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One of the best things going in modern american literature.
by David Lehman
On being named the official state poet of Vermont in 1961, Robert Frost acknowledged the honor in epigrammatic verse. "Breathes there a bard who isn't moved, / When he finds his verse is understood," he wrote, declaring himself happy to have won the approval of his old "neighborhood." Twenty-five years later, the position that had dowdily been called Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress -- a position that Frost had held when Dwight Eisenhower was president -- received a major upgrade in title. It was to be the same nondescript job (give a reading, give a speech, answer the mail) but henceforth the person would be called U. S. Poet Laureate. The change of name proved prophetic, for the post soon acquired a high prestige. Joseph Brodsky kicked off his tenure in 1992 with a memorable speech proposing that poetry books be sold at checkout counters and provided in hotel rooms beside the Bibles and phone directories. Robert Pinsky, who served three one-year terms as laureate, became a familiar face reading poems on the PBS evening news, and he remains a cultural celebrity. (In 2002, he turned up in Jane Leavy's acclaimed biography of Dodger southpaw Sandy Koufax and in an episode of The Simpsons, where he gives a reading at a campus coffee shop surrounded by frat boys who have the name of Japanese haiku poet Basho -- mentioned in the opening lines of Pinsky's poem "Impossible to Tell" -- painted on their bare chests.) Billy Collins, the current poet laureate, addressed a special joint session of Congress in Lower Manhattan a day before the first anniversary of September 11, 2001. "The Names," the fifty-four-line elegy he read, appeared in its entirety in the New York Times. When Collins, whose books are best-sellers, paid a recent visit to a grade school, one awestruck pupil inquired about the presidential line of succession: "How many people have to die before you can become president?"
It now seems that most of the states, many cities, and even a number of boroughs have or want to have their own official laureates. The appointments have proliferated. Though with Whitman and Mark Twain as our mainstays we may remain a little leery of titles, ranks, dukes, and airs, we also seem to revel in some of these things, and we put a value on the ceremonial and public uses of poetry that come with the territory. Not all the appointees rise to the occasion with the laconic wit and grace of Robert Frost, but neither had anyone done harm or caused a furor until last year. Within a month of being named the poet laureate of New Jersey, Amiri Baraka took part in the wildly popular Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, New Jersey. The observances surrounding the first year anniversary of September 11 were still fresh in people's minds when Baraka -- the former LeRoi Jones -- read "Somebody Blew Up America," a poem he had written about that atrocious day. These lines made listeners gasp: "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the twin towers / To stay at home that day / Why did Sharon stay away?" An avid Internet user, Baraka had given credence to a paranoid conspiracy theory that had spread with the speed of electronic spam. In actuality, seven Israelis died in the attacks, two on a hijacked plane and the rest in the Twin Towers, in addition to the many American Jews that perished on September 11. But Baraka had not subjected his poem to a fact-checking test. In interviews he thumbed his nose in doggerel and puns: "It's not a bad thing to be attacked by your enemies. It shows, obviously, that you don't need an enema yet."
As only the second poet laureate in New Jersey history, Baraka benefited from a quirk in the legislation that created the position but failed to specify how a laureate may be discharged or removed. Since Governor James McGreevey couldn't fire him and since he wouldn't resign, the New Jersey state legislature moved to abolish the post of poet laureate altogether. Never did a bill pass through committee so swiftly. Did this demonstrate that poetry is the first casualty of any controversy involving it? Or did it show up Baraka as an aging ego-tripper, who would opt to see the laureateship abolished -- and other poets thereby punished -- sooner than withdraw his anti-Semitic smear? The satirical newspaper The Onion refused to lose its sense of humor. A headline in the October 17-23, 2002, issue declared "Nantucket Poet Laureate Refuses to Apologize for Controversial Limerick." That the headline referred the reader to page 3C, where there was no story, seemed part of the point. Satirical wit involves not the letting loose of calumny but the telling of truths that liars deny, euphemisms hide, and platitudes obscure. In a subsequent issue The Onion displayed the kind of fearless humor that makes for a badly needed corrective to sentimentality and "correctness" (always a version of sentimentality) in the reception of poetry. The story of a wheelchair-bound author of best-selling inspirational verse ran under the heartless headline "Nation Afraid to Admit 9-Year-Old Disabled Poet Really Bad."
The widespread notice of an incendiary or scandalous poem -- and more than one such surfaced last year -- made for intense conversation. Liam Rector, in his column in American Poetry Review, asked whether we should regard poems as "works of fiction protected from accountable, verifiable reality by their imaginative basis" or as "works of nonfiction, which abide by an infinitely different set of expectations, rules, and accountability"? Good question. And there are others that poets are debating. What are the author's responsibilities? When does poetic speech become public speech that is subject to a truth-telling standard? Just how does one write about a world historical event on the order of 9/11? While there is no set answer to any of these questions, there are honorable ways to respond to the last of them. Several were chosen for The Best American Poetry 2003. A number of other poems in this volume bravely address issues of urgent immediacy. It could be that the inflection of this urgency, whether the subject matter be frighteningly near (terrorism in ghastly deed and threat) or merely eternal (the effect of death on the living, the image of a man running), is what distinguishes this year's edition of the anthology. The press of reality affects poets in diverse ways, and for some, the urge to write about events of great moment amounts to a moral imperative. This impulse is as understandable as it is difficult to resist and, when done with intelligence and skill, admirable. It seems to me, however, that something should also be said for the opposite impulse: the reluctance to speak hastily, the refusal to address a subject, any subject, that the writer himself or herself does not wish to address, or feel able to address. Isn't this a dimension of poetic license? The poets' freedom in regard to subject matter includes the freedom of reticence, whether it originates in the belief that the subordination of poetry to politics proves injurious to the former while leaving the latter unscathed, or whether it follows from the conviction that "the deepest feeling always shows itself in silence" (Marianne Moore). Declining an editor's summons for newly minted verse a few weeks after September 11, Richard Wilbur sent this terse response: "The only thing I can say right now is this. There is no excuse for the cold inhumanity of 11 September, and there is no excuse for those Americans, whether of the left or the religious right, who say that we had it coming to us."
Many poets have rediscovered, with exhilaration, a sense of political purpose in the past year. During the feverish days in February 2003 when the United States prepared its military for war with Iraq, thousands of protesting poets registered their indignation in verse. The emergence of poets and artists "trying to recapture their place as catalysts for public debate and dissent" became itself a part of the media story, though by no means as hotly controversial as the phenomenon of "celebrity activists" such as Martin Sheen or Janeane Garofalo. When Laura Bush invited hundreds of American poets to the White House for a symposium on Whitman, Dickinson, and Langston Hughes, a protest initiated by Sam Hamill, the poet and publisher of Copper Canyon Press, made the First Lady think twice, and the event was canceled. (Here was proof, one scribe sourly noted, that "the most effective poetry reading is the one that never happens.") The anti-war poem, a genre moribund since the last helicopter lifted off a Saigon rooftop in 1975, gained a new currency. Thousands of protest poems were produced, published, or posted. Whether the work had any merit seemed to be beside the point, and that is an oddity of the phenomenon. Self-styled poems of conscience make the peculiar demand that we suspend our faculty of critical discrimination. In February 2003 a seven-line poem entitled "The Bombs" by the British dramatist Harold Pinter -- who has written superb plays and screenplays -- was printed on page one of London's Independent. Here is the poem complete: "There are no more words to be said / All we have left are the bombs / Which burst out of our head / All that is left are the bombs / Which suck out the last of our blood / All we have left are the bombs / Which polish the skulls of the dead." Tired language, mixed metaphors, incoherent imagery: whatever it may have done to rally or reflect public opinion in Britain, this is a really terrible piece of writing. It is a melancholy truth that -- as Harvey Shapiro's smart new anthology, Poets of World War II, reminds us -- both the best war poems and the best anti-war poems generally come from the ranks of the soldiers who do the fighting and the reporters who cover them. That said, it is noteworthy and bears repetition that at a time of intense crisis and color-coded alerts, so many of us turn instinctively to poetry not only for inspiration and consolation but as a form of action and for a sense of community.
Poets and poetry couldn't stay out of the news last year. A poet was nominated and confirmed as the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts: the choice of Dana Gioia garnered rare acclaim on all fronts at a divisive time. "This is a moment of marvelous possibility," Gioia told a New Hampshire gathering of state poets shortly after assuming his new post. "You poets laureate may be working on little or no budget, with few or no resources. What you have at your disposal may be merely symbolic. But we poets are masters of using symbols." Gioia launched a major Shakespeare initiative that will subsidize productions of the Bard's works nationwide. The Pentagon chipped in some extra cash to extend the tour to include military bases. Gioia also disclosed plans for a Shakespeare recitation contest, which he hopes will lead to a national competition encouraging the memorization of great poems. The career of a serious poet is evidently not inconsistent with the administrative and strategic demands of running an important government agency or, for that matter, a treasured cultural foundation. Edward Hirsch, whose poem "The Desire Manuscripts" was selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for this year's anthology, took over the presidency of the Guggenheim Foundation in January 2003. At a poetry forum at the New School University, Hirsch was asked to name a formative experience in his becoming a poet. Like others asked this question, Hirsch replied by naming an unsung heroine, in his case Professor Carol Parsons at Grinnell College, who "taught me in my freshman year that poetry is an art of making, and not just of self-expression."
"I am all for poets invading all walks of American life," Billy Collins declared, and the invasion shows no signs of letting up. The world of high stakes poker is the latest field to be conquered. James McManus, whose work appeared in the 1991 (Strand) and 1994 (Ammons) volumes in this series, made more than a quarter million dollars playing championship poker a few years ago. McManus commented on "poker lit" and added significantly to it with his new book Positively Fifth Street. It speaks to the enhanced celebrity of the poet in American society that you can collect "poet cards" featuring portraits of Donald Hall, Carolyn Kizer, Adrienne Rich, and worthy others (Mille Grazie Press, Santa Barbara, California) or that Tebot Bach, a nonprofit organization in Huntington, California, is producing a Southern California poets swimsuit calendar with Carol Muske-Dukes, David St. John, Charles Harper Webb, and Suzanne Lummis among the pinups: "You've admired their words, now marvel at the sheer beauty of their bodies!"
Christmas came early to Poetry magazine with the November 2002 announcement that Ruth Lilly, the heiress of the Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, had left more than $100 million -- by some estimates close to $150 million -- to the Chicago-based monthly that Harriet Monroe founded in 1912. It was the single biggest bequest ever given to a poetry organization. As a young woman many years ago, Lilly had submitted her poems to the magazine, but the editors had never accepted any, a fact that spurred wags to quip that rejecting her was the best thing Poetry ever did -- well, maybe second best after publishing "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" back in 1915. Proving that poetry -- the work itself rather than all the stuff around it -- is the news that stays new, T. S. Eliot's great poem continues to cast its spell on English majors and creative people across the arts. A television series (Push, Nevada) featuring an IRS agent named Prufrock wowed the critics last year, while director Michael Petroni's new movie with Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter derives not only its title (Till Human Voices Wake Us) but its imagery (water) and action (a drowning) from the conclusion of "Prufrock," which the movie quotes reverently. Another allusion to Eliot's poem occurs in a recent episode of Law and Order. "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons," a perjurous defense attorney says. "For once in my life I dared to eat the peach," he adds, peach in this context serving as shorthand for a sexual tryst with a homicidal femme fatale. Not to be outdone in the homage-to-Eliot sweepstakes, HBO's hit series Six Feet Under gives us an amorous couple in bed sharing poetry. The man says the original title of the poem is "He Do the Police in Different Voices," and the woman says she likes that title more than the one the poet settled on: "The Waste Land."
In an age that looks at ostentatious controversy as the next best thing after celebrity, some poets avoid controversy, some court it, and some have it thrust upon them. The newly appointed poet laureate of Canada created a stir when he denounced "slam" poetry as "crude" and "revolting." The poet laureate of California resigned after admitting he had falsified his résumé. Justice J. Michael Eakin of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, nicknamed the "poetic justice of Pennsylvania," was rebuked for writing a dissenting opinion in seven quatrains and a footnote. The case hinged on whether a lie about the value of an engagement ring invalidated a prenuptial agreement. ("He has also," the New York Times's Adam Liptak, reported, "ruled in rhyme in cases involving animals and car repair companies.") Nothing will stop a book columnist from building a piece on the demonstrably false premise that only poets read poetry and therefore the poets might as well make themselves useful in other ways. At the same time, poetry remains the journalist's honorific of choice when the subject is rock'n'roll, political oratory, the grace of Kobe Bryant driving to the basket, or almost anything other than poetry itself. "Like every muscle car before it, SUVs are big, dangerous and superfluous, but they're also poetry made of metal," writes the Wall Street Journal's David Brooks.
Vaclav Havel stepped down as president of the Czech Republic, but the tradition of the poet as international diplomat continues. Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister who fenced with Colin Powell at the U. N. Security Council last February, is working on a poetry manuscript. In at least one respect, he is like his American counterparts. Asked to recite a poem, he obliges by reading three. In what almost sounds like a paraphrase of an early poem by the late Kenneth Koch ("You Were Wearing"), the young fashion designer Behnaz Sarafpour tells of wanting her fall line to reflect the poetry she is reading: there is an Emily Dickinson suit ("about hope"), a Herman Melville long blue dress ("about creation of art"), and a couple of Lord Byron dresses with poems embroidered on the hems. A perhaps more unexpected lover of verse is William J. Lennox, Jr., the superintendent in charge of the military academy at West Point, a three-star general who earned a doctorate in English from Princeton with a dissertation on American war poets. Speaking to a reporter, the general made a point of stressing the educative importance of a poem of bitter disillusionment, such as Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," written from the Western Front in World War I. "Most cadets romanticize war," he said. "They need these images from war to help them understand. Confronting this romanticism is what education is about."
Yusef Komunyakaa, who has made unforgettable poetry out of his experiences in Vietnam, has brought to the editing of this volume -- the seventeenth in the Best American Poetry series -- an acute sensitivity to the moral temper of the times and a strong attraction to works of seriousness and ambition. He has written that he chose to write poetry "because of the conciseness, the precision, the imagery, and the music in the lines," qualities that he prizes in the works of others. "I like the idea that the meaning of my poetry is not always on the surface and that people may return to the work," he says. "Sometimes I may not like a poem in the first reading, but, when I go back and read it again, there is a growth that has happened within me, and I become a participant rather than just a reader." We hope the poems gathered here reward multiple readings and hasten a similar transformation of the reader into a sort of participant by proxy. Nor are the subjects limited to "World History," "Jihad," and "After Your Death," to cite three titles. There are poems on blues and jazz (a Komunyakaa enthusiasm I share), poems of wit and invention, a prose poem honoring Max Jacob and a verse poem "After Horace." There are poems in unusual forms, poems on themes ranging from film noir and the conventions of the murder mystery to bread, asparagus, and the restaurant business, as well as poems that take big, important concepts -- "Beauty," "Success," "The Music of Time," "A History of Color" -- and render them in compelling terms and true. Many names familiar to followers of contemporary poetry are here, but it is the newcomers that may most excite the book's editors and readers. In The Best American Poetry 2003 two poets are represented with their first published poems: George Higgins (born 1956) and Heather Moss (born 1973). One reason this pleases me especially is that it shows there is a democracy at work even during the very nonegalitarian processes of exercising judgments and making critical discriminations. The oldest poet in this year's edition is Ruth Stone (born 1915, and still going strong, coming off a year when she won the National Book Award). The youngest is Anna Ziegler (born 1979, and thus nine years old when this series commenced). Poems were selected from more than forty magazines; many more were consulted and read with pleasure. Every year of working on this series has renewed my appreciation of the work that magazine editors do, usually without much fanfare but with extraordinary generosity of spirit.
In 2003 occurred the centenary of an event that happened almost invisibly at the Statue of Liberty: the presentation of a bronze plaque with Emma Lazarus's immortal words on it to the War Department post commander on Bedloe's Island in May 1903. Lazarus had written her sonnet "The New Colossus" for a fund-raising auction in 1883. It was not recited, nor was Lazarus present, at the ceremony dedicating the Bartholdi statue in New York harbor. Largely forgotten, the poem went unmentioned in the obituaries when Lazarus died a year later, in 1887. At the time people thought of the woman with the torch in her hand as a monument to fraternal Franco-American relations going back to George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. The statue honored liberty, the glow of enlightenment, but the full significance of the site and the statue was not realized until Emma Lazarus's lines were engraved in the public memory, and that did not happen overnight, for poetry can take a long time to achieve its full effect. The plaque hung obscurely on an interior wall of the statue's pedestal from 1903 until a popular effort in the 1930s succeeded in making that great symbol synonymous with the "Mother of Exiles," a welcoming refuge for "the wretched refuse" of Europe. The statue in the harbor was there, a lovely sight, but it remained for a poet to articulate its true significance: "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." For many of us who fondly recall climbing the stairs of the Statue with a beloved parent or with a busload of grade school chums, the famous peroration is so familiar that we may be blinded from noticing its literary excellence. But "The New Colossus" is not as familiar as it once was, and it deserves close study, perhaps in conjunction with another great sonnet occasioned by statuary, such as Shelley's "Ozymandias." At a moment of global anxiety it is good to consider this vital part of the American Dream as Emma Lazarus expressed it in a poem that made something happen -- something as nearly sublime as the promise of liberty and a fair shake to people who had known only despotism and terror and danger and despair.
Copyright © 2003 by David Lehman
Foreword copyright © 2003 by David Lehman
Introduction copyright © 2001 by Yusef Komunyakaa
Posted March 1, 2010
No text was provided for this review.