The Best American Poetry 2005: Series Editor David Lehman

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9780743257381: The Best American Poetry 2005: Series Editor David Lehman

This eagerly awaited volume in the celebrated Best American Poetry series reflects the latest developments and represents the last word in poetry today. Paul Muldoon, the distinguished poet and international literary eminence, has selected -- from a pool of several thousand published candidates -- the top seventy-five poems of the year. "The all-consuming interests of American poetry are the all-consuming interests of poetry all over," writes Muldoon in his incisive introduction to the volume.
The Best American Poetry 2005 features a superb company of artists ranging from established masters of the craft, such as John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, and Charles Wright, to rising stars like Kay Ryan, Tony Hoagland, and Beth Ann Fennelly.
With insightful comments from the poets elucidating their work, and series editor David Lehman's perspicacious foreword addressing the state of the art, The Best American Poetry 2005 is indispensable for every poetry enthusiast.

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About the Author:

David Lehman, the series editor of The Best American Poetry, is also the editor of the Oxford Book of American Poetry. His books of poetry include Poems in the Manner Of, New and Selected Poems, Yeshiva Boys, When a Woman Loves a Man, and The Daily Mirror. His most recent nonfiction book is Sinatra’s Century. He teaches at The New School and lives in New York City and Ithaca, New York.

Paul Muldoon is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Moy Sand and Gravel, Hay, and The Annals of Chile, among other noteworthy poetry collections. A former Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, he is currently Howard G. B. Clark '21 Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University and lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Foreword

by David Lehman

There are many reasons for the surge in prestige and popularity that American poetry has enjoyed, but surely some credit has to go to the initiatives of poets and other interested parties. Some of these projects involve a media event or program; just about all of them end in an anthology. Catherine Bowman had the idea of covering poetry for NPR's All Things Considered, and the book of poems culled from her radio reports, Word of Mouth (Vintage, 2003), makes a lively case for the art. The Favorite Poem Project launched by Robert Pinsky when he was U.S. Poet Laureate -- in which ordinary citizens recite favorite poems for an archive and sometimes for a live TV audience -- has generated two anthologies, most recently An Invitation to Poetry (edited by Pinsky, Maggie Dietz, and Rosemarie Ellis; W. W. Norton, 2004). Billy Collins, when he was Poet Laureate, campaigned to get the high school teachers of America to read a poem aloud each school day, and selected an academic year's worth for Poetry 180 (Random House, 2003) and an equal amount for 180 More (Random House, 2005). The success of the Poetry Daily website led Diane Boller, Don Selby, and Chryss Yost to organize Poetry Daily on the model of a calendar (Sourcebooks, 2003). The calendar is also a driving principle for Garrison Keillor, whose Good Poems (Penguin, 2003) collects poems he has read on his Writer's Almanac show, which airs on public radio five (in some areas seven) days a week.

The last several years have given us, in addition, high-quality anthologies organized around themes (Isn't It Romantic, eds. Aimee Kelley and Brett Fletcher Lauer; Verse Press, 2004); genres (Blues Poems, ed. Kevin Young; Everyman's Library, 2003), and historical periods (Poets of the Civil War, ed. J. D. McClatchy; Library of America, 2005). The number and variety of these (and yet other) anthologies make a double point about the poetry-reading public: it is larger than critics grant though smaller than many of us would like it to be; it reflects a period of eclectic taste rather than one dominated by an orthodoxy, as American poetry fifty years ago seemed dominated by the T. S. Eliot-inflected New Criticism.

As a rule, poetry anthologies receive even less critical attention than individual collections, but Keillor's Good Poems had a curious fate. Two reviews of the book appeared in the April 2004 issue of Poetry, the venerable Chicago-based magazine that inherited more than $100 million from pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly in 2002. Both reviews were written by respected poets. NEA Chairman Dana Gioia wrote a courtly piece, employing a familiar book-reviewing strategy: begin with advance doubts (anticipation of "good poems, but probably not good enough"), acknowledge relief (pleasure in Keillor's "high spirits and determination to have fun, even when talking about poetry"), and progress to appreciation of the finished product. Gioia complimented the anthologist on "the intelligent inclusion of neglected writers" and praised Keillor for his Writer's Almanac show. Keillor "has probably done more to expand the audience of American poetry over the past ten years than all the learned journals of New England," Gioia wrote. He "has engaged a mass audience without either pretension or condescension."

When you turned the page to August Kleinzahler's critique of Keillor's anthology, your eyebrows had to go up. It was less a review than an attack on the Minnesota-based creator of public radio's long-running Prairie Home Companion, a weekly variety show with skits, songs, a monologue from the host, and occasionally poems from a visiting poet. Kleinzahler called the Companion "comfort food for the philistines, a contemporary, bittersweet equivalent to the Lawrence Welk Show of years past." That was gentle compared with his treatment of the "execrable" Writer's Almanac. Keillor has "appalling" taste, Kleinzahler wrote. Any good poems in Good Poems probably got there because a staffer slipped them in; a "superannuated former MFA from the Iowa Workshop would be my guess." (Though to my knowledge, there is no such thing as a "former MFA" -- the degree is something you have for life and is not shed upon graduation -- Kleinzahler's point was clear enough.) Keillor should be "burned," or perhaps merely locked up "in a Quonset hut" until he renounces his daily radio poem. In brief, Kleinzahler avoids the sound of Keillor's "treacly baritone" voice just as he avoids "sneezing, choking, rheumy-eyed passengers" on the streetcars of San Francisco.

When he gets around to talking about Good Poems, Kleinzahler articulates the anti-populist argument that underscores his contempt for Keillor. In every age, Kleinzahler says, there are "very, very few" poets whose work "will matter down the road." The effort to spread the word and enlarge the audience for poetry -- an effort that Keillor enthusiastically participates in -- is a bad thing, because reading poetry often results in writing poetry, and most poetry is bad, and bad poetry is bad for you and bad for the art. Kleinzahler is vehement to the point of hyperbole: "Poetry not only isn't good for you, bad poetry has been shown to cause lymphomas." Keillor's brand of "boosterism" may sell books and spur more poets to write, but it amounts to a form of "merchandising" that is itself "the problem, not the solution."

The anti-populist argument has its attractions. Many of us love poetry as a high art and regard our commitment to it as a vocation. And high art has its hierarchies, its idea of greatness or genius as something that few possess. As a poet you are continually inventing yourself by eliminating some models and electing others, defining your idea of what constitutes "good" and "bad." And if your aesthetic commitment is extreme, or your revolt against a prevalent style is desperate, you may come to regard bad poetry as almost a moral offense. This is one reason we need criticism: it can help us to understand those crucial terms, "good" and "bad," whose meaning seems almost always in flux.

But anti-populist arguments tend by their nature to be defeatist and somewhat self-fulfilling. The dubious assumption is that if, against great odds, a poet or a poem wins some public acceptance, the work must be bad to the precise degree that it has become popular. The dubious assumption is that if, against great odds, a poet or a poem wins some public acceptance, it must be bad to the precise degree that it has become popular, and not merely bad but contagious. Yet Gresham's Law -- the economic doctrine that says that bad money shall drive out good -- does not really apply here. No one hated bad poetry more genuinely and with greater feeling than Kenneth Koch. But as a teacher of children and nursing home residents, and as the author of a genial "Art of Poetry," he suspended the natural arrogance of the avant-garde artist. Poems, he says, are "esthetecologically harmless and psychodegradable / And never would they choke the spirits of the world. For a poem only affects us / And 'exists,' really, if it is worth it, and there can't be too many of those." It may turn out that the enlargement of poetry's community of readers depends on a toleration not of bad poems but of other people's ideas of what constitutes a good poem. Moreover, if few poets in any given era will achieve the fame of a Keats or Whitman, it does not follow that the appreciation of poetry -- great, good, and otherwise -- is an activity for only a chosen few. Nor does it follow that the several originals among us are, in Kleinzahler's words, "drowning in the waste products spewing from graduate writing programs." Kleinzahler feels that the great talent of the nineteenth century went into the novel and that poetry's competition today is even stiffer and more diverse. He names "movies, television, MTV, advertising, rock 'n' roll, and the Internet." I don't buy it. The amazing thing is that despite all discouragement, significant numbers of brilliant young people today are drawn to poetry. Many are willing to make pecuniary sacrifices in support of their literary habit; more each year enroll in the degree-granting writing programs at which Kleinzahler sneers. Consider the growth of low-residency programs, in which faculty and students convene for ten days twice a year and do the rest of the work by correspondence. In 1994 when the Bennington Writing Workshop began, it was the fourth such program in the country; today there are more than two dozen. Sure, there are those who associate the rise of the creative writing workshop with the fall of civilization, but it remains a pedagogic structure of unusual popularity, and a talented instructor will know how to use its conventions to promote literary knowledge, judgment, and skill. As for Kleinzahler's contention that "American poetry is now an international joke," I think rather the opposite is true. But then he offers no evidence to support his position, while the evidence I could present to support mine -- books published, copies sold, translations made, international conferences devoted to American poetry -- Kleinzahler might dismiss out of hand.

The surplus contempt in Kleinzahler's piece -- the anger so out of proportion with what had nominally occasioned it, and in such sharp contrast to the mild-mannered article that preceded it -- generated a lasting wonder. It was as if one of the two reviews of Good Poems was in favor of civilization and the other in favor of its discontents; as if one spoke with the adjudicating voice of the ego, while the other let loose with the rebellious rant of the id. That the two pieces when juxtaposed failed to produce any ground for good-faith discussion seemed perfectly in accordance with the corrosive level of political discourse in 2004. "We campaign in poetry but govern in prose," former New York governor Mario Cuomo has said. But there was no poetry in last year's campaign rhetoric. I noted als...

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