Description: An Untimely Survey of the Best American Poetry Series
Date: 15 August 2003
In the last installment of this...thing... I've been publishing here this summer, I praised a particular poem from The Best American Poetry 2002. These "best" series have been around since the late 80s. From fiction, essays, and poetry the genre has grown to music reviewing, sports reporting, erotica, and many other categories, but poetry is the only one I've followed at all, though not fanatically.
By implication of the title, Harry Mathews or somebody else "won," and wrote the best poem of the year. There are of course irresolvable problems with selecting the "best" poems of the year, and every year the guest editor proclaims this. Nevertheless, the series has an appeal to the general reader-- somebody really smart read all the poems published last year, and you get to read what he or she picked out as best, or at least favorite. And when reader and editor sensibilities overlap, it can be a wonderful learning experience. I read John Ashberry's inaugural selection (a few years after its 1988 publication) and discovered many poets I still read, including John Ash, Mathews, Rae Armantrout, Kenneth Koch, and many others. Creeley's volume mines similarly urbane and linguistically conscious ("experimental") territory, and has introduced me to Julianna Spahr, Ben Friedlander and others. The common experience is that a reader finds some number of 'personal bests' that work for you and others you shrug at and pass by.
If we are to rely on the fiction of the general reader, an open-minded and inquisitive sort, the series presents several features he or she (the g.r.) can rely on. The series editor David Lehman kicks off each volume with a shortish foreword, and then the guest editor, always a prominent American poet, recounts her year in reading, outlines his criteria, and bangs a drum. Despite the qualitative hierarchy I argue is implied, the contents disguises this with an alphabetical sequence of poets. This long stretch is mostly mysterious to our general reader, but the contributer's notes at back present short bio-bibliographies and give the poets the chance to self-explicate, thought some, like Ashberry, decline comment. Generally it's a handy and unpretentious volume, though it's been a cultural flashpoint at least once, as I'll get into later.
If the reader is well-served, so are the poets. The sales of these books, though modest, are orders of magnitude higher than books by the individual authors. My slap-dash research, based solely on Amazon.com sales rankings, suggest that contemporary poetry sells squat. Our poet laureate's best-seller clocks in at number 6,465, trailing the versification of Donald Rumsfeld at 5,770. The poetry event of the season (whatever that means) was Robert Lowell's Collected, which places at 5,357. Even Allen Ginsberg terminally hip Howl lingers down at 8,785.
And those are the highest rankings I could find. All the general reader's interest doesn't push the 2002 volume any higher than 48,207, though the 2001 volume is holding steady at 54,948, and the yet-to-be-released 2003 volume is pre-ordered to spot 76,798. I sampled the most recent books of a handful of the Best 2002 roster, including a few older poets, some mid-career, some new voices. As I said, the anthology figues are leaps and bounds better than on their own. In the following list, I took what seemed to be the most recent publication of the named poets. Remember, the numbers represent their ranking in Amazon.com book sales, however they compute that:
Donald Hall 117,704
Robert Creeley 156,891
Anne Carson 220,225
Forrest Gander 320,094
Louise Gluck 390,000
Jackson MacLow 604,747
Jennifer Moxley 758,068
Gustaf Sobin 836,289
Theodore Enslin 883,289
Anselm Berrigan 1,245,696
Ben Friedlander 2,040,703
Does the inclusion in the series lead to increased sales? Probably, but at this rate does it really matter? I doubt if any of the above make their living at poetry, but rather teaching, other kinds of writing, or other professions altogether. Nonetheless, getting your work to significantly more readers is at least gratifying, and a sign of cultural prominence.
While the series material success can be documented, its cultural impact is another matter. There was quite a flap a number of years ago, when Harold Bloom edited The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988-1997. In his introduction, he makes clear his culling of the series is an act of canon-formation, unlike the yearly disclaimers by the poets which claim "this is just what I liked." He rehearsed his tired bromides against the "Culture of Complaint" and quotes Thucydides as his epigraph: "They have the numbers; we, the heights." In this formula, "they"= all these crazy multi-culturists and feminists swarming the universities and polluting our literature, and "we" are the dying breed, worshipers in the temple of Art. He mentions Adrienne Rich's 1996 Best volume by omission. In justifying his exclusion of the entire contents of that volume, which he characterizes as "The Most Socially Energetic American Poetry," he pointedly does not mention Rich's name. This is too coy by half, but demonstrates to some degree the fact that Rich is a straw (wo)man. After all, she selected poems by several members of Bloom's 'approved list,' most notably W.S. Merwin's "Lament for the Makers."
Rich at least has a well-articulated criteria, while Bloom's "test for the canonical" is that he can reread a work "with profit." (How this is different from "What I liked" I cannot say). Rich says she is looking for poetry with "a core (as in corazon). The core of a poem isn't something you extract from the poem's body and examine elsewhere; its living energies are manifest throughout, in rhythm, in language, in the arrangement of lines on the page and how this scoring translates into sound." To the workshop poem she prefers a poem from the streets or prison, anything "that was redemptive in the sense of offering a kind of deliverance or rescue of the imagination, and poetry that awoke delight--lip-to-lip, spark-to-spark, pleasure in recognition, pleasure in strangeness. " What she says she's looking for is a poetry that is aesthetically and socially defensible.
I used this clash when I taught an introduction to poetry course. After reading some of each's position, and Katha Pollit's sane summary, I asked them simply, whose side are you on. Almost everybody takes Rich's side, because she has a side. Me, I would love to take Bloom's side, to dwell in the heights offered by poetry, but wish he (or I, or someone) could articulate a non-reactionary apologia for doing so.
(For what it's worth, Bloom has the numbers, at least on Amazon. His Best of the Best ranks at 86,846 while Rich's is at 200,009.)
Cheever quote: "So some Americans live in Rome because of the income tax and some Americans live in Rome because they're divorced or oversexed or poetic or have some other reason for feeling that they might be persecuted at home and some Americans live in Rome because they work there, but we live in Rome because my father's bones lie in the Protestant Cemetery." (from "Boy in Rome")
Reading: The Art of War; T.J. Clark's Farewell to an Idea; Cheever; Jane Eyre
Listening: Ray Charles box set
Watching: George Washington, Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters
Sales update 3/2007
Donald Hall 68,732 [up]
Robert Creeley 247,084 [down--but an expensive collected is the most recent]
Anne Carson 394,174 [down]
Forrest Gander 686,478 [way down]
Louise Gluck 95,879 [up, new book just out]
Jackson MacLow 1,634,558 [way down--not sure if his books are really available]
Jennifer Moxley 1,099,415 [down]
Gustaf Sobin 1,413,733 [down]
Theodore Enslin 844,019 [holding steady!]
Anselm Berrigan 688,680 [up]
Ben Friedlander [disappeared?]
Ginsberg's Howl 19,087 [down, but competing with new hardcover edition]
Lowell's Collected 284,698 [paper pre-orders--I smell a hit!]
Bloom's Best 1,048,143 [way down]
Rich's Best 972,175 [also way down]
a few others
Juliana Spahr 267,312
Harryette Mullen 295,478
Koch Collected 132,669 [wow! for a $50 hardcover]
Zukofsky Selected 349,793
Latest Ashbery 14,579 [dang!]
Newest Best 29,136