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by David Lehman
The year 2001, like the year 1984 before it, arrived with heavy baggage. Both had existed (and do exist) outside of time as visions of tomorrow. Readers of George Orwell's 1984 may forever associate that eponymous year with the dystopian universe of Big Brother, the Thought Police, Newspeak, Hate Week, and Doublethink. Stanley Kubrick's 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey made the millennial turn seem synonymous with the sci-fi future, antiseptic but threatening, where spaceships dance to the Blue Danube and astronauts lose at chess to a sinister computer with a mind of his own. But where the actual 1984 came and went, a year vastly less memorable than Orwell's totalitarian prophecy ("a boot stamping on a human face -- forever"), the year 2001 transcended the advance aura that Kubrick's amazing juxtapositions had produced.
The destruction of the World Trade Center and the massacre of the innocents was not only a catastrophic event in American history. It was also a revolutionary event in American consciousness. The day now marks a boundary: what was written, said, done, created before September 11 is seen as vitally different in kind and status from what since. It's as if history has returned to ground zero. The chalkboard has been wiped clean. But with the fresh start comes a new responsibility. Variants on Theodor Adorno's famous rhetorical question -- How can there be poetry after Auschwitz? -- were asked often against the backdrop of the blaze and rubble of downtown Manhattan. The spontaneous answer given by many was: How can there be not?
In their shock and grief, people everywhere looked instinctively to poetry. One poem more than any other was cited, recited, copied, e-mailed after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. W. H. Auden's "September 1, 1939" circulated electronically like one of the messages that "the Just / Exchange" in the form of "ironic points of light" (to borrow phrases from the poem's final stanza). Auden, a recent arrival in New York, wrote this ninety-nine-line poem on the day Germany invaded Poland and World War II commenced. The poem begins in "one of the dives / On Fifty-second Street" in Manhattan. Much of it seemed freshly apposite now: the "blind" skyscrapers in their verticality proclaiming the might of "Collective Man"; the commuters, addicted to their "habit-forming pain," occupying solitary stools in bars. The first stanza ends with lines that resonated eerily in the noxious air:
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Friends and strangers in chat rooms quoted this complex, difficult, ambiguous poem. So did sobersided CEOs. Newspapers coast to coast, from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Baltimore Sun and the Boston Globe, reprinted the entire poem on their editorial pages. It was e-mailed to me at least five or six times by, and I enjoyed the benefit of a correspondence with the poet and Williams College professor Lawrence Raab about the poem's rich but vexing penultimate stanza, which poets and critics have argued about for years:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Was one example of the "folded lie" a newspaper? Did the colon after "sky" imply that the lines that follow are types of lies? The most vexing question had to do with the stirring last line. Was it mendacious to the precise extent of its rhetorical effectiveness? In what sense can love prevent or save us from death? Of what use was such a declaration -- or was it a piety -- in the face of Nazi military aggression? (As Maggie Nelson wrote in a different context, "you can't hug / a Nazi and hope / he'll change.") Auden, who took self-criticism seriously, so despised the stanza's final line (for some the poem's best) that he changed it to the unsatisfactory "We must love one another and die," and later decided to disown the poem altogether. "It may be a good poem, but I shouldn't have written it," he maddeningly said.
The wild popularity of "September 1, 1939" was that rare thing, a phenomenon that had erupted on its own without orchestration or hype. The poem's apparent ubiquitousness was analyzed almost as much as the poem itself. "It is the poem for our present pain," Eric McHenry wrote in Slate, in part because it seems "weirdly prescient" and in part because of its mood of doubt. Sven Birkerts in the New York Observer called it Auden's "most sustaining" poem, an example of poetry as "the reverse of the terrorist act." I would add that Auden's poems -- not only the one in question but such others as the elegies for Yeats and Freud, "Caliban to the Audience" and "In Praise of Limestone" -- attract readers who value the poetry of civilized discourse and believe in the power (and the limits) of human reason. For Dana Gioia in The Dark Horse, the immediate resort to "September 1, 1939" helped make the case for poetry's civic, public, and ceremonial uses. It reinforced, in his view, the priority of "expressive power" over "stylistic novelty" as a poetic virtue. On the other hand, Daniel Swift, reporting on the American scene for the London Times Literary Supplement, was not alone in recoiling from the "trace of something almost nasty in this poem," either a whiff of self-congratulation (Swift) or evidence of "incurable dishonesty" (Auden). Unsurprisingly there was as little agreement on the cultural meaning of the phenomenon as on Auden's unorthodox use of colons and unusual adjectives ("clever hopes," "the conservative dark") within the poem itself, thus demonstrating that poetry as an essence precedes and supersedes the contestation of meanings and interpretations to which it gives rise.
"September 1, 1939" was not the only poem to hit the bulletin boards. On Slate Robert Pinsky recommended Marianne Moore's "What Are Years?" as well as poems by Edwin Arlington Robinson, Czeslaw Milosz, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Alicia Ostriker on the MobyLives Web site picked the same sublime Moore poem plus works by Yehuda Amichai, Stephen Dunn, and Hayden Carruth. The hunger for poetry and the need for elegy resulted in impromptu or hastily arranged public readings with overflow audiences. On an October evening, more than a thousand people crowded into the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York to listen to poems "in a time of crisis." Newspapers ran numerous articles on poetry's power to heal and console. Anthologies comprising "responses" to September 11 or poems from "post-9/11 New York" were planned. For the poets themselves, all this attention was not an unmixed blessing: the pressure to write poetry equal to an occasion can sometimes lead to an outpouring of mediocre verse. A bad poem is no less bad for the nobility of the sentiments expressed. "You can't approach something like this frontally in a poem -- at least I can't," Billy Collins told a reporter. "It will knock you over. It is like walking into a big wave. You will fall on your bathing suit." Collins clarified his position in USA Today. "It's not that poets should feel a responsibility to write about this calamity," he wrote. "All poetry stands in opposition to it. Pick a poem, any poem, from an anthology and you will see that it is speaking for life and therefore against the taking of it. A poem about mushrooms or about a walk with the dog is a more eloquent response to September 11 than a poem that announces that wholesale murder is a bad thing."
No stranger to this anthology series -- his work was chosen by guest editors Charles Simic, Louise GlÜck, James Tate, John Hollander, Robert Bly, Rita Dove, and Robert Hass -- Collins was tapped in June to succeed Stanley Kunitz as the nation's poet laureate. "We should notice that there is no prose laureate," Collins said at the news conference, "although they will probably be lobbying for equal treatment." The new laureate's populist appeal is beyond dispute. You can coerce people to do many things, but buying books of poetry isn't one of them, and people buy Collins's books in quantity. He has real readers, readers who aren't themselves poets, who obey the pleasure principle when it comes to buying a book. But the New York Times in a front-page story anointed him as "the most popular poet in America" and he has since become a magnet for envy. In an application of what I've come to call the Resentment Index, I realized that Collins had truly made it when I began hearing his work disparaged regularly. The Fall 2001 issue of the Melic Review contained no fewer than four poems satirizing the poet's geniality and embrace of the quotidian. (One dastardly fellow's parody would, however, "direct you to that lampshade / made of human skin and tell you / to concentrate on the warm glow // and forget the camps." Even bad taste should have its bounds.) Collins's poetry was too easy for the New Republic's Adam Kirsch, who complained: "Nothing in his work suggests that he even acknowledges that there is a place for difficulty in poetry. His amused indifference resembles wisdom only as death resembles life." Of course, nothing in Collins's work denies a place for difficulty in poetry, or implies even remotely that he aims to dictate what other poets do, but that's not the point. The inflated simile ("as death resembles life") suggests the vehemence of the critical antagonism that a poet of humor and warmth, ease of manner, and above all a large audience can expect. Well, critics will be critics, though the public at any rate clearly counts neither Auden's difficulty nor Collins's accessibility as strikes against them.
Adoring fans weighed in elsewhere. The magazine Whetstone published an unconventional marriage proposal in the form of Lisa Beyer's poem "Billy Collins's Wife," the title indicating what she, author or speaker, would yearn to be if there were a vacancy. ("For this to be so / Billy Collins's wife / must die a death / both quick and painless, / but especially quick, / so I will still be 32 / and possessing whatever / loveliness I ever possessed, / for what else can I offer such a man?") As the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda heated up, the novelist Ira Levin suggested that our poet laureate ("what's he there for?") be asked to propose code names superior to the widely deplored monikers Operation Infinite Justice and Operation Enduring Freedom. Collins soon disclosed "Poetry 180," his own sensible idea for how best to use his office. He crafted a list of 180 poems, one for each school day, in an initiative to get poetry read aloud daily in high schools.
It was poetry as usual for much of 2001, "usual" in this case signifying its opposite, and "poetry" here referring to anything that claims to be such. There were reminders that April, National Poetry Month, begins with a day that honors the fool. In Alaska, the arts council launched a poetry initiative that prompted the Borealis Brewery to print poems on beer bottles. A more dubious second result was that 250,000 Alaskans, or 40 percent of the state's population, opened their telephone, water, and sewer bills in April and found a poem stuffed inside as filler. (It was Tom Sexton's "Beluga," about the white whales that swim Cook Inlet off Anchorage each June.) Later in the year, Oprah Winfrey demonstrated that her awesome marketing muscle applies as well to poetry as to fiction. When she praised the poems of Mattie Stepanek, an eleven-year-old boy who suffers from muscular dystrophy, she did so rhapsodically, with a tear in her eye. "If ever I had a book to recommend, it's Mattie's. If ever you were going to buy a book, I recommend it; this is the one, my friends." (Mattie had previously stolen the show at the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon.) Journey Through Heartsongs promptly sold 170,000 copies, and a second Stepanek book soon joined it on the best-seller list. An anthology of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's Best-Loved Poems, also a best-seller, included several of Jackie's youthful efforts in verse, which did nothing to diminish her iconic status.
On June 11, Timothy McVeigh, facing execution for his part in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, chose to make no personal statement but instead referred the media to W. E. Henley's "Invictus," a nineteenth-century warhorse that schoolchildren used to have to memorize. "My head is bloody, but unbowed," wrote Henley, who suffered from tuberculosis and had to have a leg amputated. The poem concludes: "I am the master of my fate; / I am the captain of my soul." I went on a local New York TV newscast to infer that McVeigh remained unrepentant. In the green room before going on the air I could see the monitor and how I was billed. No name; it just said "execution poem expert." Meanwhile a New York Times reporter asked poets and critics which poem they would choose to help them "embrace the moment" if they "knew the hour of their death in advance." The seventeenth-century poet George Herbert won. Molly Peacock, Robert Pinsky, and Helen Vendler all picked a Herbert poem, though Dana Gioia held out for Tennyson's "In Memoriam" and Richard Howard for Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning."
Since its inception as an annual anthology in 1988, The Best American Poetry has acted on the notion that the best way to honor excellence in poetry is to enlist a poet of distinguished stature to do the choosing each year. By this means each volume in the series necessarily differs from its predecessor, and the books taken together chronicle the taste of some of our leading poets. Robert Creeley, this year's editor, is esteemed among fellow poets across the board irrespective of affiliation and orientation. Donald Hall, who made the selections for The Best American Poetry 1989, once said that the poet of his generation he admires most is Creeley: "I love his marching ear and the delicacy of his nuances." Like others I first fell under Creeley's spell when I read Donald M. Allen's New American Poetry in the 1960s. His poems had an easy intimacy; they advanced their propositions tersely and without pomp ("If you never do anything for anyone else / you are spared the tragedy of human relation- // ships"). Creeley is universally admired for his skill at line breaks. Trying to explain his magic, I wrote: "it / doesn't matter / what he says / what matters is / the way the lines / break at just / the right moment / each time / uncanny." Few editors in my experience have been as decisive and confident as Creeley. It was, as I could have predicted, a pleasure to work with him.
Clever former English majors continue their subversive campaign to insinuate poetry into popular culture, sometimes to brilliant or hilarious effect. In the movie The Anniversary Party, Kevin Kline, playing an actor, quotes the conclusion of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" ("Ah, love, let us be true to one another...") as a toast to the reconciling Hollywood couple whose anniversary it is. It is solemn, deadpan, and completely inappropriate -- quite as if the movie had taken to heart Anthony Hecht's parody of Arnold ("The Dover Bitch") and realized how odd it must feel to be "addressed / As sort of a mournful cosmic last resort." Poetry is a great prophetic warning of "ignorant armies" on contested beachheads, but it is also the lampooning of that impulse. And it is passion, or an adolescent's intense longing for it: the plot of the French thriller With a Friend Like Harry hinges on a poem the hero wrote for his lycée literary magazine, which his curious "friend" still knows by heart though many years have elapsed.
Poetry, the art of articulation, renders us inarticulate when it comes to defining it. Purists would discourage us from considering poetry as an essence, or as anything apart from individual texts, but there remains the obdurate attachment to poetry as not only an art but a quality in itself that a person or a work of art may have. "I'm not just a suit," said Gerald Levin when he retired as CEO of AOL Time Warner last December. "I want the poetry back in my life." Similarly, Woody Allen, accounting for his preference in movie westerns, said, "Shane achieves a certain poetry that High Noon doesn't." It is tempting to conclude that poetry remains the touchstone art, a supreme signifier, emblematic of soulful artistry, the adventurous imagination, and the creative spirit.
Foreword copyright © 2002 by David Lehman
Foreword by David Lehman
Introduction by Robert Creeley
Rae Armantrout, "Up to Speed"
John Ashbery, "The Pearl Fishers"
Amiri Baraka, "The Golgotha Local"
Charles Bernstein, "122"
Anselm Berrigan, from Zero Star Hotel
Frank Bidart, "Injunction"
Jenny Boully, "The Body"
T. Alan Broughton, "Ballad of the Comely Woman"
Michael Burkard, "What I Threw into the Grave"
Anne Carson, "Opposed Glimpse of Alice James, Garth James, Henry James, Robertson James and William James"
Elizabeth Biller Chapman, "On the Screened Porch"
Tom Clark, "Lullaby for Cuckoo"
Peter Cooley, "Corpus Delicti"
Clark Coolidge, "Traced Red Dot"
Ruth Danon, "Long after (Mallarmé),"
Diane di Prima, "Midsummer"
Theodore Enslin, "Moon Cornering"
Elaine Equi, "O Patriarchy"
Clayton Eshleman, "Animals out of the Snow"
Norman Finkelstein, "Drones and Chants"
Jeffrey Franklin, "To a Student Who Reads 'The Second Coming' as Sexual Autobiography"
Benjamin Friedlander, "Independence Day"
Gene Frumkin, "Surreal Love Life"
Forrest Gander, "Carried Across"
Peter Gizzi, "Beginning with a Phrase from Simone Weil"
Louise Gluck, "Reunion"
Albert Goldbarth, "The Gold Star"
Donald Hall, "Affirmation"
Michael S. Harper, "TCAT serenade: 4 4 98 (New Haven)"
Everett Hoagland, "you: should be shoo be"
Fanny Howe, "9-11-01"
Ronald Johnson, "Poem" ("across dark stream")
Maxine Kumin, "Flying"
Bill Kushner, "Great"
Joseph Lease, "'Broken World' (For James Assatly)"
Timothy Liu, "Felix Culpa"
Nathaniel Mackey, "On Antiphon Island"
Jackson Mac Low, "And Even You Elephants? (Stein 139/Titles 35)"
Steve Malmude, "Perfect Front Door"
Sarah Manguso, "Address to Winnie in Paris"
Harry Mathews, "Butter & Eggs"
Duncan McNaughton, "The quarry (1-13)"
W. S. Merwin, "To My Father's Houses"
Philip Metres, "Ashberries: Letters"
Jennifer Moxley, "Behind the Orbits"
Eileen Myles, "Sympathy"
Maggie Nelson, "Sunday Night"
Charles North, "Sonnet"
Alice Notley, "Haunt"
D. Nurkse, "Snapshot from Niagara"
Sharon Olds, "Frontis Nulla Fides"
George Oppen, "Twenty-six Fragments"
Jena Osman, "Starred Together"
Carl Phillips, "Fretwork"
Pam Rehm, "'A roof is no guarantee...'"
Adrienne Rich, "Ends of the Earth"
Corinne Robins, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
Elizabeth Robinson, "Tenets of Roots and Trouble"
Ira Sadoff, "Self-Portrait with Critic"
Hugh Seidman, "I Do Not Know Myself"
Reginald Shepherd, "You Also, Nightingale"
Ron Silliman, "For Larry Eigner, Silent"
Dale Smith, "Poem after Haniel Long"
Gustaf Sobin, "In Way of Introduction"
Juliana Spahr, "Some of We and the Land That Was Never Ours"
John Taggart, "Call"
Sam Truitt, from Raton Rex, Part I
Jean Valentine, "Do flies remember us"
Lewis Warsh, "Eye Contact"
Claire Nicolas White, "Return to Saint Odilienberg, Easter 2000"
Nathan Whiting, "In Charge"
Dara Wier, "Illumined with the Light of Fitfully Burning Censers"
Charles Wright, "Nostalgia II"
John Yau, "A Sheath of Pleasant Voices"
Contributors' Notes and Comments
Magazines Where the Poems Were First Published
Posted October 15, 2002
I have been writing what I consider to be poetry for as long as I can remember. The works of many great poets continue to inspire me to write, and I strive to follow in their footsteps. Words like ¿breezy¿, ¿simply constructed with deft turns of the pen¿, and ¿relaxed¿, have been used to describe my writing style. I humbly submit this review, realizing that many intellectuals would probably consider my style of poetry to be ¿Cat In The Hat¿-like reading. Although I liked a few pieces in this collection, I must say that for the most part, I didn¿t get it. I enjoy a challenging and mind-stimulating read. However, if I have to work TOO hard to get the point, then it¿s no longer fun for me. A friend of mine reminded me that all poetry is subjective, and that I should stop trying to understand it, and try to FEEL it. ??? I¿m sorry, but I can¿t FEEL it if I can¿t understand it. I believe that reading should be fun and enjoyable. The book was very interesting, but not really very enjoyable for me. It is very avant-garde, I suppose too much so for my simple mind. I realize that many individuals enjoy this kind of reading, and that is great. If avant-garde is what you like, then you will truly enjoy reading this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 18, 2002
Being a great fan of this wonderful series, I was stunned by the narrowness of this year's edition. Year after year, I have enjoyed the quirks and surprises of each new editors preferences, but this year the poems are of a type that will keep most readers at arms length: the literary equivelent of a chinese box puzzle.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.