The Best American Poetry 2001


The annual publication of The Best American Poetry is an eagerly awaited event among poetry fans across the country. This year's volume in the critically acclaimed series presents American poetry in all its dazzling variety at a moment of extraordinary richness and originality.

Guest editor Robert Hass, a former Poet Laureate and a central figure in the poetry world, brings his passionate intelligence to The Best American Poetry 2001. In his engaging introduction, Hass writes ...

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The annual publication of The Best American Poetry is an eagerly awaited event among poetry fans across the country. This year's volume in the critically acclaimed series presents American poetry in all its dazzling variety at a moment of extraordinary richness and originality.

Guest editor Robert Hass, a former Poet Laureate and a central figure in the poetry world, brings his passionate intelligence to The Best American Poetry 2001. In his engaging introduction, Hass writes that after sifting through dozens of literary magazines, he "found that there were large numbers of poems that gave me pleasure, seemed to have inventive force, or intellectual passion or surprise." The works he selected are diverse in every way and have only their excellence in common. Ranging from the traditional to the innovative, the book features important new poems from Anne Carson, Robert Creeley, Michael Palmer, Robert Pinsky, and Adrienne Rich; rare posthumous works by Elizabeth Bishop and James Schuyler; and poems by marvelous newcomers like Amy England, Olena Kalytiak Davis, and Rachel Zucker.

With comments from the poets illuminating their work, and series editor David Lehman's always entertaining foreword assessing the current state of the art, The Best American Poetry 2001 is a book every reader of poetry will want to have.

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Editorial Reviews

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As always, this annual anthology offers a winning blend of acclaimed poets (Robert Creeley, Galway Kinnell, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop), the newly famous (2001 poet laureate Billy Collins), and promising young writers.
Publishers Weekly
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Hass (Sun Under Wood) offers some pleasures but few real surprises in this solid 14th installment of the ever-popular annual series. As always, a famous guest editor (Hass), series editor David Lehman (The Daily Mirror, etc.), and their assistants cull 75 poems by American writers from the previous year's run of journals: Lehman and Hass each add a short foreword, and the poets themselves send in "notes and comments," with which the volume concludes. Plenty of poets here are already famous Elizabeth Bishop, who died in 1979, appears with a revealingly unburnished, posthumously published poem from the New Yorker; Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell, Jorie Graham, Louise Gl?ck, Robert Creeley, Anne Carson, Robert Bly, John Ashbery and the new American laureate, Billy Collins, also turn up. So do the influential and richly rewarding poets Rae Armantrout and Lyn Hejinian, whose appearance here would once have been a surprise. (Opinions will differ on whether Hass should have included Brenda Hillman, to whom he is married.) As those who know Hass's own work might expect, his selections from lesser-known creators (like James Richardson) tend toward the expansive and meditative, with room for brief prose poems and extended comedy. And the volume as a whole as Hass's preface admits skews slightly older, and farther towards stars, than some previous Best Americans have (though not Rita Dove's entry from last year). The younger writers that are here including Lee Ann Brown, Christopher Edgar, Thomas Sayers Ellis ("some readings you really could hear/ a rat piss on cotton"), Noelle Kocot and Dean Young are energetic and accessible. Readers familiar with poetry according to Agni,APR, Fence and Verse, leavened here with a smattering of the old school, may not find much to discover; for others, this book is an excellent guide to the changing of the po-biz guard. Either way, it will be one of the top-selling poetry titles this year. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This 15th annual sampling of the year's best magazine verse is as much about the state of poetry publishing in this country as it is about the poems themselves. It shows how much appreciation we owe to the discerning, indefatigable poetry editors of our literary magazines, from Paris Review and The New Yorker to Pequod and Quarter After Eight, who bring us not only the high-quality work we have come to expect from familiar names but also some terrific poems by lesser knowns. Poets who make it into Lehman's series get more exposure than most, which is why there's always some quibbling about the selections. But no one can quarrel with the choice of Elizabeth Bishop, whose posthumous "Vague Poem" is one of the great joys here. Also enjoyable are "Tattoos," a long, witty narrative by J.D. McClatchy, and Amy England's "The Art of the Snake Story." Fortunately, there are plenty more where these came from, and it is certainly handy to have recent work by the likes of Kenneth Koch, Louise Gleck, Adrienne Rich, and Yusef Komunyakaa all in one place. Recommended for most libraries. Ellen Kaufman, Dewey Ballantine Law Lib., New York Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743203838
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 9/28/2001
  • Series: Best American Poetry Series
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.84 (w) x 8.77 (h) x 0.96 (d)

First Chapter

by David Lehman

A curious thing has happened. While American poetry continues to flourish, this has occurred in an inverse relationship to the prestige of high culture as traditionally understood and measured. High culture has taken a beating. At regular intervals journalists announce the demise of the "public intellectual." Stories circulate about dysfunctional English departments (Duke, Columbia). Outrageous hoaxes bamboozle the faculty's talking heads, whose peculiar patois and preference for theory over practice provoke savage indignation in some corners and satirical merriment in others. A respected professor at a major university told me that the only thing unifying the warring factions in the English department there is "a common hatred of literature." In the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of Parnassus: Poetry in Review, the journal's editor, Herbert Leibowitz, laments the dwindling of "the audience for belletristic criticism -- as opposed to the jargon-riddled academic variety." Leibowitz regards poetry criticism as an art, an art in crisis because of bad academic habits on the one side and the timidity of poets on the other ("the reluctance of poets to write honestly about their peers"). He surely has a point and is in an excellent position to know. Yet what is equally noteworthy is that the virus afflicting poetry criticism has left poetry itself uncontaminated.

In the last decade the audience for poetry has grown; enthusiasts keep turning up in unexpected quarters, and the media are paying attention and magnifying the effect. Poetry readings, fairs, and festivals have proliferated. National Poetry Month has raised April sales (without lowering those of other months). Initiatives ranging from "Poetry in Motion" posters in buses and subways to Robert Pinsky's "favorite poem project" have helped bridge the gap between poetry and the ordinary citizen. The radio voice of Garrison Keillor reads a Shakespeare sonnet in drive time, and on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer that evening a retired Air Force officer tearfully recites Yusef Komunyakaa's poem about the Vietnam Memorial, "Facing It." Are these things causes or effects of the poetry boom? Probably both, as are Bill Moyers's PBS documentaries, The Language of Life in 1995 and Fooling with Words four years later. Moyers's efforts have met with highbrow derision, but that is true of many efforts to popularize a cultural phenomenon with a reputation for difficulty. One critic has called Moyers the "Bob Costas of the American poetry world," the "ultimate fan," which may be one of those left-handed insults that conveys something of a compliment despite its contemptuous intent. Quarrel with Moyers's taste and judgment all you want; there is no denying the value of his TV programs in building an audience for the poets lucky enough to get air time.

More popular than ever, creative writing programs have helped make up for the neglect of literature elsewhere on campus. It is an argument for the health and vitality of contemporary poetry that so many talented young people devote two graduate years to its study despite knowing that "there's nothing in it" (as Ezra Pound's Mr. Nixon warns in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley"). It is, of course, easy to mock the locutions of the universal workshop, though I find not only humor but a sort of charm in them. One day in a workshop last February, somebody said, "I had issues with the pronouns in the other lines, too," and off went that little mental explosion that tells me a poem, in the case at hand a villanelle, was on the way. I called it "Issues":

I had issues with the pronouns in the other lines, too.
It started to kick in for me with the part about the war.
Did what I say make sense to you?

I wondered whether what "you" said was true,
Which may have been what "you" were aiming for.
I had issues with the pronouns in the other lines, too,

And not just the pronouns but the branding ("Mountain Dew").
I like the imagery especially "in the forest there's a door."
Did what I say make sense to you?

But I wish the poem didn't dodge the repercussions of "Jew,"
And I winced at "hoodlums and whores."
I had issues with the pronouns in the other lines, too,

But in the other lines what comes through is you,
What I hear is your voice, a kind of quiet roar.
Did what I say make sense to you?

Don't get me wrong, I like the second-person point of view,
But it raises issues. Like what. Like gender.
I had issues with the pronouns in the other lines, too.
Did what I say make sense to you?

As one who teaches workshops I recognize their structural defects. I sometimes wonder how certain great poems would fare in a workshop. I can well imagine that after the class got through with Wallace Stevens's "Of Mere Being" the amazing last line of that poem ("The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down") would not survive intact. Nevertheless I'm convinced that the study of poetry, fiction, and serious literature depends more and more on creative writing programs on all levels. This may seem a supreme irony to anyone who remembers the combination of condescension and skepticism that English department regulars directed at their creative writing colleagues twenty-five years ago. Creative writing is sometimes denigrated on the grounds that few workshop-trained poets will go on to write poems as great as those of Wallace Stevens, who studied law, not poetry or creative writing. But few poets, workshop-trained or not, will write great poems. Our mission is to nurture talent and keep the love of poetry at its liveliest, most receptive, and most creative state, and if the student publishes few poems but becomes an avid reader we will have done a job that others have relinquished.

A good deal of creativity has gone into the teaching of creative writing. Low residency MFA programs, such as the ones at Bennington in Vermont and Warren Wilson in North Carolina, which convene for short periods twice a year and do the rest of their work by correspondence between student and faculty, enable grown-ups with families, spouses, jobs to give sustained attention to their writing. Given demographic trends, it is easy to predict the growth of such programs as well as the spread of summer writing conferences lasting anywhere from a weekend to several weeks in picturesque locales. Already the ambitious initiate of whatever age can take instruction at Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Squaw Valley, Saratoga Springs, Provincetown, the Napa Valley, and numerous other desirable sites including the European cities of Prague, St. Petersburg, Dublin, and Paris. I can hear the retort of the scandalized idealist who associates the creative writing workshop with the decline of civilization: "In the baby boom generation, no one will retire. Instead they will write poetry." Well, maybe, and all of us must sometimes secretly fear that everyone wants to write the stuff and no one wants to read it. At such moments we would do well to recall that Seamus Heaney's verse translation of Beowulf, not your conventional potboiler, sold two hundred thousand copies in hardcover and occupied a slot on the New York Times bestseller list for ten weeks last year. Readers do exist, more than you might have thought. The trick remains how to reach them.

On the "everyone wants to write the stuff" front, New York Mets' reliever Turk Wendell, he of the animal-claw necklace, writes it ("Life Is Like a Baseball"). Monica Lewinsky moved to New York and came out in favor of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which she imitated (loosely) in a Valentine's Day poem commissioned by a British magazine. Paul McCartney is writing a book of poems. Julia Roberts has written poems for years and particularly loves Neruda. Ashley Judd, who memorizes a poem for each birthday, chose Wordsworth's "Daffodils" last year and is leaning this year toward Rudyard Kipling's "If." Kim Cattrall, who plays Samantha in the HBO hit Sex and the City, likes reciting Rupert Brooke while her boyfriend plays the string bass. Helen Hunt says she is "obsessed with Rilke." Her favorite "is an untitled one in a collection that Robert Bly translated," which she proceeds to paraphrase: "I want to unfold because where I am closed I am false; I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone." David Duchovny, who studied with Harold Bloom at Yale, has never made a secret of his admiration of John Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror." Asked by a Movieline reporter to analyze the poem, the star of The X-Files gladly obliged: "It's about a man who's painting his self-portrait, but he's looking into a mirrored ball, and the closer he gets to it, the further away his image seems to be going." Duchovny then drew a parallel between the poem's posture and his own style as an actor: "I'm trying to protect what I advertise. That's my stance on any kind of self-expression."

I have a cultivated interest in the unusual ways people use poetry in their public or professional lives. Last year did not disappoint. Dona Nieto, a California performance artist who calls herself La Tigresa, bared her breasts and declaimed "goddess-based, nude Buddhist guerilla poetry" at timber sites north of San Francisco to protest the logging of ancient redwoods. Anonymous cyber-scribes adapted familiar lines by Longfellow, Poe, Whitman, Ogden Nash, Joyce Kilmer, Alfred Noyes, and Clement Moore to satirize the post-election stalemate in Florida. Salman Rushdie in the Guardian versified the electoral results in the manner of Dr. Seuss. (Aided by "the great Legal Grinches, / and Grinches of Spin," the Grinch exhorts his cohorts to "Grinch / This election!") On TV, a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? won $2,000 for shrewdly relying on the audience to know that the number of lines in a couplet is two. In one episode of the TV drama Bull, a ruthless tycoon quotes Yeats ("But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, / And loved the sorrows of your changing face"), while in a different scene a bearded financial shark tosses off an allusion to Edna St. Vincent Millay ("My candle burns at both ends") to ridicule a Smith College alumna during a game of "humiliate the host." In HBO's hit series The Sopranos, Anthony, Jr., listens as his older sister, Meadow, a Columbia freshman, knowingly explains the symbolism of the snow in Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." "That's fucked up," her brother replies. If you get a chance to see Melissa Palmer's movie Wildflowers, you'll note that the guest editor of this year's Best American Poetry plays a poet named Robert who gets to recite his poems and court the character played by Daryl Hannah.

After the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA championship in June 2000, Shaquille O'Neal quoted Shakespeare's "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them" at a victory celebration. While the Lakers' center left it unstated how these lines applied to the situation at hand, none could deny their grandeur. A few months earlier coach Phil Jackson had made a gift to O'Neal of Nietzsche's selected writings. "He was ahead of his time," O'Neal said. "Everybody else was analog and Nietzsche was digital." As the stock market swooned, Charles Millard, the former head of Internet investment banking at Prudential Securities, turned to Keats to explain the inevitable discrepancy between actual and anticipated profits. "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter," Millard quoted, adding: "That reality is now hitting people right in the face." When a jail sentence smacked Dana C. Giacchetto, formerly Leonardo di Caprio's financial advisor, he took up poetry. Sample line: "At the nexus where art meets justice, a chemistry dancing like angels sweating with peace, yet, halfway asleep." Now there's a man who could benefit from a poetry writing workshop.

The Best American Poetry is committed to the notion that excellence in poetry is not incompatible with the pursuit of a general audience. Robert Hass, who succeeded Rita Dove as U. S. poet laureate and now succeeds her as the guest editor of this anthology, has dedicated himself to this project with the zeal that has characterized his efforts over the years to promote literature and literacy on the widest level. As poet laureate Hass, a distinguished critic as well as poet, wrote a weekly column ("The Poet's Choice") for the Washington Post recommending poets and poems in language direct and unaffected, adjectives not usually associated with critical writing; he would print the poem in full and comment briefly on it, careful not to let the commentary eclipse the verse. (When, after 212 weeks without a break, Hass gave up the column in January 2000, it was, fittingly, Dove who took it over.) Back when I asked him if he would undertake the editing of this anthology, Hass described himself as the "Raskolnikov of deadlines." After working with him on The Best American Poetry 2001, I am able to attest to the justness of this epithet -- and to say that working with him was worth stretching any number of deadlines.

In the year 2000, as the IPO market crashed and one dot-com after another went under, some of us cherished all the more such "old economy" staples as books and magazines. Yet for poetry, which resists being turned into a commodity, the Internet remains a particularly friendly and potentially transformative space, offering a revolutionary means and method of publication and distribution. You can't help but admire the energy and enterprise informing electronic magazines and literary Web sites such as Slate, Salon, The Cortland Review, Poetry Daily, Nerve, Pif, Can We Have Our Ball Back? (its title evidently a nod to the Beatles' movie A Hard Day's Night), and most improbably two different 'zines named after Arthur Rimbaud's poem, "Le Bateau ivre" ("The Drunken Boat"). Both are brand-new. The one edited by Ravi Shankar (not the sitar player but a recent graduate of Columbia's MFA program) is called Drunken Boat (at in contrast to the one edited by Rebecca Seiferle, a contributor to The Best American Poetry 2000, which is The Drunken Boat (at It was in general an excellent year for Rimbaud, whose "Une Saison en enfer" ("A Season in Hell") is quoted by Marcia Gay Harden playing Lee Krasner in Ed Harris's movie Pollock.

This is the fifteenth volume in The Best American Poetry series. I have had many occasions to celebrate the accomplishments or recognitions of the fifteen guest editors to date. But until this year I have not had to mourn the passing of one of them. A. R. Ammons died on February 25, 2001, a week after his seventy-fifth birthday. "We're gliding," he wrote in the concluding lines of Sphere: The Form of a Motion. "We

are gliding: ask the astronomer, if you don't believe it: but
motion as a summary of time and space is gliding us: for a while,
we may ride such forces: then, we must get off: but now this

beats any amusement park by the shore: our Ferris wheel, what a
wheel: our roller coaster, what mathematics of stoop and climb: sew
my name on my cap: we're clear: we're ourselves: we're sailing."

Foreword copyright © 2001 by David Lehman

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