Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Best American Poetry

Jorie Graham, ed., The Best American Poetry 1990 (New York: Collier Books, 1990). 283 pp. $9.95.

Mark Strand, ed., The Best American Poetry 1991 (New York: Collier Books, 1991). 326 pp. $12.95.

Originally published in Commentary 93 (January 1992): 59–61.

Ever since Joseph Epstein, writing in Commentary in August 1988, pointed out the obvious—namely, that contemporary poetry is not precious to very many readers in America, and for good reason—the poets have been raising a stink. According to a May 1991 essay in the Atlantic by Dana Gioia, over thirty rebuttals to Epstein have been published so far, and more, probably, are to come. It is not safe to outrage any group in America—especially not contemporary poets, who are used to writing away like mad, without giving a lot of thought to it.

In an effort to demonstrate the good health of contemporary poetry, Collier Books (a division of Macmillan) has taken to issuing an annual prize volume—the best American poems published during the previous year, as selected by a poet of esteem. David Lehman, the general editor of the series (which numbers four volumes so far), says the books' reception—good reviews, a place in 1989 on the independent booksellers’ bestseller list—has gone far to prove that “[p]oetry in the United States today does have a vital readership; rumors regarding the death of the reader have been greatly exaggerated.”

It might be asked, though, whether The Best American Poetry does not prove just the opposite. The books seem intended not so much to be read as greeted with tribute and approval. The selections are arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name, as if in a catalogue or directory. They are followed by nearly fifty pages of biographical and explanatory notes. These go into full detail about the contributors’ births, degrees, publications, awards, honors, grants, and fellowships, places of residence, and academic appointments (permanent and visiting). And then the poets come forward to explicate the mysteries of their own poems, often at tedious length. The notes alone are enough to put to rest any curiosity about poets or poetry.

Meanwhile, the opening pages of each volume are given over to prose introductions, by Lehman and the year’s designated editor, which are composed in the tone of a begging letter, like the encomiastic dedications that were once attached to literary works to angle for the favor of a patron. Prize volumes are themselves a modern variety of literary patronage. And what The Best American Poetry really proves is that poetry in the United States today is the ward and client of a vital system of patronage.

The new patronage of poetry assumes institutional shape in the so-called writers’ workshops. Of the one hundred thirty four poets chosen over the past two years to appear in The Best American Poetry, all but twenty or so—eighty-five percent—earn a living by teaching creative writing. A number of critics such as Epstein, Gioia, Karl Shapiro, the late Jean Stafford, Donald Justice, Donald Hall, Greg Kuzma, and Bruce Bawer have attacked this system. Under its influence, they say, contemporary poetry is produced not out of inner necessity, but in response to institutional pressures. “Like their colleagues in other academic departments,” Gioia observes, “poetry professionals must publish, for purposes of job security and career advancement.” Contemporary poems are not written to be read, but to be listed on a curriculum vitae.

All this is true, but there is more to the story. Ideas are more corrupting than institutions, and contemporary poets are the dupes less of bad social or professional arrangements than of a bad conception of poetry. Creative writing does seem to be at the bottom of things, but only because it is itself founded upon the same basic doctrine which underlies and gives impetus to the writing of much contemporary poetry—the doctrine of creativity.

Creativity is both an educational and a poetic doctrine. In education it operates as the belief that children develop themselves most fully by being released from adult standards and adult expectations to pursue activities of their own choosing, in which they discover for themselves what they might do. In poetry, this “creative” activity is prolonged far beyond childhood and the days of apprenticeship—even mature poets seek to realize themselves as poets (to “find their voice”) in the act of writing a poem.

To be sure, creative freedom is a necessary condition for good poetry; but it is not a sufficient condition. It cannot substitute for faithfulness to experience or responsibility to an audience, as embodied in a tradition of art. Nor does it supply any real reason for writing. Lacking such a reason, the poet is confined to a solipsistic putting forth of self, and poetry is reduced to gesture. The effects are on display in The Best American Poetry.

When it goes bad, contemporary poetry is either pseudo-creative, or sub-creative. Pseudo-creativity shows up as weird typographical layouts, departures from the norm in punctuation and syntax, repeated enjambment to disrupt the natural order of words, random tallies of minute details, narrative structure with no story to tell, cuckoo nests of literary apparatus in which poets invade the traditions of poetry to take over such things as the names of ancient genres, epigrammatic mottoes, dedications in memoriam, set stanzaic patterns, Roman-numeraled subsections—and then neglect to put them to any use. Many contemporary poems have the mere appearance of poetry. On the page they are printed in lines that veer away from the right-hand margin, but on a closer reading they turn out to be not the real thing but merely parasitic on poetry’s outward form.

If the pseudo-creative poet mistakes incoherence for true creativity, the sub-creative poet goes to a different extreme, elaborately working out a negligible theme. The most interesting of today’s poets have recognized the need to restore a sense of factual basis and dramatic necessity to the writing of poetry, and many of their poems are efforts, admirable in themselves, to refurbish the principle of meaning which fell into disrepute in modern literature. But the meanings these poets come up with tend to be trivial, and, worse, to go on being trivial at length.

Thus, in The Best American Poetry, Alfred Corn imagines what Frances Trollope (author of Domestic Manners of the Americans) would have said in conversation about nineteenth-century life in Cincinnati, after her return to England; Robert Pinsky reconstructs ancient Jewish worship in a wilderness setting like Yosemite national park; Laurence Lieberman recreates Sir James Rodney’s invasion of St. Eustasius in 1781; Michael Ryan recalls how his father used to transfix him with tales about playing the violin in East St. Louis dance halls in the 20's; David R. Slavitt retells the myth of Telephus; Melissa Green describes Boethius’s death in prison. All these poets mean to be both careful and definitive in statement, but under the spell of the creative doctrine they lapse into garrulousness, writing in a style that (in Hazlitt's phrase) “occupies more space than it is worth.”

There are exceptions, some included in these volumes. Poets of an older generation, who were not trained in writers' workshops, or poets who were educated in other countries—Amy Clampitt, Donald Davie, Richard Wilbur, Ruth Stone, Reed Whittemore, Anthony Hecht, Thom Gunn, John Hollander, Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky—stand aside from the new creative dispensation. And at least two younger American poets write with more than occasional brilliance. They are Rosanna Warren and Elizabeth Spires, both of whom are represented in The Best American Poetry 1990, Warren by a moving elegy to her aunt, and Spires by a taut philosophical meditation upon a shipwreck off Land’s End. Among younger poets not published in either of the last two years' volumes one might also mention Timothy Steele, David Middleton, Eric Trethewey, R. L. Barth, and George Bilgere, who deserve more attention than they have received from their peers.

For most of the remainder, however, there is only the solipsism of creativity. Whether contemporary poets will grow tired of this stance and find something better to do in the next century (even if the better activity is not poetry) is something nobody can predict. Until they do, though, they should not be surprised when readers turn away from them, pitying the small value and less charm of even The Best American Poetry.