The Best American Poetry 2008 (Updated)
OK, so I have a lot to say about the introductions to this year’s BAP. Indeed, we all will, as usual (remember the Harold Bloom introduction from the best of the best, anyone?), but I don’t have much time these days to really sit and write as closely about it as I’d like. Here’s the last bit from Charles Wright’s introduction. I’m interested to see how people read it.
(By the way, although Charles Wright is a very important poet to me, I think he’s missing the boat here. Indeed. Metaphor intended.)
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from his introduction to The Best American Poetry 2008
Now, putting aside my prepared text, I’d like to add a couple of more words. Like most older people—who knows, perhaps all older people—I like things now that I probably wouldn’t have liked some forty years ago. And vice versa. I like things to make sense nowadays. Putting aside the nagging possibility that one man’s sense is another man’s sensibility, as the years wind down, I like a definitiveness in things, I want to understand them, even though I know there is precious little sense in earthly affairs (or unearthly ones, for that matter), and God knows not an unlit wick of understanding. Art is supposed, they say, to make sense out of the senseless, coherence out of the incoherent, and connections out of the unconnectible. And poetry, of course, is an art. Or should be, and not just a rag bag of dusty emotions and stained experiences. Emotional sense, rhythmical sense, rhetorical sense, linguistic sense, musical sense. No posing, no vogueing, no lip-synching. As Stein said to Hemingway, damn it all anyway, remarks are not literature. I don’t know how much literature we have in here, but these are some of the things that made some sense to us this year, in one way or another.
Everyone talks about the “great health” of American poetry nowadays. And it’s hard to fault that. There are very few bad poems being published, very few. On the other hand, there are very few really good ones, either, ones that might make you want to stick your fingers in the Cuisinart, saying, Take me now, Lord, take me now. The way I felt about Lowell and Roethke and Berryman back in my green time. And early Creeley and sixties’ Merwin. O, there is lots of moving the language around the page (and, I guess, in the mind), there is much whippy, snippy, “gotcha” kind of stuff, alternately interesting, alternately ho-hum. We seem to be in The Great Joyful Swamp of still water and rotting trees, all of the “isms” circled around just ready to have the ground go out from under their feet and add themselves to the watery complacency. We need a kraken to rise up and scare the piss out of us into what’s in our hearts and whatever Urge it is that constitutes the soul. We need a nonverbal turbulence, a force, in our poems. We need to have the night and darkness and some real sharp teeth to take the hurly-burly out of our heads and stuff it into our veins. Though Language is always Capo, sometimes we need the Consigliere to whisper in its ear—Time to go to the mattresses, Don Carlo, time for a new poetry con coglioni. Let’s let the frills and cleverness dance by themselves. Over there, in and among the gum trees. And the water cypress. No more “whatever.” Now the sharp blade. After all, it’s been a hundred years, you know.
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I’ve loved the image of the kraken for some time. The beast from the depths that rises. And I think everyone can agree that certainly all poetry being published isn’t going to be able to rise to the challenge of the kraken, but I’m wanting to ask Charles Wright to perhaps define his terms more specifically, perhaps. He writes, a little earlier:
“It’s difficult to be both clear and emotionally resonant. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the younger generations are anxious to excise emotion and its intensity out of their poems. But cleverness is not what endures.”
He’s not specifically talking about the current younger generations here, but all younger generations down the line. Even so, I get the feeling, the tone, that he thinks we’re perhaps in an especially slack time. A time of surface cleverness without real emotional depth. Is that a fair representation of Wright’s point? If so, is he a right Wright? Is he a wrong Wright? And, a further question, is reading a year’s worth of literary journals the proper way to gauge the depth of contemporary American poetry?
I think a side conversation on the health and direction of the art is important. But my worry here is that perhaps Wright might be reacting to something more general than poems he doesn’t care for. When he writes, “O, there is lots of moving the language around the page (and, I guess, in the mind), there is much whippy, snippy, “gotcha” kind of stuff, alternately interesting, alternately ho-hum,” I get the feeling it’s less a judgment on the execution of some poems and more a generalization of a style of poetry. Which is, he seems to be disliking what people are doing as well as the way they’re doing it. Perhaps what he’s seeing is the “new.” And perhaps, at its best, the new doesn’t make sense, it makes sense happening, as sense is a processing that the new sits before. Maybe by the time one can say something makes sense it’s gone, and they’re looking behind themselves.
Perhaps, just maybe, life and death is present in the language being moved around the page. I’m not kidding. I’m not joking. Perhaps one generation’s kraken gets tamed and a new kraken rises invisibly past them. One can look out and think that here are trees in this muck because one doesn’t notice that the kraken has already digested one, and moved on. To say, “I have seen the kraken and it is us.” To say, “When you don’t see the kraken, it’s because you’re in its belly.” Maybe there is no other choice, in the face of time.
If every new generation is playing with words, not emotions, it is an earlier generation making that assessment. Because one generation’s game is another generation’s emotion. Perhaps none of this, of course. Maybe we are the slack time. Maybe television has done this to us. Maybe workshops have done this to us. Maybe 50 years of televised speeches by presidents have done this to us. And yet, maybe the way some poets are trying to reclaim language from these stressors sounds like gibberish to older poets because it’s just over that rise from them. It’s faint. It’s next and past.
That voice you heard long ago (by “you” I mean each of us), that first poetry voice when you were young, that meant so much to you, remember that voice? That voice that was so powerful, was perhaps just the way you heard it. Perhaps it was your attention to the voice, not the voice itself. Not because of the voice. Because of you listening. And those before couldn’t hear it. And those after wonder what all the fuss was about. And in twenty more years I will be saying the same thing about young poets writing their young poems.
I’m not arguing with Charles Wright here. Not really. It’s all just bits and pieces of a very long conversation. I want to send an email to Reginald Shepherd very much right at this moment. He would have a lot to say. It would be such a fun exchange.