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The Best of the Best American Poetry, 25th Anniversary Edition

The Best of the Best American Poetry, 25th Anniversary Edition

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by Robert Pinsky

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Robert Pinsky, distinguished poet and man of letters, selects the top 100 poems from twenty-five years of The Best American Poetry

This special edition celebrates twenty-five years of the Best American Poetry series, which has become an institution. From its inception in 1988, it has been hotly debated, keenly monitored, ardently advocated


Robert Pinsky, distinguished poet and man of letters, selects the top 100 poems from twenty-five years of The Best American Poetry

This special edition celebrates twenty-five years of the Best American Poetry series, which has become an institution. From its inception in 1988, it has been hotly debated, keenly monitored, ardently advocated (or denounced), and obsessively scrutinized. Each volume consists of seventy-five poems chosen by a major American poet acting as guest editor—from John Ashbery in 1988 to Mark Doty in 2012, with stops along the way for such poets as Charles Simic, A. R. Ammons, Louise Glück, Adrienne Rich, Billy Collins, Heather McHugh, and Kevin Young. Out of the 1,875 poems that have appeared in The Best American Poetry, here are 100 that Robert Pinsky, the distinguished poet and man of letters, has chosen for this milestone edition.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this second "Best of the Best"—the first being Harold Bloom's cantankerous tenth anniversary selection—guest editor former poet laureate Pinsky (The Figured Wheel) chooses his 100 favorites from among the nearly 1,900 poems appearing in the annual sampling of magazine verse since its 1988 debut. No year's work is neglected, and only 15 poems replicate Bloom's selections. As one might expect, the majority of poets included are fixtures in the contemporary canon (e.g., John Ashbery, Rita Dove, Louise Glück, Robert Hass, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich). Pinsky favors the plain style ("a mannerless speaking," to borrow a phrase from Rodney Jones's poem here), and despite a scattering of both traditional formalists (James Merrill, A.E. Stallings) and poets of more experimental mien (Anne Carson, Harryette Mullen), the ambience is one of a cocktail party where the overlapping conversations of observant, thoughtful people are heard as a collective murmur, their distinctive styles subsumed by a general flatness of tone, diction, and subject. Still, several compelling voices (Stephen Dobyns, A.R. Ammons, J. Allyn Rosser, Richard Wilbur, Kevin Young) cut bracingly through the hubbub. VERDICT For libraries lacking the annuals, this single-volume compilation will suitably represent the flavor of the series as a whole.—Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, NY
Publishers Weekly
This 25th-Anniversary anthology celebrating Scribner’s annual Best American Poetry series, each volume of which is compiled by a different notable poet, with the help of series founder and editor David Lehman, offers one kind of survey of the past quarter-century of American verse and begs the question of what it means for a poem to be among the “best.” Although, necessarily, this is not a panoramic representation of all that U.S. poets have to offer, it does feature poets as aesthetically disparate as the formalist James Merrill (with a poem from 1991) and the free-form experimenter Lyn Hejinian, whose inclusion dates from 1994. There are plenty of poems by usual suspects—John Ashbery, Robert Hass, James Tate—as well as a few by late legends, like Allen Ginsberg, Jane Kenyon, Kenneth Koch, Adrienne Rich, and James Schuyler—but the book is short on names that will be new to poetry readers, leaving poets like Major Jackson, Sarah Manguso, and C. Dale Young, all now in mid-career, to carry the torches for new poetry. Readers will find, however, many of the standout poems from various volumes, including Anne Carson’s incredible “The Life of Towns” (from 1993) and Rae Armantrout’s slippery “Soft Money” (from 2011). Most of all, this volume attests to what may be the rule of this series: “the best” is a matter of each editor, and each reader’s tastes; no doubt, some readers will discover new favorites here. (Apr.)
Los Angeles Times - David Ulin
“The strength of [The Best of the Best American Poetry] is its sense of subjectivity, the way these poems illustrate their editor’s aesthetic, and in so doing, tell us something of how poetry operates in the world…These are poems that take the personal and make it universal, not by grand statements but by specific observation, building a common vision out of the very things that hold us apart.”
Monterey County Herald - Colette Bancroft
The Best of the Best American Poetry collects 100 splendid works by American poets from a quarter-century of the Best American Poetry series.”
Booklist - Donna Seaman
“A concentrated, high-caliber, and exhilarating overview of the intensity and artistry that have made American poetry so splendidly varied and vital…This is an anthology of broad scope, serious pleasure, and invaluable illumination.”
BookPage - Julie Hale
“This indispensable volume, with its rich mix of voices, forms and techniques, serves as a melting pot of contemporary American verse.”
Shelf Awareness - Bruce Jacobs
“It takes special chutzpah and perspective to pick the poems that deserve to make the best cut twice—and Pinsky’s fine collection proves that he’s got the chops to do it…His selection is so rich and diverse one can’t help but find several poems that will brighten any winter day…The Best of the Best American Poetry is a collection that never stops bringing light.”
From the Publisher
People A year's worth of the very best.

The Orlando Sentinel Ample proof that poetry is thriving.

Publishers Weekly This yearly compendium is not to be missed.

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The Best of the Best American Poetry

  • by Robert Pinsky

    My assignment has been to choose one hundred poems from the nearly two thousand selected by the poets who edited the annual Best American Poetry volumes over the past twenty-five years. An intimidating task: just look at the anthologies of even a generation or two ago, with their surprising omissions and mistaken inclusions—in hindsight. See, too, the lists of prizewinners and poets laureate.

    William Shakespeare, John Donne, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins were ignored or underestimated by experts of their times. Present-day scholars and critics, the equivalents of those experts, now write books about those poets.

    On the other hand, I have the encouraging thought that the editors of the annual volumes in the series, from John Ashbery in 1988 to Mark Doty in 2012, are poets. And poets, though certainly not infallible in judgment, have a stringent, in a way ruthless motive or framework for judgment, distinct from the more curatorial role of scholars and critics. Actual composition, the effort to make something new, is a fiery, inherently disruptive form of criticism.

    Who, after all, called attention to the once-neglected work of Donne and Hopkins? Mainly, subsequent generations of poets. More recently, Elizabeth Bishop and George Oppen, during their lives, were not as widely celebrated as James Dickey and Archibald MacLeish. But in time, young poets decided they needed to learn from Bishop and Oppen.

    “What’s posterity ever done for me?” Groucho Marx is said to have asked. In poetry, the answer is clear: posterity chooses. The new poets to come are the arbiters of what is best, or at least what is recognized as best in their time. Even their mistakes may be illuminating, because of the energy that drives them. The maker’s pressure, the craving to make something new and good, exerts a greater force for the artist than schools, categories, expectations—greater, and sometimes in an opposite direction, toward surprise or defiance. In each generation, the practitioners for their own purposes revise that forever shape-shifting and evolving organism, the canon.

    What has been my basis for choosing the poems in this book? A short answer would be: ear and imagination. Those are the prerequisites. But beyond that, there is—not subject matter, exactly, but a large and adventuresome sense of subject matter: in one form or another, an implicit idea of poetry, the art of the individual human voice, as central and fundamental: like singing, dancing, cuisine, ceremony. In a word, culture.

    By “ear” I mean the way poetry’s medium is breath: the art is rooted in the human-scale, extremely intimate yet social medium of each reader’s actual or imagined voice. The reader imagines what it might feel like to need to say the poem. By “imagination” I mean an act of mind that is similarly individual, on a human scale. At the juncture of imagination and body, poetry like dance and song is central to human culture, in the mysterious fusion at the core of mind and body. With imagination, mind expresses itself in gesture and sound. Breath, the medium (for me) of poetry, is literally at the center of the human body, inhaling and exhaling. As speech is a fundamental social means, poetry based on speech is a fundamental art.

    By “culture” I mean something distinct from the two realms that are sometimes assumed to encompass all of culture: the entertainment industry and the academic industry. Both are constituent parts of something larger and deeper, and yet often—maybe because it is less visible than the curriculum or the TV Guide—underestimated. Culture generates the curriculum and the TV Guide, and incorporates elements of them, and shrugs them aside, like the god Kronos eating his children. The underestimation of culture may have roots in the fearsome truth that culture is not ornamental and static; that it is an unsettling, tectonic force, not always benign. Sometimes it is sinister or appalling. It cannot reliably be predicted or manipulated.

    In February 2007, in the state of Qatar, I attended a Brookings Institution conference, the U.S.-Islamic World Forum: “Confronting What Divides Us.” Along with people from the media, politics, science, and business there were some representatives from the arts, religion, and media, designated under the rubric of “Culture.” A session of our cultural group included an Arabic pop singer, a comedian, and a graphic-novel artist, along with on-air and online journalists and—notably—experts in the world of the Internet: social media and digital entertainment, and the merging of the two. Our seminar’s moderator emphasized demographic facts, in particular that the median age throughout the Arab world was very young and getting younger. Combined with the surge in computer skills and access, this demographic change would become increasingly determinative. That was the recurring theme.

    But an Egyptian playwright protested against this emphasis on demographics. As I remember, she argued passionately that demographics and technology, though significant, should not lead us to neglect the immense force of culture, and of art within culture. The cultural forces within particular nations, religions, and religious groups, she declared, were organic, various, and enduring, as well as constantly evolving. An Egyptian thirteen-year-old and a Kurdish thirteen-year-old were in certain ways profoundly different from each other and from their Bosnian, Iranian, and Yemeni contemporaries, though they might have similar T-shirts and computer games. Culture, she argued, trumps demographics.

    Against a general, polite tide away from the playwright’s viewpoint, I and a few others were moved by her argument. Notably, a Palestinian filmmaker observed that the Koran’s power came largely from a matter of art: the fact that it was composed in verses, making it both magnetic and memorizable. I had never thought about this fact, a refutation of the tag from W. H. Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen.” The Koran has made many things happen.

    Then, a moment later, an American entrepreneur, representing a website where people engage in alternate lives, said: “Everyone in this room is a dinosaur”—implying that in 2007 there might be something a bit outdated, or even extinct, about the playwright’s notions regarding art.

    Three years later, the Arab Spring uprisings indicated that both sides of that 2007 argument were onto something. Computer literacy among the young and their use of social media enabled large demonstrations, as in Tahrir Square. Regimes that had seemed invulnerable toppled. And though the means of the demonstrators were digital, the meanings they expressed were cultural.

    The urgency of art, or the art of poetry, with its scale that is at once individual and immense, somehow both dreamy and fundamental, is not easy to formulate. But that urgency is a sense that the ancient art must strive to get to the bottom of things, that a lot is at stake. That implicit dimension of the art, a matter of intensity and scale, was a primary guide as I chose from among the selections made by the poets who preceded me as editors of the annual Best American Poetry volumes.

    By urgency, I don’t mean preaching or mere high-minded sentiments, but rather something like the role for art envisioned by the Modernist predecessors T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Ezra Pound. Their vision of art shaped my generation, but like others I have come to mistrust the Modernist saying that the poet’s mission is to “purify the language of the tribe”: the political history of the Modernist period and after suggests misgivings about both purity and tribalism as ideals.

    Many poems honored by the annual volumes in the past twenty-five years seem to embrace that old Modernist largeness of vision, but sometimes in a way opposite to purifying the language of a tribe—expanding it and hybridizing it or even mongrelizing it. (In a separate discussion, it’s more than arguable that Pound and Eliot in their best poems do the same.) Impurity—as variously and gloriously as in Dickinson, Twain, Melville, Whitman—has been an urgent, significant part of American writing, reflecting American experience. In a contemporary version of that urgency, poets in the BAP volumes find ways to extend that project: to tell some historical truth grounded in the unique evidence of American speech, and through the intimate, communal, profoundly vocal medium of poetry.

    In 1994, for example, A. R. Ammons selected a passage from Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge, published the next year as a book-length poem. An epigraph from Callimachus (“Fatten your animal for sacrifice, poet, / but keep your muse slender.”), precedes the first section, which orchestrates different kinds of language within the four athletic quatrains of the opening section, an example of expressive, improvisatory movement, more expressive than mere “purity”:


    sapphire’s lyre styles

    plucked eyebrows

    bow lips and legs

    whose lives are lonely too

    my last nerve’s lucid music

    sure chewed up the juicy fruit

    you must don’t like my peaches

    there’s some left on the tree

    you’ve had my thrills

    a reefer a tub of gin

    don’t mess with me I’m evil

    I’m in your sin

    clipped bird eclipsed moon

    soon no memory of you

    no drive or desire survives

    you flutter invisible still

    If the ancient poet’s advice means for the poem to be quick and alert, it is fulfilled by the movement here among idioms, from the blues to the eclipsed moon and back, including points in between. Slavery, pop music, and plucked eyebrows do not preclude the more analytical language of “no drive or desire survives.” The four syllables of the third line, with their comic double meaning heartbreaking for the character, establish a certain, requisite alertness: a music of Cupid’s-bow lips and bowed legs, together, make a jagged chord. The peach-tree image of the blues lyric and the blues syntax, in a similar way, jostle and harmonize with the more literary, also rich music of vowel, consonant, and vocabulary in “my last nerve’s lucid music,” echoed in “juicy fruit.”

    That syncretic range of ear and of idea takes a quite different form, yet I think related, in Paul Violi’s “Counterman” from the 2006 volume (ed. Billy Collins), which begins with a deceptive, reportorial meticulousness:

    —What’ll it be?

    Roast beef on rye, with tomato and mayo.

    —Whaddaya want on it?

    A swipe of mayo.

    Pepper but no salt.

    —You got it. Roast beef on rye.

    You want lettuce on that?

    No. Just tomato and mayo.

    —Tomato and mayo. You got it.

     . . . Salt and pepper?

    No salt, just a little pepper.

    —You got it. No salt.

    You want tomato.

    Yes. Tomato. No lettuce.

    —No lettuce. You got it.

     . . . No salt, right?

    Right. No salt.

    —You got it.—Pickle?

    This manic accuracy of dialogue, in itself engaging, turns out to be a slow curve, a deadpan setup for a left turn of the imagination:

    Right. No pickle.

    —You got it.


    Roast beef on whole wheat, please,

    With lettuce, mayonnaise, and a center slice

    Of beefsteak tomato.

    The lettuce splayed, if you will,

    In a Beaux Arts derivative of classical acanthus,

    And the roast beef, thinly sliced, folded

    In a multifoil arrangement

    That eschews Bragdonian pretensions

    Or any idea of divine geometric projection

    For that matter, but simply provides

    A setting for the tomato

    To form a medallion with a dab

    Of mayonnaise as a fleuron.

    And—as eclectic as this may sound—

    If the mayonnaise can also be applied

    Along the crust in a Vitruvian scroll

    And as a festoon below the medallion,

    That would be swell.

    —You mean like in the Cathedral St. Pierre in Geneva?

    Yes, but the swag more like the one below the rosette

    At the Royal Palace in Amsterdam.

    —You got it.


    I think this fantastical dialogue—precise about Beaux Art acanthus derivatives in the lettuce and equally precise in its rendering of New York deli idiom—makes the scene not less real or abundantly rich, but more so. As the two kinds of language intertwine and blend, absurdly yet productively, language itself is not glibly dismissed or deprecated. The enterprise of poetry, implicitly, has its weird majesty. In the meeting of naturalistic speech and New York School elaboration, something large and mysterious transpires.

    The large reach and intense focus of these passages, embodied vocally, exemplify a certain spirit, for me—the contrary of deprecation. Deprecation may have as many modes and varieties as art itself. In contemporary poetry, it can vary between opposites that meet: at one pole, a bland, companionable chuckle that dismisses importance; at the other, a complacent, arbitrary mash-up that dismisses meaning. An easy middlebrow scoff and an easy postmodern smirk. For a keener, more exacting and thrilling form of both comedy and skepticism, see (for instance) Kenneth Koch’s “Proverb,” where the Proverb and the proper names both have their significance, along with a cosmic absurdity. The language is plainer than Mullen’s or Violi’s, but the spirit is wide-ranging.

    “Les morts vont vite,” Koch begins by quoting, “et les vivants sont dingues.” In his poem’s translation, “The dead go fast, the next day absent!” and “the living are haywire.” The speed and ardor of his poem, with its amazed, awed laughter, puts the human voice, hovering somewhere between speech and song, at the center of things, evoking in the cadences and patterns of speech the movement of life, encompassing “Alexander of Macedon, on time! / Prudhomme on time, Gorbachev on time, the beloved and the lover on time!”

    The large, multiple vision called up by the single human voice feeling the tides and currents of time, from amid them: that notion or force has been a primary guide for me. I have tried to honor its variety. As a closing example, partly for its contrast with Koch’s poem, and partly for its consonance, here are the closing lines—in a relatively “pure” idiom, but intensely vocal—of Anne Winters’s “The Mill-Race”:

    It’s not a water mill really, work. It’s like the nocturnal

    paper-mill pulverizing, crushing each fiber of rag into atoms,

    or the smooth-lipped workhouse

    treadmill, that wore down a London of doxies and sharps,

    or the paper-mill, faërique, that raised the cathedrals and wore out hosts of dust-demons,

    but it’s mostly the miller’s curse-gift, forgotten of God yet still grinding, the salt-

    mill, that makes the sea, salt.

    I am glad to present the energy and variety of these one hundred poems, culled from the choices of poets over twenty-five years.

  • What People are Saying About This

    People A year's worth of the very best.

    The Orlando Sentinel Ample proof that poetry is thriving.

    Publishers Weekly This yearly compendium is not to be missed.

    Meet the Author

    David Lehman, the series editor of The Best American Poetry, is also the editor of the Oxford Book of American Poetry. His books of poetry include Poems in the Manner Of, New and Selected Poems, Yeshiva Boys, When a Woman Loves a Man, and The Daily Mirror. His most recent nonfiction book is Sinatra’s Century. He teaches at The New School and lives in New York City and Ithaca, New York.
    Robert Pinsky was the nation’s Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. An acclaimed poet and scholar of poetry, he is also an internationally renowned man of letters. His Selected Poems was published in paperback in March 2012. His other books include The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide and his bestselling translation The Inferno of Dante, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Award. He teaches at Boston University and is the poetry editor at Slate.

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