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
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.