Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Best American Poetry: 2007, edited by Heather McHugh and David Lehman

On my last trip to the library, I came across this and had one of my periodic attacks of high culture. I hadn't read any poetry in quite a while, and I felt like I should. So I grabbed The Best American Poetry: 2007 and prepared to better myself.

(By the way -- before I forget -- McHugh is the guest editor of this year's edition and Lehman the series editor. Don't ask me what that meant for their work-flow or about how all of the poems were chosen; they don't explain it.)

I knew I was in for rough seas when McHugh's introduction began thusly:
Poetry attracted me in the first place, fifty years ago, because (half gasp half gape) it seemed constitutively thunderstruck, wonderstruck. The oddity and opportunity of verbal life seemed not just a poem's object but its fundamental subject: In a poem, theme and instrument could not be told apart. Except insofar as verve or the vernacular refresh it, daily life wants language chiefly for a tool of will, to note the sorely needed or the merely known. But as soon as systems of words are wielded by intentions only, predictable and paraphrasable, they begin to bore me. A logophiliacal hunger craves amazement. And words can blaze! -- most brightly where (like fires) their logs are interlaid with airs. They can flow -- or flock -- or fluster! From their arrangement in measures, uncontainability pours forth.... (And so it is with us: We can't contain ourselves.)
Oh, my. Lookie, ma, I's writin' now! And that sets the tone for the anthology, in which a lot of people on minor-college shelves strive to be too clever by at least half.

Some of the poems are pretty good, but I see that American poets -- at least the ones McHugh and Lehman like -- have nearly abandoned meter and rhyme; there are only a few pieces in here with either. (Not that that matters all that much, or that I really care about a hundred-year-old controversy, but if I'm going to grump properly about a book of poetry, I might as well hit the obvious targets.) There's also quite a number of "prose poems," which I know is a time-honored term, but it makes about as much sense to me as "ocean desert." One or the other, writers -- you need to choose. You don't get to claim that you're doing both at once.

It also struck me as odd that the anthology is organized alphabetically -- poets are listed purely in the order of their last names. To my mind, an anthologist has two jobs: first to select the works (including editing, if appropriate), and then to organize them into an pleasing configuration. So it looks to me like Ms. McHugh (or maybe Mr. Lehman, or even both; again, they don't explain any of this) knocked off work for lunch halfway through the job and just never came back.

All in all, this left me seriously underwhelmed. Some of the individual poets are nearly as full of themselves in their notes as McHugh is in her intro. And, sadly, I've already returned it to the library, so I can't single out any poems, or poets, for particular praise or blame.

I do still have a shelf of unread poetry, so maybe it will soon be time to dig into Larkin or Bishop or even dive back into my giant Penguin three-volume Browning (where my bookmark is still in the middle of Collected Poems, Vol. 1 since an Arisia about ten years ago). But I doubt I'll go back to this series to see what previous years were like.

No comments:

Post a Comment