Review by G. Tod Slone (email)
THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2006
by David Lehman, Series Editor;
Billy Collins, Guest Editor
Scribner Poetry, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020; ISBN# 978-0-7432-5759-6, 2006, 197pp., $16.00 (www.simonandschuster.com)
Every public library, or at least every other public library, has probably purchased this book, which in itself makes for a good pot of cash. I found it right next to all the Dummy books in a very small branch library in Louisiana, the Ouachita Parish Public Library. The librarians buy books like this one, no doubt, without even reading it first, because it forms part of the authoritative series on poetry begun in 1988 by David Lehman, tenured professor in the graduate writing program at The New School (NYC). That authority is further enhanced each year, at least in the minds of establishment-order literati, by the guest editors who have included the likes of Robert Bly, Rita Dove, Seamus Heaney, Robert Creeley, Adrienne Rich, Donald Hall, Charles Simic, and Louise Gluck. This, the current volume, is edited by Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the nation and 30-year tenured professor at Lehman College (NYC).
Responsibility, and nothing else, pushed me to write this review, for I doubt I'll be able to find a publisher for it. I write it for the record, for the American record. When I borrowed the book, I did not think I would like much of anything in it, but wanted to see what establishment-order literati thought the best poetry might be. Know thy enemy. As I skimmed through it, I was honestly surprised just how horrendous some of the verse and, especially, themes were. How could some of these poems possibly be considered the best that American poets produced in the year 2006? Cite the following by Richard Newman, editor of River Styx. Visit your public library and read through the whole thing, if you can. I couldn't.
My briefcase of sorrow slumps by the door.
The semester's done. I leave it behind,
all my manila folders of grief (stacked
and alphabetized, bound with rubber bands
of stretched hope), pens of overachievement
Cite the following by Charles Harper Webb, director of the MFA program, California State University at Schlong Beach.
Because we know our lives will end,
Let the vagina host a huge party, and let the penis come.
Let it come nude, without a raincoat
Let it come rich, and leave with coffers drained.
Cite Paul Violi, tenured English professor, The New School (Columbia University).
Roast beef on whole wheat, please,
With lettuce, mayonnaise and a center slice
Of beefsteak tomato.
The lettuce splayed, if you will,
In a Beaux Arts derivative of classical acanthus
Cite Mary Jo Salter, Emily Dickenson Senior Lecturer in Humanities at Mount Holyoke College.
Waiting for dinner. You bake things in the oven.
Or mother does. That's how it always is.
She sets the temperature. It takes an hour.
The verse of the more well-known, name-brand poets is equally questionable and couldn't possibly be the best. It is certainly verse that will hopefully not outlive 2006, let alone be lasting. Cite Pulitzer Prize winner Franz Wright, "A Happy Thought."
Assuming this is the last day of my life
(which might mean it is almost the first),
I’m struck blind but my blindness is bright.
These poems illustrate that poetry for these poets is a fun, intellectual pastime, or play game (though lucrative) like the New York Times crossword puzzle--nothing more, nothing less. They illustrate why poetry in America does not matter, to paraphrase Dana Gioia, director of the NEA, who also serves as a good illustration of that observation. Tenured professor Robert Hass' poem, "The Problem of Describing Color," is the type of problem these poets tend to fixate on. Tenured professor Paul Muldoon's "Blenheim" is but a colorful sketch of a jogging steed, nothing more, nothing less. Tenured professor Charles Simic’s "House of Cards" is about his mother playing cards on the dining-room table.
"Go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways," had written Emerson. But clearly those words have nothing at all to do with America's best poets, that is, those who figure in this volume. "Let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine," had written Thoreau. Sadly, those words too have nothing to do with America's best poets.
On the front cover of the volume is a blurb written by former poet laureate of the U.S. Congress, tenured English professor Robert Pinsky: "Each year, a vivid snapshot of what a distinguished poet finds exciting, fresh and memorable: and over the years, as good a comprehensive overview of contemporary poetry as there can be." Clearly, however, this is not at all a "comprehensive overview." What it presents is an overview of The Best American Poetry Apt to Please Establishment-Order Literati. And indeed, if that had been the title of the book, I wouldn't have taken the time to write this review.
It is time that tenured academic English professors yank their swollen heads out of the sand and put an end to the rampant self-congratulating and backslapping that have come to characterize their milieu. Lehman's forward to the volume is a perfect example of such shady behavior and not only with regards Collins but also the volume itself, whose poems Lehman characterizes as examples of "wit, charm, humor, eloquence, ingenuity, and comic invention"—unfortunately, everything but depth of substance and pertinence in a world gone awry.
Stephen Fry sums up the poets in this volume: "far too many practicing poets default to a rather inward, placid and bloodless response to the world." And indeed if those "respected" poets had not defaulted, they wouldn't have been in it, nor would they have been published in the various "respected" lit journals from which the poetry was chosen, including The Paris Review, Briar Cliff Review, Georgia Review, New England Review, Gettysburg Review, Connecticut Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Iowa Review, New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harvard Review, Atlanta Review, and New Letters. Moreover, they would likely not have gotten tenure, nor would they have won Pulitzers or Guggenheims.
"A friend of mine announced one night over dinner that 83 percent of contemporary poetry is not worth reading," states Collins in his introduction. Certainly 83 percent, if not more, of the poetry in this volume is not worth reading. What establishment-order literati like Lehman and Collins are succeeding in doing, more than anything else, is keeping American poetry from being the best. I write this review as a protest against their mindset, which seems bent on keeping out of the literary agora any sociopolitical poetry that dares risk their wrath or that of other establishment-order functionaries.
*Editor’s Note: In an earlier version of the review Paul Violi had been erroneously listed as a “tenured” English professor. We apologize for the mistake.