Friday, September 19, 2008

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.)

* * *

Charles Wright
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.

* * *

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.


At 9/19/2008 12:05 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

There are very few bad poems being published, very few.

I doubt the competence or the honesty of anyone who says this.

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.

Seems like this has more to do with Wright's age than with the age.

At 9/19/2008 12:39 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Yeah, SDS, he writes at one point, which I'll type out more fully when I get the chance, that "I like things that make sense nowadays."

At 9/19/2008 2:10 PM, Blogger vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Yes, yes--I can almost picture Wright soaring up there in his catapulpit exhorting all of us in the lowly congregation to write something other than what we've been writing all these past hundred and so years--trouble is I'm having trouble homing in on his target--perhaps I'm also missing the boat here.

At 9/19/2008 3:59 PM, Blogger Paul Gibbons said...

Excuse my tongue in cheek here, but perhaps Wright missed the boat because someone said, "Reach for the line," and he pulled out a poem instead of extending a hand. You can groan if you like.

At 9/19/2008 9:56 PM, Blogger sam of the ten thousand things said...

I think that Wright is wrong about the "very few bad poems being published". There's more than enough to go around. But, I think he's dead on about the "very few really good ones". Saying it new is the tough part.

Poetry has been workshopped to death - so much so that what was once the new direction has become mainstream. And has gone flat. We fall in and follow the herd. It's hard to discover the new way. That's my opinion, but it's a dime a dozen.

Enjoyed your work in the latest BAP, John.

At 9/20/2008 5:16 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Thank you (I hope talking about this BAP doesn't in any way seem like a ploy on my part, and I also want to stress that I have no argument against Charles Wright's work, which has been as important to me as anyone's over the last 20 years).

Point taken, as well, with what you say here. What I'm wondering about is if the criticism he's leveling is the kind of general one along the lines of "poetry workshops don't make people write good poems, they just help people not write bad ones" which I think we all at least partially agree with, or a more specific calling out of poets who use the tensions and tonal shifts of the possibilities of word meanings (call them post-Avant or elliptical or what-have-you) to create "made things" rather than, say, "reported things," or somesuch.

I'm not saying that well. Later I'll update the post with a bit more of what he writes.

At 9/20/2008 12:11 PM, Blogger Paul Gibbons said...

John, I still love it when you get to explicating portions of text for meaning, tones and attitudes -- therein lies strength. I think Wright's "putting aside the nagging possibility that one man’s sense is another man’s sensibility" in order to "like a definitiveness in things" is the start of the kind of gyrations such introductions have seen before, praeludiums which generally end in some blunt but highly toned pronouncements the like of which Steven D Schroeder above puts to doubt. Why can't the choosers for such anthologies simply celebrate their choices and move on? Must there be an adjudication about what's good and bad?

At 9/20/2008 1:29 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Paul, so true. I remember, shudderingly, the Billy Collins introduction from a few years ago.

It must be a daunting task to read a huge pile of journals to cull 75, even if most of the choices come from The New Yorker and APR.

It seems to fill the editors with the desire to remind us all of our ephemerality (as if we really needed the reminding).

Call the kraken from the kraken gate! As they say.

At 9/23/2008 5:49 PM, Blogger ds said...

I don't honestly read a lot of new poetry. I've picked up a couple of the newer books. This is out of sorts, but I agree. I have seen several good poems, but very few very good ones. Most of it seems too simple and the subject too bland. I have trouble caring.

In any event - my main objective was just to drop a note saying I'm new to this blog and am enjoying it much. Thank you.

At 9/24/2008 6:32 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I agree with you. But I would have also agreed with you at any time in history. I think that's part of my disagreement with Charles Wright. It's a perspective issue.

Even the great poets. The greatest of the great poets. Whomever that person is, how many great poems did she or he write?

Maybe, just maybe, two dozen. And that's for the greatest poets of the language. So any age, any year that one slices into, one is going to find very few really amazing, important, great poems. However you define that.

I read a fair number of new books a year (but not, by a long shot, a lot of new books), and I found myself not being as connected to new books in 2008 as I was in 2007. But there were some good ones. The Alex Lemon and the Charles Simic books I liked very much. A few others.

But looking to 2009, I already know of many books that will be at the very least, very good. New work from Rae Armantrout, for example...

All this is to say that, while I agree with you, I'm also nervous about making generalizations about American poetry by slicing off one year of journals as Charles Wright has done. No disrespect to Ch. Wright, or his poetry, by the way.

He's contributed some really strong and important work to American poetry.

At 9/28/2008 5:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did they accidentally reprint Billy Collins' introduction and put Charles Wright's name on it? Or was Billy Collins' introduction stolen from Charles Wright's notes he was composing knowing he would soon grace the BAP series?

Steve Fellner

At 10/03/2008 8:20 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Schroeder's right: it's his age, which is my age too—— /// I don't like Wright's poetry, as I've declared many times on my blog, but I agree with his general sentiments here (though the cuisinart metaphor is for desperation) . . .

it's a generational difference gap, of course . . . your impatience with his attitude is the same as Wright's impatience 30-40 years ago with Allen Tate et al . . .

but he chose you for the BAP, didn't he? so

if you're BAPed, you're in the
bastion . . . nothing now can ever touch you, you're in the hallowed inner circles of USAPO,

you're a fucking winner, you can sneer at all us losers who failed our quest for the magic BAP-ring,

your poetic career is cush from now on . . .

At 10/03/2008 9:47 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Bill Knott!

I really loved reading, many years ago, some of Bly's "down with the older generation" stuff. Didn't he have the thesis that each generation had to kill the father, or some such? Ah, good times.

Nah, I don't see inclusion in the Best American Poetry as an opportunity for cush or sneer. And no decoder ring came with my comp copy. Or keys to the upstairs swimming pool.

Who would want to be cush anyway? Cush leads to slackness, no matter who you are. And sneering is very bad for the complexion. I hope I never do that.

I think it's important that we point to what we agree with and disagree with, though. I'll keep doing that.

Like now. I don't think that now is markedly better or worse for good poems than any other time in recent memory. That's all. It's not a very large argument.

At 10/03/2008 2:56 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

yeah you BAPpo crowd can afford to be above it all . . . you BAPPOs should have pity on us nonBAPtoids——

anyway it isn't that fogies like Wright and me don't want to appreciate what you yuggos produce,

it's that our braincells are so ossifried that we literally can't——

and Levis, Mr. Levis Winner, if he was alive would probably be as obtuse as Sir Charles and I——

At 10/03/2008 3:11 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

BK, I hear you. But I promise you that your impressive list of publishers and years of distinguished work (I own four of your books, actually) is certainly worth entry into any level of the little mound of poets. If there is a mound.

At 10/03/2008 10:52 PM, Blogger vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...


Of course there's such a little mound (not so insignificant when we step back and really dig into it in earnest)--it's called Boot Hill.

At 10/04/2008 5:01 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Ha! Well, we all earn a place in that one easy enough.


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