In her introduction to The Best American Poetry 2000
, Rita Dove offers the key to honest appreciation: read the work for itself, not for its creator's name and rank on the great chain of poetic being. With luck it will take the top of your head off, though some poems may only elicit a tingle the first time around. Put those away and come back another time, in another mood. "A poem must sing," she writes, "even if the song elicits horror." And the 75 she ultimately chose--by such poetic senior citizens as Lucille Clifton, Thom Gunn, W.S. Merwin, and the as yet unacknowledged--both sing and explode. Her harvest is as varied and abundant as the garden (and gardener!) Stanley Plumley celebrates in "Kunitz Tending Roses":
Still, there he is, on any given day,
talking to ramblers, floribundas, Victorian
perpetuals, as if for beauty and to make us
glad or otherwise for envy and to make us
wish for more--if only to mystify and move us.
Dove does find certain trends, ranging from "the interpolation of personal chronicles with the larger sweep of events" to "elegies for the passing of heroes, of good times, of innocence." Certainly, more than one therapist pops up here--in, for instance, Pamela Sutton's mesmerizing "There Is a Lake of Ice on the Moon" and in Denise Duhamel's intricate "Incest Taboo" (which is a lot more subtle than its title would give out). This dislocating double sestina's 13 stanzas juggle a fear of birds, a brother's death, alcoholism, familial expectations, and so much more. Set free by the form's constraints--the same end-words must recur in each stanza--this poet uses such phrases as "parrot," swoop," "wrong, "hover," hum," and "mother" to great effect, ironies and tragedies accreting. As Duhamel writes in the contributors' notes: "I felt as though I were doing a strenuous combination of math, crossword puzzles, and particle physics."
Some poems are definitely augmented by their creators' explanations--and their prose is often as eloquent as their verse. Others require none. Yet what threatens to steal the poetic show occurs after these comments. The series wizard, David Lehman, asked past and present guest editors to cite their top 15 20th-century American poems, in alphabetical order. It's impossible not to gravitate to this section and silently argue with some selections, approve others wholeheartedly, discover a few for the first time, and remonstrate over certain absences. How marvelous, if unsurprising, to see so many poets voting for Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop (who scores particularly high), and two whom John Hollander wittily terms "the transatlantic problematics," Auden and Eliot. If only Lehman had asked each editor to expound on his or her choices. In this list context, Louise Glück's refusal to "prefer merely fifteen" proves as inspiring as others' elections. Still, it's amusing to watch such poets as Mark Strand, A.R. Ammons, and Lehman himself look for loopholes and stuff the ballot box with also-rans. --Kerry Fried
--This text refers to the
From Publishers Weekly
Perhaps it is the too-familiar audacity of the title, or sour grapes over the always big-name guest editors, but no series arouses quite as much po-biz rancorAvociferous nit-picking over choices and kibitzing in generalAas this 13-years-and-running institution, overseen by poet and critic David Lehman (The Daily Mirror; The Last Avant-Garde; etc.). None of that matters to the many consumers who make this book their only verse purchase of the year, though, and this year's outing, edited by Pulitzer-winner and former Poet Laureate Rita Dove, should reach that target market nicely. Dove's volume improves over John Hollander's (1998) and Robert Bly's (1999) respective orthodoxies, but offers fewer surprises than those of John Ashbery (1988) or Adrienne Rich (1996). Dove is drawn to nervous, careful, archaism-strewn monologues (Erin Belieu's free verse, Denise Duhamel's double sestina, Mark Jarman's prose "Epistle"), and to fine but unspectacular work from big names (Carolyn Kizer, Yusef Komunyakaa, Michael Palmer, Robert Pinsky, Mary Oliver, Derek Walcott, Richard Wilbur and others). She includes outwardly comic, inwardly serious lists and invocations by younger poets (Christopher Edgar, Karl Elder, Oleana Kalytiak Davis, Dean Young), even-voiced reportage from global scenes of horror (Linh Dinh, Gabriel Spera) and reports from more quotidian trials (Ray Gonzalez, David Kirby), but there's nothing that absolutely floors. Fifty pages of contributors' notes and biographies introduce the poets and poems, along with introductions from Lehman and Dove. Most intriguing here may be the appendix, "The Best American Poetry of the Twentieth Century," which has all 14 editors of the series so far (including Lehman) listing their bests or favorites from the previous 100 years of poetry. The results will send many back to Berryman, Crane, Frost, Hayden, Moore, Stein and others, if not to many of the poets actually represented here. (Sept.)
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