Read good: Poetry collection lacking in variety
Since 1988, Scribner has annually published The Best American Poetry, one of the most prestigious and widely read American anthologies. Each year the series editor, David Lehman, selects a different guest editor, usually an acclaimed and prevalent poet. Thus, the species of poetry selected for the anthology varies annually and to some point reflects the guest editor’s individual taste. This couldn’t be any truer than in this year’s The Best American Poetry 2007, edited by Heather McHugh.
The 2007 anthology fails as an accurate survey of the best poetry written this year. Instead, McHugh offers an eclectic survey of her own personal library. While other guest editors of The Best American Poetry have been accused of cronyism in the past, McHugh’s abuse of her position is unprecedented.
For the most part, the chosen poets consist of McHugh’s contemporaries and neighbors. She even goes so far to include not one, but two poems by a virtually unknown poet, Susan Parr who lives in Seattle, McHugh’s hometown.
This does much to threaten the credibility of both McHugh and, more importantly, the credibility of The Best American Poetry series.
The scope of the poems is too limited. McHugh claims to have searched for contemporary and experimental poetry, but she excludes any poems found in non-traditional sources. Other realms of the poetry world are entirely overlooked, specifically the Internet, where many contemporary poets have found refuge and are flourishing.
"I had hoped with this anthology to include examples from the provocative fields of Web life today … There’s a lively invention going on in digital poetry. … By contrast, poems in this present volume originated in relatively conventional print and online journals," McHugh writes in her introduction.
If McHugh acknowledges the anthology’s shortcoming in this manner, how can she claim to be giving the readers the most comprehensive overview of the year’s poetry?
The reader, already frustrated by what is left out of the anthology, must settle with what McHugh has included. There are some poems by strong poets – Billy Collins, Robert Creeley, Louise Gl’uuml;ck, Robert Haas – whose names the reader of poetry will recognize. But it’s as if the poems are included simply because of the poet’s celebrity, and the actual selections do not measure up to the reputation of their works.Otherwise, McHugh prefers poems that are highly experimental with language, only her version of "highly experimental" denotes poems with bad puns and word games.
Consider Julie Larios’s "What Bee Did." There is no complexity to this undeserving poem, which begins, "Bee not only buzzed. / What swatted at, Bee deviled, / Bee smirched." This poem’s inclusion does little to attract readers to the anthology and repels readers from American poetry in general.
Another atrocity is Natasha Saj’eacute;’s "F." The 20-line poem begins each line except for the last with the letter "F." Hardly innovative, this is the only way in which it is experimental. And for such a short poem, the poet disappoints and bores readers using lackluster F-words such as "free," "forget" and "for." (For some language poems that do not fail completely, see Julie Carr’s "marriage" and Christian B√∂k’s "Vowels.")
The most disconcerting issue of the anthology is that these poems – other than making punning asides – say little to nothing about the current of humanity or the political condition of the world. While Lehman defends the anthology’s mildness, this is especially troublesome in our current era in which American passivity runs so rampant it now threatens to invade the publication of poetry, the highest form of literary art.
"There is a dangerous, if common, misconception that a political poem, or any poem that aspires to move the hearts and minds of men and women, must be reducible to a paraphrase the length of a slogan, be it that ‘war is hell’ or that ‘hypocrisy is rampant’ or that ‘it is folly
to launch a major invasion without a postwar strategy in place.’ For such sentiments, an editorial or a letter to the editor would serve as a proper vehicle. We want something more complicated and more lasting from poetry," Lehman says.
But does the answer lie in saying nothing? Perhaps McHugh hoped readers would prefer these poorly developed conceptual poems instead of poems that cause readers to feel or be moved. McHugh’s attempt to revolt against conforming is the only respectable aspect of the anthology.
Indeed, it is true that lesser poets succeed by imitating greater poets and that true artists create their own style; however, like most experiments, The Best American Poetry 2007 fails far more often than succeeds.