Friday, August 31, 2007

More poems, fewer poets

I'm told there is another new Best American Poetry out*. This means another surge in chatter about poets and clique of poets and schools of poets** and departments of poets and incestuous poet-y relations***. And so on. And so on. And scooby dooby dooby. All I have to say is, Ooh sha sha.

I just don't care about these poets and their lives. Not until the booksellers hire Dr Johnson to write brief biographical prefaces to collections of their poems. If you want to get my attention****, tell me, not about the poets, but about the poems. I don't care if there are major defects in these poets' characters. If they wear their knickers on their heads and snort Cheez Whiz, I can live with that. If their poems aren't good, I won't be thinking about them anyway; if their poems are good, I'll forgive them almost anything.***** Point me at the good poems, and tell me anything you think I should know about why you think they're good. Or tell me they're bad poems, and warn me off.

But for God's sake, talk about the poems and leave the poets alone. Or at least move them to the back of the line.

* I don't care all that much, because I know from the start that it's fatally deficient--i.e., none of my poems is in it.

**As though such poets were krill. Could be, I suppose.

***As though they were Lots of poets.

**** And my guess is you don't. Or, to be more precise, you don't give a shit whether you do or not.

*****Time that with this strange excuse/Pardons Kipling and his views, etc., etc.


h said...

Most of the best "BAP-talk" in the last few years has been about the poems and I don't have much (any) patience for the gossipy aspect of dissing or loving on BAP poets and their secret, dirty little lives.

BUT. I do think some discussion of things other than the poems is warranted. Specifically who is included and who is excluded, the editor's polemic/aesthetic/etc, the magazines included...poetry rarely has anything resembling a rain gauge, and as such, sometimes it's hard to tell what, exactly, is really going on in contemporary poetry. BAP serves as one such measurement (for good or worse) and I think a little extraneous chatter is ok, even commendable. Granted, it's more of a political signpost than a literary one...but that's part of what we do, too, like it or not.

But then, I admit to loving the splash that BAP usually makes--the rest of the time, most of us appear to read within our own set parameters...nice to have a text in common dispute from time to time.


RHE said...

I guess I haven't seen the BAP-talk about the poems; most of what I've stumbled across has been sour chatter about nepotism, incest, log-rolling, influence peddling, foot-nudging in bathroom stalls--no, wait, that's politics. Ahem.

Your point sounds right, though: it is in some sense useful to see what influential and/or knowledgeable people think is the best stuff being written. It's just that they're always wrong. Most of the poems in those anthologies are just awful. Wherever the best poems are being stashed, either it's somewhere the editors don't frequent or they don't know them when they see them.

This is the part where I'm supposed to add: In my opinion.

RHE said...

Well, Mr Behrle ( may not be the best source of info about the new anthology, but I find him enlightening. He's a good selector, which is an invaluable critical gift. The examples he's chosen for illustrated comment are beyond bad. They're worthless. I want to say, "Now that I've expressed my own opinion, let me imagine myself into the aesthetic of someone who really really liked these, and see what I can make of them that way," but I can't do it. Someone who honestly believed that the poems Jim picked as examples were among the best poems of the year probably is an alien, born with different receptors than mine. Someone who thinks styrofoam peanuts are food. Someone who thinks Cotton Mather really wrote Shakespeare's plays. Someone who never leaves the house without wrapping his pineal gland in mud from Roswell.

Read "Etudes" or "Super-Clean Country," examples which Jim appropriately chose for opprobrium, and tell me you understand the mind which thought them, not just other-than-rubbish, but among the best poems of the year. Then, if you have time, explain it to me.

I'd be grateful. Bemused, probably, but grateful. said...

O, it's bad. Very bad (that Equi poem, argh). There are a few good ones...but mostly I'm thinking maybe a horse stepped on the editor's head, or something (<--be aware that comment is not exclusively about the poems).

RHE said...

Jeff has now blogged extensively on the statistical nature of the entries--who wrote 'em, their genders, their colors, their places of original publication, what the poets' mothers ate when they were carrying them, the phases of the moon on first publication, the instrumentality with which the first drafts were written, the poets' favorite cheeses, laundry detergents, flavors of hummus, the number who still possess their adenoids, tonsils, or veriform appendixes, the percentage who can program their own VCRs and cell phones, those who have successfully petitioned for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Alabama, those who read Canadian fluently, those who have been imprisoned in Bhutan, those who who saw live performances by Janis Joplin or The Cisco Kid.

But where is the part where he says, "Boy, these really are the best American poems written last year?

RHE said...

I see that this conversation continues to interest poet-bloggers. It would be easy to chalk this up to sour grapes. None of the complainers (including me, of course) has a poem in the anthology; none of them is saying, "These poems stink." Quelle surprise. Nor I have seen any defenses by them. If there are accessible forums where any of these editors or includees is saying, "These are good, and here is why," someone point me at them.

It would be a difficult conversation. The easy critical conversations go something like, "This is better than you think, and here is why" or "You haven't heard of this poem, but you need to, and here is why," or "This poem isn't nearly as good as you claim or as you've been told, and here is why," or "I see you can't understand this poem; let me explain to you how it works." But all those conversations presuppose a common aesthetic. Jarrell says, "Famous as he is, Frost is underappreciated. Let me show you what you've been missing." Brooks says, "This poem by Tennyson is so well known we've stopped noticing what it says. Let me take it apart for you and demonstrate what's really going on." I don't think I can have that conversation with someone who thinks those were the best American poems of the year. She'd be talking Phoenician to me; I be replying in the Lost Language of Mu. She'd be saying, "Jesus, haven't you been extinct for the last hundred years or so, since Pound was a paperboy?" and I'd be responding, over and over again, "Huh?"

All one can do is pull a Voltaire. My jardin needs winterizing anyway.