Antonio Love. This all happened (the local newscast reported) "after a parent complained about the alleged poetry." (The alleged there is a final twist of the knife.) Who says that hot poems can't get you into trouble in 2008? Poetry remains a bad influence all these years after Plato banished the poets from his ideal republic.
Copyright © 2008 by David Lehman
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This lovely volume of contemporary American poetry offers a collection that spans a wide gamut of voices, styles, subject matter and formats. Overall, the poetry is compelling and thought-provoking. Many of the pieces are especially touching. At some point almost every day, I pick this book up and discover another beautiful, fresh voice of America. It would make a wonderful gift for any friend who loves poetry or seems primed to be turned on to poetry. The paperback version is nicely produced, with a clear, readable font and enough "air" on the pages to be visually appealing.