Celebrated Minor Contemporary American Poetry
Consider the following—“Rally”—the first poem in this year’s annual Best American Poetry series, reproduced in its entirety:
The awesome weight of the world had not yet descended
upon his athlete’s shoulders. I saw someone light but not feathered
jog up to the rickety stage like a jock off the court
played my game did my best
and the silent crowd listened and dreamed.
The children sat high on their parents’ shoulders.
Then the crowd made noise that gathered and grew
until it was loud and was loud as the sea.
What it meant or would mean was not yet fixed
nor could be, though human beings ever tilt towards we.
This poem is an example of the common usage of contemporary American poetry as a medium for communal feelings and observations. That is not necessarily a bad artistic or cultural purpose, but it does not go very far towards creating something new and engaging. T. S. Eliot’s admonition to the literary critic seems relevant: “The point is that you never rest at the pure feeling.” Most of the poems and many of the poets in this year’s celebratory volume appear unwilling to go or incapable of going the greater distance beyond feeling.
According to Elizabeth Alexander’s notes in this volume, her poem “Rally” captures “a beautiful moment in the Obama presidential campaign in late October 2008 . . . Millions of people had put their muscle and money and shoe leather and hearts and souls into the campaign and all the hope and progress it represented. And so it seemed to me that ardent campaign supporters settled into a mode of saying, let’s see what history brings, because we have done everything we can.” Further explicating her own poem, she writes:
And, of course, we did not know what, exactly, the election and then the Obama presidency would bring. History and progress are best understood in terms of process, not just in big flashy moments. Nothing is instantly reparable. Obama is not a god. Communities are never not faced with hard work and struggle. So we struggle on, big we’s and little we’s. That’s where the poem comes from.
Should she have inserted some of her prose into her poem? “Obama is not a god” might have given it both depth and context. Or was the poem only intended as a passing record, to be saved after its first use like a postcard or PDF of a moment? And should the explanatory subject matter of the poem, or the life experience of the poet, displace the artistry of the words so easily?
There are seventy-five poems in this book which consume 158 pages. Forty-two pages of “Contributors’ Notes and Comments” follow the texts of the poems. Many of these annotations are as long as or longer than the poems that they are associated with. Most of the poems—not only Alexander’s—barely exist on their own contextually. And each explanation of the poems and of the poets’ inspirations in the accompanying Notes is preceded by an extended entry that lists each poet’s creative writing degrees, academic appointments, publications, awards and accolades, and often their ancestry and sexual propensities and political concerns. One four-line poem has a half-page of explanation. Mark Strand’s 18-line poem (of four words each) has an eight-line 98-word introduction before the actual text of the poem begins. One wonders if this volume—and how many of the individual poems—could generate any public interest if published anonymously and forced to elicit a reader’s response based upon their inherent language and subject matter.
Like “Rally,” many of the poems are prosaic, perhaps purposely simplistic, and lack pulse. Sherman Alexie, born on the Spokane Indian Reservation according to this book, tells us in his Note that he has a lot of Native readers and “since suicide is so prevalent in the Native American community” he thought that his poem (the second in this alphabetical volume and strangely similar in its dull cadence to Alexander’s poem though less clear) “might serve a social purpose.” His next statement—that lately he has been writing more formally “in rhyme and syllabics”—is belied by the poem’s leaden language:
But these dark times are just like those dark times.
Yes, my sad acquaintance, each dark time is
Indistinguishable from the other dark times.
Yesterday is as relentless as tomorrow.
And by its banal conclusion:
None of my verse could have saved your life.
You were a stranger. You were dark and brief.
And I am humbled by the size of your grief.
Some of the handmade placards I see daily at Occupy Wall Street are far more clever and interesting. General readers may also experience more reflective pleasure from the random jotted observations of New Yorkers that are published in the Metropolitan Diary column of the New York Times.
One poet admits inspiration from a Duran Duran song; another that her poem initially didn’t make sense; another that he did not know why he chose the subject of his poem. Some rant and others are as proud of their lives as their art, including teaching poetry to prison inmates and to New York City teen poets. Oddly, the poems that celebrate nature are small and uninspiring. According to the press release from Scribner (the former publisher that is now just an imprint of Simon & Schuster that in turn identifies itself as a “major force in today’s consumer publishing industry” dedicated to information and entertainment) this volume also contains poems about “the recession and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, . . . love and history, poppies and pears, angels and the afterlife, coffee, even the kitchen sink,” and features poems from both America’s “most beloved poets” and “exciting poems from a constellation of rising stars.” I do vaguely recall poems about these diverse listed subjects, including a poem about a sink and Soft Scrub reprinted from The New Yorker. Its author, Catherine Bowman, tells us in her Note that the “l” words in the poem “perhaps, imitate the L-shaped pipes [underneath the kitchen sink] leading down to the underworld” and that her poem “might be informed by Paul Muldoon’s poem ‘The Briefcase.’” (Coincidentally, he is the poetry editor of The New Yorker and his own long poem in this volume demonstrates showmanship and alacrity for language.)
Though most poems appear self-therapeutic and bittersweet, such as those about divorce, there is some semblance of hope for this art form. John Ashbery evokes “the season [that] is coming into season just now/with the long-awaited words from back when we were/friends and still are, of course, but the tides/pursue their course each day.” He concludes his poem (published in the London Review of Books) with this observation:
We pitch and stiffen, elbowed by traffic mysteriously
descending the other lane of the avenue
as lamps burst in many-benched Central Park.
Ashbery has the good sense (or self-confidence) not to include an explanation of his poem after his succinct biographical Note. Another poem by Carolyn Forché is as cogent. A long poem by Robert Hass (published in The Paris Review) may be the best poem in the book, especially its Part 2. It is a sustained lyrical narrative of discovery that demonstrates momentum and control and in which the subject and form both complement each other; and is a far better evocation of burials and the underworld (with a poignant American historical taint) than Bowman’s sink.
According to this volume we are a country overrun with talented poets. I am reminded of well-intentioned coaches at little league games who constantly shout encouraging yet meaningless words—“Good eye! Good eye!”—to the little batters frozen at home plate, who do not swing at the wildest pitches yet also allow perfect strikes to whiz by. Perhaps, if these poets or the editors had some sense of the Olympian task of writing something more than daily poetry, Americans in turn might have some genuine awareness and appreciation of the ability of a poem to evoke national or universal issues. But that may only occur once or twice in a century; certainly not annually or even biannually. And it may require poets that are not entrenched in the unreal self-absorbed self-important worlds of their universities and writing academies.
In the nineteenth century John Stuart Mill in a haunting essay suggested that the democracies would suffer from “collective mediocrity” by diffusing individuals’ gifts among the masses. In this volume both David Lehman (the series editor who quotes Whitman and Dickinson in his introduction and therefore should know better) and Kevin Young (the annual guest editor) appear to be primarily concerned with demonstrating what makes this year’s “best” American poetry both appealing and earthly. Like Scribner’s Press Release, is this edition just a marketing ploy for themselves and their fellow poets? Not only does demonstrating poetry’s personal allure and friendliness seem dishonest and unfair to this art form, it doesn’t offer much hope or change to America’s future poets and readers. Is contemporary American poetry now just another annual spectator sport, full of temperamental fans and moody practitioners who are their own best consumers? Apparently, any attempt at beauty or truth can now be clocked annually; then promptly forgotten en route home from the arena. The more important and immediate worlds of our children and our nation—and the subjects of economics, politics, religion and war—deserve and demand artists who strive for greatness, not artisans content with themselves and their small handicrafts.
Eugene Schlanger, the Wall Street Poet, is the author of September 11 Wall Street Sonnets (Paris: Éditions Underbahn, 2006). He also practices law on Wall Street.
Posted: December 28, 2011