Every year, the annual Best American Poetry anthology arrives like the gift that keeps on giving. It contains a generous selection of poetry published over the past year – this time around, 75 poems from more than 56 print and internet outlets – as selected by a guest editor.
That editor (in this case, David Wagoner; in previous years, everyone from John Ashbery to Rita Dove) provides an essay that explains the reasoning that went behind his or her selections. The series editor, poet David Lehman, also always adds his valuable two cents, usually dilating upon the state of poetry in the culture. In The Best American Poetry 2009, Lehman discusses the use of poetry in the previous season of Mad Men (did you know Don Draper’s reading habits caused an upsurge in sales for the poetry of Frank O’Hara?).
But Lehman’s particular theme this year is the state of poetry criticism, and he doesn’t hold back: “Poetry criticism at its worst today,” Lehman asserts, “is mean in spirit and spiteful in intent,” and he goes on from there to apply an especially vigorous flogging to the critic William Logan, who is sort of the Louis C.K. of poetry criticism, and who has written, for example, that reading the work of C.K. Williams is “like watching a dog eat its own vomit.”
Non-vomitous poems selected this year for The Best American Poetry 2009 include Denise Duhamel’s suspenseful “How Will It End,” in which the author and her husband come upon a lifeguard and his girlfriend arguing, find that they cannot pull themselves away from the tense scene – and poet-and-husband end up in an argument themselves. There’s also Terrance Hayes’ salute to the late R&B singer Luther Vandross, “A House Is Not A Home,” which concludes with the poet expressing his own desire to:
“… record the rumors and raucous rhythms/of my people, our jangled history, the slander/in our sugar, the ardor in our anger, a subcategory/of which probably includes the sound particular to one/returning to his feet after a friend has knocked him down.”
Finally, The Best American Poetry 2009, like its predecessors, is a handy guidebook to making it in poetry today. The long “Contributor’s Notes and Comments” provides not only a quick bio of each poet but also a statement from each writer about how he or she came to write the poem included. These entries range from the enlightening to the insufferably pretentious, but they’re never less than entertaining.
There’s also a list of every print or online magazine where these poems were published containing the name of the journal’s poetry editor and address.
Just in case you want to submit your own poetry some place, and risk the future wrath – or praise – of some ornery, or generous, poetry critic.
As I said, you get the current world of poetry in one slim volume.
Do you read much poetry? Does the idea of an annual collection like this appeal to you?