The Reading Room: Poetic License
By Florian Gargaillo (LA), Staff Writer
All literary anthologies — be they of poems or short stories, or even passages from novels — lie to their readers. They claim to be a look back at the best works of the past year, but their real concern often seems to be making a bet with the reader — a bet that whatever selection the editor has made will stand the test of time. In that light, any collection entitled “The Best American Poetry 2009” becomes a plea for these poems to survive beyond 2009; there is the hope that somehow these poems will be good not just for 2009 but for “all time.”

This makes for a somewhat anxious reading, and it would be very hard to ignore a sense of unease lurking in the confident tones of David Wagoner and David Lehman, the editors of this volume. Yet if anyone is particularly worried about questions of time, it is the poets themselves. The poets in this anthology are inordinately worried about their place in the wider world of poetry, to the point that most seem to be working in the shadow of their predecessors (Kevin Young clearly finds inspiration in Emily Dickinson for his “I Shall Be Relieved,” and relies perhaps too much on her). A great number of poems are even quite self-conscious about writing (Billy Collins’ “The Great American Poem,” James Richardson’s “Subject, Verb, Object”).

The strongest presence throughout is Walt Whitman, a poet that the authors here are particularly obsessed with. He can be felt in every line in Rob Cook’s “The Song of America” and Mark Bibbins’ “Concerning the Land…” among others, and even Daniel Hoffman’s “A Democratic Vista” aspires to be a nasty, sardonic portrait of Whitman as the prophetic national poet of America.

From Whitman they wish to recapture the incantatory rhythms of “Song of Myself” and his ability to write poetry that is big, broad and ambitious. But their choice of Whitman as a poetic model speaks a lot more to the authors’ need to find in the revolutionary voices of the past something that will make their own words new and brilliant than to any real affection for Whitman’s poetry.

Most of the poems in this anthology, in fact, seem trapped in the now humdrum conventions of their 20th century predecessors — they studiously (and somewhat masochistically) avoid the expression of emotion and instead adopt a dry, informal style meant to shock with its nakedness, the problem being that, at times, this “naked” style has become as familiar and artificial as the languid romanticism it was trying to combat: “Inside it had lists. Lists of bands, places, problems,” we read in Caleb Barber’s “Beasts and Violins,” “... with notes detailing why my ex-girlfriend was unhappy. My name appeared on most pages.”

Emotion often feels like an embarrassment to the poets here, which is a pity because when they do try to strike a chord, it often works. Margaret Gibson’s “Black Snake,” for example, has some truly beautiful lyric moments: “Were I a loose swirl — a black water ripple — one continuous, long throat,/what would be/the song I’d inscribe on stone, on ground, on grass?”

Barbara Goldberg’s “The Fullness Thereof” also achieves some dense, dazzling lines, this time in the tradition of Milton: “In the beginning a riot of color, burnt umber, magenta, /madder red. Vast expanses of indigo. There was thunder/and the absence of thunder./There was heat, earth shifting,/hills swelling, ridges rising.” This makes for a far more satisfying read than the questionable phrases used by some of the other poets in the collection, who mistake shock value for good art (the low-point being Christine Marshall’s ode to grossness, “Sweat”: “And it’s true, the body/is gross, pungent flushed/and leaving as it lifts away/from itself a sticky netting of salt”).

In fact, the weakest poems here are often the most explicitly political. The vast majority of these — and they run the gamut from Catherine Carter’s “The Book of Steve” to C.M. Teicher’s “Ultimately Justice Directs Them” — sacrifice poetry for politics and stand little chance of speaking to us once the issues they fight for have been buried by the passage of time. “Steve got carpenter,/leaf-cutter, sugar; Adam took fire and soldier./Probably they made love, probably a lot,” is avowedly a nice, comfortable call for compassion and tolerance in the form of a mock-Eden story, but it does not necessarily make for good poetry.

If there is any overarching qualm to be had about these poems, it might be that none of the poets seem to exhibit a voice anywhere near as different and original as the great figures they try to imitate. There is no way any reader could mistake T.S. Eliot for William Blake, but is there any way a reader could tell “First Time Reading Freud” and “Zones” are not by the same author?

No one in this collection seems to have found a radically new mode of expression to call his own. There are few chances we will remember these works beyond 2009, as wonderful as some individual poems may be. “The Best American Poetry 2009” is, if anything, a snapshot of a body of poets still trying to live up to their heroes, which can make for a frustrating reading experience; still, it’s worthwhile if you want to look through today’s most acclaimed poets in search of the next giant.

Issue 16, Submitted 2010-02-24 00:27:35