In Bad Taste: A Critical Essay, Illustrated by The Best American Poetry 2007, et al.
Ó by G. Tod Slone, editor, The American Dissident, 3/7/08


Il crève les yeux qu’il existe une crise du jugement littéraire.  [You’d have to be blind not to see the existent crisis in literary judgment. trad. gts]

—Julien Gracq, La Littérature à l’estomac [N.B.: Gracq refused France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, in 1951]


It is surprising how much, from the habit of regarding writing as an accomplishment, is wasted on form.  A very little information or wit is mixed up with a great deal of conventionalism in the style of expressing it, as with a sort of preponderating paste or vehicle.  Some life is not simply expressed, but a long-winded speech is made, with an occasional attempt to put a little life into it.

—Henry David Thoreau


What a blessed world of snivelling nobodies we live in!  There is no benefit like a war or a plague.  The poor-smell has overpowered the roses & the aromatic fern.  Oil of vitriol must be applied.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson


When it comes to arrogance, power, and lack of accountability, journalists are probably the only people on the planet who make lawyers look good.

—Steven Brill, the founder of American Lawyer magazine


  Apparently, Steven Brill doesn’t know academics and poets very well, at least regarding “arrogance” and “lack of accountability.” The Best American Poetry, a series anthology edited by David Lehman, illustrates the point.  It is perhaps the most embarrassing annual literary anthology in America today for its arrogant flaunting of being the “best.”  Oddly, it backs its assertion with a statement by the gossipy-celebrity People magazine: “A year’s worth of the very best!” 

  An earlier, briefer version of this essay was sent out to about 130 literary journals. James Pitts, co-editor of Vox, responded and put it up immediately on his website because:

[…] I agree wholly with your spirit and your previous reviews which I have read today on the American Dissident website. I'm so sick of the MFA crap and the attached (with a heavy chain) professors that come along with it that I really don't know if such programs serve ANY good purpose, save to enable mediocre poets to get safe jobs in the future. The professors of such programs are the real winners, of course, because they get a steady stream of fresh cattle to hypnotize into further mediocrity. And so they are validated each and every semester as the best in their fields. […]

  All of the other journals did not respond.  Still, now and then, I send the essay out.  A few more comments have been received.  The ones I cite here illustrate pertinent points.  Susan Cowger, editor of Rock & Sling: A Journal of Literature, Art and Faith, argued: 

Come on, there are far worse anthologies by publishers who lure young writers to submit work so the publisher can then “choose the best of the best” (read: take every poem) and charge them astronomical prices to get a copy of their “published” poem. You prefer to have everything cited? ISBN 1-56167-042-1.

  My first reaction was to agree with Cowger and eliminate the term “most embarrassing”—unlike so many other poets and professors, changing my statements and/or opinions if somebody convinces me of their inaccuracy is not a problem. Upon reflection, though, I disagreed entirely with her point, because the anthology was likely far more “embarrassing” than the “far worse anthologies,” because it was the most hyped, was co-edited by two “well-respected,” “highly- acclaimed,” and “award-winning” professor-poets, and contained many poems by other “well-respected,” “highly- acclaimed,” and “award-winning” professor-poets, including four ex-poets laureate of the U. S. Library of Congress.  It is thus the one anthology one would expect to find the “best,” as opposed to so many examples of the “pedestrian.”  Thus, it is the most disappointing and, in that sense, certainly the most embarrassing.  Likely, “far worse anthologies” exist, but certainly not far more “embarrassing.” 

  C.L. Bledsoe, editor of Ghoti Magazine, wrote an unusually lengthy email regarding the essay, and we thus engaged in brief debate (another lengthy email).  He then decided to end it.  Vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy, is by no means cornerstone of the American literary scene.   

Luck with the browbeating. I won't be responding to any more of your emails.   

  Oddly, Bledsoe had stated in his first email: “I agree with much of what you're saying.”  Yet he labeled the essay “rant.”  Ad hominem rhetoric is used by those lacking basic skills in argumentation and serves one purpose only: to restrict debate and reduce democracy.  But how can an intelligent person agree with “rant”?  The logic fails as all too often it does when academics and/or poets are criticized. That too is part of this essay. In his second email, Bledsoe reiterated:

I didn't say these poems aren't terrible. Again, I stated that I agree with much of what you're saying. They are terrible.   

  So, I asked why he chose to remain silent about the anthology and wondered if he were afraid of offending Lehman?  But he didn’t respond to that point.  I also asked why it was okay to publish sweet grapes, but not “sour grapes,” another ad hominem he used, and how an established-order personage could perceive criticism of that milieu by an outsider as anything other than “sour grapes.”  Bledsoe suggested I write another essay for him on the corporate co-optation of academe, which I’d mentioned in my correspondence. 

But if your tone in such an essay is anything like your tone here, I wouldn't be interested in it.

  So, my approach was off, my tone was the wrong one, and my taste was not good taste.  I’d been dealing with that nonsensical criticism for over a decade and was fully convinced that to change the tone would be to change the message.  Was Villon’s verse written in the right tone or Solzhenitsyn’s prose or Bukowski’s or how about Thomas Paine’s?  Yes, was Paine’s written in the right tone?  Bledsoe did not respond to that point either.  His argument was that I wouldn’t be able to effect change until I mastered the right tone. “Men quarrel with your rhetoric,” noted Emerson in his journal.  “Society chokes with a trope, like a child with a croup.  They much prefer Mr. Prose, & Mr. Horse-as-Crows, to the dangerous conversation of Gabriel […].” 

It seems odd to single them out [i.e., academics] and comes off more like sour grapes, unless your intention is to make a call to action to academics to change things. But you haven't done that.

  Yet why should it be “odd to single out” academics, who like most in the literary milieu, tend to be determined to keep the agora of debate closed to anyone daring to disagree and in direct contradiction to what the Founding Fathers had in mind (see below).  In fact, most are shamefully determined to keep their students from alternative ideas.  Besides, academics tend to be over-represented in anthologies like the Best American Poetry.  Indeed, in this volume of the “best,” they constitute the majority. But my intention is certainly not to effect change.  If I couldn’t convince a Bledsoe, who agrees with everything I’ve written, how could I ever think I could effect change with this essay?  Bledsoe thus asked if my reason was to “Piss people off? Why? What purpose does that serve?”  Well, that’s a reasonable question.  But my experience backs the thought that changing the literati of the milieu and the milieu itself would be impossible, short of armed revolution.  But I have contemplated those questions in the past.  My purpose is several-fold.  1. To exercise my purported rights to free expression even when that expression might be deemed by the herd as “sour grapes.”  Indeed, in a democracy, if we only permit sweet grapes, then we probably no longer have a democracy at all… and that seems definitely to be the case in America’s literary milieu.  2.  Unlike most writers, I am inspired by intellectual corruption and hypocrisy.  Thus, my purpose also constitutes the very basis of my own creativity.  3.  And, yes, pissing people off can also be purposeful, for it is important some of these characters “hear” an alternate point of view with regards their purported grandeur.  It might be the first and only time for them.  Who knows?  It might even make them think a tad. “Society will coo & claw & caress,” stated Emerson in his journal.  “You must curse & swear a little.  They will remember it, & it will do them good.” 

  “This is the real sticking point for me, as you can probably tell,” wrote Bledsoe, regarding my not trying to effect change.  But that was not the REAL sticking point for him at all.  The real sticking point was the risk he’d incur by publishing this essay. Indeed, would Lehman be apt to publish any poems published in Ghoti, if he found out Ghoti had published this essay?  Bledsoe did not respond to that point either.  He was conveniently confusing wrong “tone” and “abrasive” (he also used that term) with something that would be career-risky to publish.  Eliminating the “wrong” tone and “abrasiveness” would likely dilute the piece to the extent it would no longer be a highly critical piece targeting the literary milieu. 

  Regardless, this is the inherit [sic] flaw in your essay—you establish no criteria for what is ‘good,’” wrote Bledsoe.  Evidently, Lehman doesn’t do that either.  So, why is that okay in Bledsoe’s mind?  Or, worse yet, if Lehman does have criteria, they consist of contacts, networking, and known poets.  Regarding that point, John Amen, editor of Pedestal Magazine wrote: 

I really think that your general frustration with some of the "norms" and "protocols" of the literary world are well-founded and need to be expressed. I totally get what seem like underlying questions in your commentary: Who decided that this writer was good? Is this an authentic belief or simply a conditioned/safe/somehow obligated response? How do certain individuals and styles become popular? Is there some kind of club? I think all these questions are valid, and I think the questions are complex with sociological and cultural and even philosophic implications.

I'm really drawn to your writing, I must say. I actually agree with a lot of what you say. So much "that is considered good" in truth is not. Or so it seems to me. Then again, I often tend to trust that people are sincere about what they say is good. After all, it's a subjective thing. Often I'm befuddled that such and such a thing is considered good, but I usually conclude that my own tastes and proclivities are for the most part simply out of synch with a more collective criteria. 

 Regarding the why fore of not publishing this essay, Amen says it all quite clearly: 

I should be honest and say that as editor of this magazine I'm not wanting to out and out burn bridges. Generally speaking, Pedestal is a writer-friendly publication. But I do want to take on (more) controversial issues, and I do want to give voice to "unpopular" views. Perhaps there are some fine lines to walk. Sometimes running a magazine seems like a difficult position to take on. Some degree of prudence, I think, is needed, but not to the point of sacrificing authenticity and fairness.

  “Writer-friendly publication”?  Well, it sure hasn’t been very friendly to me!  “Burn bridges”! One must wonder what kind of watered-down “unpopular” views and “controversial issues” Amen had in mind.  In today’s America, the great concern is for avoiding the burning of bridges and networking, not for truth telling and vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy, where all opinions are welcome into the agora of ideas.  Thus, with that dwindling concern for democracy, democracy dwindles.  Thanks to Amen’s and Bledsoe’s expertise in the art of doublespeak, democracy dwindles.  I brought that concern to Amen’s attention, and he responded: 

I don't really think that this maxim [i.e., bridge building et al] of yours is true. Sure, it's true in part, and more true in some places than other places, but generally I don't think it's really a driving reality. I mean, I think you want it to be, because that's your angle. That's you're beginning point and your assumption as well as the essence of your argument. Also, there's a difference between vigorous debate and vitriol or slander. I think you have a nihilistic attitude towards anything that's "liked" or generally "accepted." I'm not saying that this isn't valuable, even inevitable. I think it's both. But call yourself a nihilist, not a rebel or devil's advocate or outsider or whatever else. It's hard to work with a nihilist; a curmudgeon or skeptic is one thing; but a nihilist ends up tearing down even the thing he's "working for." There's no balance or paradox or position when it comes down to it; there's just the "anti-," just the "anti-reaction." That can be very difficult to deal with. […]

  Thus, Amen’s initial praise and logic turned into ad hominem, as in “vitriol” and “slander.”  In vain, I attempted to bring attention to his ignorance, regarding what the Founding Fathers had in mind and sent him a pile of pertinent quotations, including the following by Chief Justice William O. Douglas:

The First Amendment was designed “to invite dispute,” to induce “a condition of unrest,” to “create dissatisfaction with conditions as they are,” and even to stir “people to anger.”  Terminiello v. Chicago [1949].  […] The First Amendment was not fashioned as a vehicle for dispensing tranquillizers to the people.  Its prime function was to keep debate open to “offensive” as well as to “staid” people.   

  But that didn’t work.  So, I quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “What a blessed world of snivelling nobodies we live in!  Oil of vitriol must be applied.”  But of course that didn’t work either.  As for “slander,” I challenged Amen to evoke just one example from my writings.  He has yet to do so.  Tim Green, Editor of Rattle, financed by a wealthy realtor who likes poetry, also claims I slander people.  Ah!  That makes two accusations of slander.  Therefore, I must be guilty, right?

It’s the slander that matters to me—slander is why I’ll never be able to publish any of your essays or reviews, at least until we grow so large as to afford a team of fact-checkers.  I don’t trust you.

  Fact checkers?  I’d made one error—ONE ERROR!—in my review of Best American Poetry 2006, stating that a certain poet was a tenured professor, whereas he was not tenured, but was still a professor.  How could such a minor error, which altered nothing at all in that review, cause Green to make such a broad statement?  As for my slandering people, Green’s accusation was made on one—only ONE!—very minor instance.  In fact, he even negates that instance as slanderous or libelous (the written form of slander).

Here’s your review of RATTLE #26: http://www.theamericandissident.org/BookReviews-Rattle.htm.  In paragraph 3 you express your opinion that the review didn’t appear in print because it took a negative stance.  While this is clearly expressed as an opinion, and thus not subject to libel, it’s worth noting that it was explained to you initially and repeatedly that you submitted your review of BAP 2006 after we’d ceased publishing reviews in print.

  Nitpicking?  You bet!  Green responded again regarding his “slanderous” accusation (well, it wasn’t made publicly) that I was a slanderer, because I’d challenged him with logic.  Although a tad witty, his reply was classic weaseling out of a tight one.

One of the necessities of a civil suit is that damages have been afflicted upon the plaintiff.  The truth is, the only thing being damaged is your own credibility.  I can’t imagine you’ve cost us even one subscriber.  But if I don’t trust your word, I can’t publish your writing, because I don’t have time to check the veracity of all your claims.

  In other words, Green’s accusation was null and void.  Vigorous debate should never take a back seat to unfounded accusations.  Yet in the literary arena it does, perhaps more often than not.  Amen’s comment on nihilism later struck a chord, so I wrote the following:

It just hit me tonight.  How odd it was for you to call me a nihilist.  If you looked at The American Dissident website and had read my correspondence carefully you’d know I was an ardent proponent of vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy.  In other words, when I perceive something that doesn’t appear to be truthful, then I stand up and question and challenge it.  Shouldn’t all citizens be encouraged to do that?

My whole argument has been based around the evident lack of will for vigorous debate in the literary milieu.  Sadly, you and Pedestal, amongst so many others, continually prove that point.  Why should the milieu be permitted to operate autocratically, especially when it is funded with public money?  That’s the question I’ve been raising.  But you dismiss me and it as nihilist and nihilism.  The answer however to that question is clear.  It is permitted to operate thusly because that renders it innocuous or rather a “player” with regards the metastasizing corporate current undermining democracy in America today.

How can you so easily dismiss fervent proponents of democracy as nihilists?  Are you against democracy?  Perhaps that’s the case.  Literati, the ones not tied to academe like you, remind me so much of professors and literati tied to academe, because you and they shun vigorous discussion and free speech.  Why?  Perhaps you and they are afraid of offending subscribers and, especially, literary power (e.g., contest organizers, NEA Gioia grant accorders, Pushcart Henderson, Best American Poetry Lehman, Poetry Foundation Wiman, canon icons Pinsky, Simic, Gluck, Hass, and Snyder, and Academy of American Poets Swenson, Poetry Society of America Quinn, etc., etc.).  What we have today is a literary autocracy cancerous in the heart of America.  And you remain silent...

  Amen responded, perhaps unsurprisingly, for what censor in America today would readily admit to being a censor or proponent of restricting the agora of ideas to “members” only?  The universities are filled with professor censors, who thinly veil their eagerness to restrict debate by enacting speech codes (see thefire.org).  The literary arena is filled with poet and editor censors, who thinly veil their eagerness to restrict debate by demanding the right tone and “good taste.”  Amen’s response follows: 

I have absolutely no problem with vigorous debate. As you say, it's an essential and integral part of democracy. I think that Pedestal is a platform for vigorous debate and has been for years. We're doing our best to cultivate and support that. And personally I've put together numerous programs and events over the years that have been founded on the principal of open and eclectic communication. So, I don't have any argument with any of that.

  In any case, reading through the 2007 edition of purported Best American Poetry, guest edited by Heather McHugh, it is impossible not to laugh out loud periodically, not because of intentional humor, but because of the amazing banality of the poetry.  The first verse of Landis Everson’s “Lemon Tree,” published in The American Poetry Review, serves not as a particularly egregious example but as a sadly common one: 

A tree that grew in the Garden of Eden         

a tree of innocence called

the Tree of Good and Evil. It was harmless

  Surely, Everson, whose bio noted John Ashbery as an old friend—it’s not what you write, it’s who you know, stupid!—, must have had something better to do like standing in his garden digging holes to aerate the soil.  In this volume, one finds anything but what could intelligently be considered the “best.”  Indeed, so many of its “best” poems illustrate convincingly that embarrassing point. Cite, for example, the first verse of “Scumble,” published in American Poet, by professor-poet Rae Armantrout:

what if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as ‘scumble,’ “pinky,”

or “extrapolate”? 

  Who would want to read more of that “best” poem, who with the exception of Armantrout students drooling for a letter of recommendation?  Cite also the first verse in Nicky Beer’s “Still Life with Half-Turned Woman and Questions,” published in Beloit Poetry Journal:

So what are you working on these days?

A metaphor machine.

Cite the first verse of Christian Bok’s “Vowels,” published in New American Writing:

Loveless vessels

we vow

solo love

we see

love solve loss

  As an editor, I would have thrown those poems out immediately.  Who has time to read past such trivial first lines?  Well, the professor-poet editors of this volume apparently did and do.  By the way, any particularly weak poems, including those cited above, are necessarily fair game since the author-poets will surely be boasting on their resumes of having appeared in this alleged most “prestigious” annual anthology published by the literary milieu.  Sadly, if not conveniently, the nation’s professor-poets don’t seem to be teaching students to question and challenge the very concept of literary “prestige” or canon or what it really means to become a poet laureate (i.e., making the right career moves by avoiding offensiveness at all costs, including to the truth).  Rather than Best American Poetry, perhaps Most Cutesy American Poetry would have been more appropriate and in that sense, who could have argued against the inclusion of Russel Edson’s poem, “See Jack,” as in Look Jack, look, look, here comes Spot?

Any number of positions: see Jack sleep.  See Jack up and pacing.

Any number of cups raised, emptied and lowered any number of

times.  See Jack drinking coffee.


See Jack dead, modified by an objective complement.

Where’s Jane?

  How about the next poem in the volume, “Etudes,” published in the tiny by Elaine Equi?  No doubt, a vaguely hidden wit must be embedded in it somewhere, but who wants to hunt for it? 

Autumn is a solitude.

Winter is a fortitude.

Spring is an altitude.

Summer is an attitude.


[two more similar verses]


Winter is a beatitude.

Spring is a platitude.

Summer is a verisimilitude.

Autumn is a semi-nude.

  By the way, the review I’d written for the 2006 edition of The Best American Poetry was published by Rattle, though not in the magazine next to the positive reviews, only on its website.  Subsequently, however, I had the audacity to send Rattle an unflattering review of Rattle, which, of course, was not published on its website.  Evidently, Rattle will not be publishing this review, not only because of my audacity but especially because Rattle actively tries to get “its poems” into The Best American Poetry, and indeed succeeded in this issue.  Citizen responsibility, not publishing possibility, pushes me to write reviews such as this one because the literary milieu tends to flat-out reject questioning and challenging with its regard and any other such attempt to instigate vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy.  Thus, writing such reviews accords me the opportunity to remind the milieu of that fact, as well as the fact that it seems to be indoctrinating citizen-students into believing somehow the “best” is an objective decision, as is the canon.  Also, I wrote the review in the hope of attracting that rare un-indoctrinated student somewhere out there in the nation.  Richard Vargas, such a student, contacted me… and made it all worthwhile:

just read your review of the Best Poetry of 2006, or whatever they call it. i agree with you. in fact, i'm using it as a sample review for one of the classes i'm taking at univ new mexico MFA program. i'm sure it will hit a nerve here and there. i was wondering, did you get any feedback? did any of the poets fire back? i bought their 10th anniversary issue (used) edited by harold bloom. what a crock of shit. glad i didn't pay full price. good luck. 

  Needless to say, not one poet criticized in that review ever “fired back.”  Vigorous debate, as mentioned, is not encouraged by the established-order literary milieu and its army of sycophants.  Now, what if the poetry written today in America was, in fact, simply not that good, perhaps because so much of it was being written from places of comfort by poets securely cocooned in comfort?  As for comfort, Cowger agreed, though not necessarily with regards quality: 

If you must know, I agree with you that much of not just academia, but writers in general, write from a soft cushion and do not generally write about things that matter. I know I do. I live in America and have a soft cushion that I know intimately and love. 

  Both editors of this “best” edition live in such “cushion” comfort, as professors with life-time job security.  Should we not therefore have expected them to select poems apt to please the comfortable academic crowd and certainly not apt to offend or otherwise upset it via uncomfortable questioning and challenging?  That was my hypothesis, prior to reading this “best” anthology.  It was also my hypothesis that few if any poems at all in it would actually risk upsetting the poet-author’s comfort realm.  With that regard, think of poets Villon, Saro-Wiwa, Mandelstam, Niemöller, Neruda, and Rivero.  In addition, it is important to hold the egregiously pretentious, self-proclaimed “best” editors accountable. In today’s university, accountability has all but vanished.  Indeed, academics like Lehman and McHugh can simply proclaim “best” without any concern of being questioned within that milieu.  After all, who within it would ever challenge it? 

  On the front cover of the anthology, the Chicago Tribune trumpets, anonymously, “A ‘best’ anthology that really lives up to its title.”  How original, right?!  Why not leave the hackneyed, mind-numbing, two-thumbs-up blurb to those dubious film “critics”?  The cover is bright and yellowy colorful, though with a rather innocuous pop-art, Warhol/Picasso-like sketch of a blond woman, tear in eye, beach ball in the sky, and one nipple next to a floppy flying breast with the sun resting upon it.  Why the innocuousness?  Must sketches on the covers of poetry books and journals be thusly inoffensive?  Why not have a meaningful “best” sketch on the front cover instead? 

  The “forward” to this volume, presented by series editor Lehman, is an essay on the parodying of famous poems.  In it, however, Lehman manages to present a vague, subjective definition of the “exceptionally high criteria” used in the selection process.  He explains that the poem has a “complicated cultural status: revered, iconic, but also mildly desecrated, like a public statue exposed to pigeons and graffiti artists,” but that the “exceptionally high” poem must be “somehow antidotal to malice and vice, cruelty and wrath” and “shoulder the burden of conscience.”  In order for one to be considered an “exceptionally high” poet, however, ones “first obligation is to always give pleasure” (Lehman paraphrasing Wordsworth).  “Comic spirit” is thus the chief criteria.  “Some of these poems are very funny, and need no further justification,” notes Lehman as if “funny” were somehow an objective trait.  Personally, I didn’t find any of them funny—not one, not even the “Look Dick, Look, Look, Here Comes Spot” poem cited above!  Perhaps that eliminates me as an “exceptionally high” reader or reviewer.  Lehman also cites a Simpsons’ cartoon episode.  Laugh definitely seems to constitute his odd, if not aberrant, definition of “best.”  However, he also notes that the selected poets in this volume were “unafraid to confront the world.”  But were they unafraid to confront the world when such confrontation might actually be risky to their poet careers?  Recently (12/07), The Atlantic published one of Lehman’s rhyming pieces, “Poem in the Prophetic Manner,” an amazingly vacuous, risk-free poem, one that surely belongs in the annals of the best poetry of the year and illustrates the very type of poetry The Atlantic, New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, and multitude of other high-brow or wannabee high-brow literary journals tend to publish.  The first stanza follows:

They’re kicking butt at Yankee Stadium,

They’re tearing the old palace down,

The thieves have stolen the radium,

The professor’s as sad as a clown. 

  The poem would have been more convincing if the last line of that stanza had simply read:  “The professor is a clown.”  But, in the fourth stanza, Lehman does get it right:  “We’re just a bunch of bozos.”   As for the guest editor of this edition, McHugh is, according to the back cover, “author of numerous books of poetry.”  That little note seems to reflect what is important today for the poet:  mass production, mass publication, and of course the resume, as opposed to “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).  McHugh’s brief introductory essay seems more like an essay in the art of obfuscation and high-brow script (i.e., the art of saying not much at all in nebulous, pedantic verbosity), as opposed to one introducing this year’s “bestov, schmestov,” in her words.  “Half-spoken’s a broken wheel,” she notes.  “The music rides home on music.  Poetry cares for the means of the meaning business.”  Yeah, tell me about it, baby, uh, professor.  Tell me why the poems you chose for this volume seem anything but “thunderstruck, wonderstruck,” in your words.  McHugh appears as if writing/campaigning to become the next official U.S. poet laureate spokesperson hyper-inflator of the social value of disengaged poetry… and National Poetry Month.  But all her glorifying yap about the genre’s supposed grandeur will not convince an intelligent, independent-minded person.  Au contraire, what will convince, one way or the other, are the very poems collected in the anthology! 

  For McHugh, the definition of “exceptionally high” corresponds with Lehman’s: “[…] the is in the wish, the or in the word. No word-fun should be left undone.”  “Word-fun” is, however, the key to “public pap,” a term she used to describe condescendingly the fate of Romanticism today.  It was the key to rendering poetry as something that does not matter and poets as court jesters.  “So much contemporary American poetry is deadly serious […],” complains McHugh.  “Against the tedium, a little unholiness comes as a big relief—the skeptic skeleton, the romping rump.”  But what about McHugh’s tedium?  Would she be accepting of a little “unholiness” with that regard?  Would she be accepting of my “romping rump,” regarding the uncanny amount of flaming hot air in her prose, as in “And words can blaze—most brightly where (like fires) their logs are interlaid with airs. They can flow—or flock—or fluster!”? 

  By the way, a few months prior to my examining this anthology, I was actually being interviewed by one of the selected poets in it, Louis E. Bourgeois, the other co-editor of Vox.  Then, midway through the interview (Bourgeois had expressed a surprising interest in my antipathy towards academics), something occurred:  total silence.  Bourgeois simply stopped mid-interview, leaving me wondering if somebody might have indicated to him that publishing an interview with me might prove damaging to his poet career.  Well, I’ll never know since he refuses to respond to my emails with that regard.  Needless to say, Bourgeois’ poem, “A Voice from the City,” published in Sentence, is as risk-less and distant from the poet’s own experience as it gets, illustrating that perhaps the age-old writer’s wisdom of “write what you know” has been replaced, at least in the literary milieu, by “write what you don’t know because what you know isn’t worth writing about.”  Indeed, if academic poets were to write about what they knew (Bourgeois is a college-writing instructor), they’d be writing about life in the academic cocoon.  In Bourgeois’ own words, that poem, which is as prose as it gets, is his “first attempt at writing a surrealist poem in the context of a historical event.”  What it really seems to represent, however, is the type of writing task one might expect from, as Bourgeois boasts on the Vox website (www.voxjournal.com), “the first graduate of the University of Mississippi’s MFA program in creative writing” (his name begins with a ‘b’).  But the “best”?  Bourgeois certainly thinks so, heralding unabashedly right up front on that site under his large photo in a full paragraph about his inclusion in “the nation's most critically acclaimed poetry anthology.”  Yes, Bourgeois has made the successful transition into the established-order!  Next step, tenure, then poet laureate of the U.S. Library of Congress.  And why not? 

  The poets in this volume appear alphabetically in an evident effort to eliminate the thought that the first appearing might be the “best” of the “best,” as if somehow that wouldn’t be desirable, as if the “best” must somehow be equally the “best.”  Jeannette Allée’s poem, “Crimble of Staines,” published in Field, illustrates how wordplay, in the minds of the “best” selectors, is so much more important than meaning, passion, and engagement.  The poem begins as follows:

You’re back with motherbickered

England dumb with brick

& viper typists.

Such organized fear: rigidity as fetish

Sphincter sphunct filthiness in wainscoted ways.”  I give up. 

  Well, I also gave up.  One by one, I read through the poems, discovering that one by one it appears the poets have no songs of passion, no songs of personal battle, personal struggle, personal engagement against the “machine,” as in “let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine” (Henry David Thoreau).  Perhaps the “machine” has simply been too nice to them.  For many, if not most of the poets, like Allée, the “word” serves to obfuscate, as opposed to communicate.  Their poems serve to illustrate the common sentiment that modern poetry has become irrelevant to modern life, that it has become but intellectual fancy, wit, and, of course, fun… while the dollar tumble, inflation soars, war bombs blow up, and the politicians sleep as usual with the corporations.  With regards irrelevance, ex-poet laureate of the U.S. Library of Congress Billy Collins is perhaps exemplary.  In his poem, “The News Today,” published in Bookforum, he uses the word “motherfucker,” proving that a famous poet can do so in a poem and have the poem declared “best.”  The last lines read as follows

And so I hail you Catullus

across the wide, open waters of literature,

you nasty motherfucker, you flaming Roman prick.

  Several pages further into the volume, Linh Dinh seems to relish in Collins’ groundbreaking with a four-letter word rant at the end of “A Super-Clean Country,” published in New American Writing

Holy shit, that shit’s wack.

She thinks she’s hot shit but she ain’t dogshit.

There’s nothing but shit on the Internet.

Why are you so hung up on shit like that?

I got some good shit at home, some far-out shit.

You’re so full of shit, you dumbshit motherfucker. 

  How can one not be utterly dumbfounded that two professor-poet editors found that poem to be “exceptionally high”?  Indeed, with all the “shit” happening in America today, Dinh seems in desperate need to connect with a piece of concrete “shit” to get his “shitass” engaged in a little “shitty” risk taking. Astonishingly, a banal love poem, “Valentine for You,” published in Crazyhorse and authored by dead-professor-poet Robert Creeley appears in the anthology.  Can Creeley actually be writing as a corpse-poet today, a writing-beaver unable to stop even in death? 

  Nearly every first verse in this volume would be enough to kill a thinking student’s interest in poetry.  Cite Helen Ransom Forman’s “Daily,” published in Michigan Quarterly Review.

Daily we match, two scrappy parlor pets

Feinting in some established glee; your tall

Coming from the dark into our hall

Commences a short bit of flirts and frets.

  Laugh out loud at the incredulous banality I do upon reading the first verse of ex-poet laureate of the U.S. Library of Congress Louise Gluck’s “Archaic Fragment,” published in Poetry

I was trying to love matter. 

I taped a sign over the mirror:

You cannot hate matter and love form.

  One can feel, I suppose, pity for professor-poet Glück bored to death in her wainscoted office at Williams College, bored enough to write that poem.  By the way, her name is highlighted with six others from this anthology in Scribner’s Poetry magazine advertisement.  But does Poetry magazine really need advertising dollars with its $200-million endowment?  Certainly not!  So, why the advertisement?  Ah, so you thought there must have been something more to that poem? 

It was a beautiful day, though cold.

This was, for me, an extravagantly emotional gesture.


………..your poem:

tried, but could not. 

  And blablabla it goes!  Yet another ex-poet laureate of the U.S. Library of Congress, Donald Hall, presents an equally trite “best” poem, “The Master,” published in The American Poetry Review

Where the poet stops, the poem

begins.  The poem asks only

that the poet get out of the way.


The poem empties itself

in order to fill itself up. 

  And blablabla it goes.  Evidently, though not explicitly, “badges and names” help a poem rise to the “exceptionally high” category, no matter how low it might actually be.  “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions,” stated Emerson, quite accurately.  Yet another ex-poet laureate of the U. S. Library of Congress, Robert Pinsky, presents a “best” poem, “Louie, Louie,” also published in The American Poetry Review.  The first stanza is as follows:   

I have heard of Black Irish, but I never

But I never heard of White Catholic or White Jew.

I have heard of “Is Poetry Popular?” but I

Never heard of Lawrence Welk Drove

Sid Caesar Off Television. 

  A true genius, right?  If you don’t believe it, check out his “Stupid Meditation on Peace,” appearing also in this anthology, published in The New Yorker.  Well, if it is not better, perhaps it is stupider.

Insomniac monkey-mind ponders the Dove,

Symbol not only of peace but sexual

Love, the couple nestled and brooding.


After coupling, the human animal needs

The woman safe for nine months and more.

But the man after his turbulent minute or two 

  “Each year, a vivid snapshot of what a distinguished poet finds exciting, fresh and memorable: and over the years, as good a comprehensive overview of contemporary poetry as there can be,” touts Pinsky in large letters in that Scribner’s advertisement.  Guess I’m just not “distinguished,” eh?!  Yet another ex-poet laureate of the US Library of Congress, Robert Hass, presents a four-page poem, “Bush’s War,” published in The American Poetry Review.  The title heartens me a tad, though I’d much rather see Hass manifest the guts to criticize in a poem the poetry and academic established-order celebrating him ad nauseum.  After all, that order’s status quo is really a vote for the Bush status-quo.  I read and read, then give up.  The following first lines explain why:   

I typed the brief phrase, “Bush’s War,”

At the top of a sheet of white paper

Having some dim intuition of a poem

Made luminous by reason that would,

Though I did not have them at hand,

Set the facts out in an orderly way.

Berlin is a northerly city.  In May

At the end of the Twentieth Century

In the leafy precincts of Dahlem Dorf,

South of the Grunewald, near Krumme Lanke,

Spring is northerly; it begins before dawn

In a racket of bird song.  The amsels

Shiver the sun up as if they were shaking 

  And on and on it goes.  Aren’t the professor-poets teaching the “hook line” in writer’s classes any more?  In any case, be assured the Academy of American Poets won’t be censoring Hass, Glück, Hall or Pinsky from commenting on its online forums… as it did me (see www.theamericandissident.org/AcademyAmericanPoets.htm). The blather and flummery in the “best” poems is truly unfathomable.  It alone would make this volume an important addition to any English 101 class, that is, with the right, risk-taking, truth-speaking, questioning, non-career moving professor at the helm.  Cite Milton Kessler’s poem, “Comma of God,” published in Sentence

I am nothing compared to the Medicaid sneer

I am nothing compared to the owner of the door

I am nothing compared to the elevator of Heidegger

I am nothing compared to the spokes of Vincent’s Belgian sunflower

I am nothing compared to the Rodin’s least mistress

I am nothing compared to the frames of Hamlet

  And on and on it goes for another 25 repetitive lines until the finale:  “I am nothing compared to the comma of God.”  A-mutherfuckin-men!  Ah, now if National Poetry Month role-model Billy Collins can use the word, why can’t I?  Cite the first lines of David Rivard’s “exceptionally high” poem “The Rev. Larry Love Is Dead,” published in TriQuarterly:

He’s dead now,


His balls will

never get itchy


            because he’s dead now forever— 

  Anything goes for a professor-poet like Rivard, anything but having the guts to criticize the free-speech hating colleagues and deans at Tufts University (see www.thefire.org/index.php/case/51.html), which feeds him so nicely.  Well, he won’t be getting censored either.  Au contraire, the Academy of American Poets awarded him its “prestigious” James Laughlin Prize!  Ah, so you wanted to read more of that poem?  Here are the next few lines: 

his hair having been

hennaed free of charge

for one last time

by the Egyptian cosmetologists

at the Style Connection,

                        there’s no doubt now that he’s dead—

  And on and on it goes.  More?  Here’s the ending:



the Everlys,

the miscreant pheromone

Sly Stone, Barry White,

of the undulant jherricurls,


and every 6th or 7th song

the always early autumn river foam

of tenor Orbison—


             why is it the world gets in his way like this?


  The first few lines from Natasha Sajé’s “F,” published by Beloit Poetry Journal, are unsurprisingly not much better:

Firethorn, a trope for

Fucking, which people talk entirely too much about, the

Flurry of phonemes a substitute,

Foucault would say, I’m beginning to be

  The first few lines from Alan Shapiro’s “Country Western Singer,” published by Virginia Quarterly Review, are similar in their, by now, predictable triteness:   

I used to feel like a new man

After the day’s first brew.

But then the new man I became

Would need a tall one too. 

  Should we be at all surprised that Shapiro is the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill?  Not at all.  Should we be at all surprised the nation is in such dire straits today with professors like him being labeled “distinguished”?  Not at all. Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Hide-and-Seek, 1933,” published in Beloit Poetry Journal, is not bad, though one would be hard-pressed to label it “best.”  It is short, clear, a tad poignant, though somewhat banal and predictably disengaged.  Hard-pressed, it actually represents my second choice for the “best” of the “best” in this volume.  The following is the entire poem:     

Once when we were playing

hide-and-seek and it was time

to go home, the rest gave up

on the game before it was done

and forgot I was still hiding.

I remained hidden as a matter

of honor until the moon rose.

  One by one, I read through these poems… and verse after verse sadly supports my conclusion that this volume is really pretty damn bad.  Cite the first lines of Julie Larios’ “What Bee Did,” published in The Cortland Review

Bee not only buzzed.

When swatted at, Bee deviled,

Bee smirched.  And when fuddled,

like many of us, Bee labored, Bee reaved.

He behaved as well as any Bee can have.

  Cite the first lines of Joanie Mackowski’s “When I was a dinosaur,” published by Pool

I was stegosaurus, a.k.a. “armed-roof lizard” with seventeen

Headstones growing from my spine.  And not one brain

  Cite the first lines of Gregory Orr’s poem excerpt from his Concerning the Book That Is the Body Beloved, published by Rattle:

Weeping, weeping, weeping.

No wonder the oceans are full;

No wonder the seas are rising.

  Cite the first lines of Chad Parmenter’s “A Tech’s Ode to Genome Computer,” published in The Kenyon Review:

Charming, how you hammer

human glamour and the hymn everyone sings


to everything into

one.  Honey, what your bubble jets dissect


into text.  What your haters want:

facelift of the wrinkled scrolls

  Too many, if not most, of these “best” poems sound as if the poets writing them are not doing so because a new experience, thought, or even conflict provoked that initiation, but rather because they are somehow expected to write a poem or two each and every day, no matter what.  Theirs is quite similar to John Updike’s call, not of the wild, but of periodicity:  “Bills come due; dues must be paid. After eight years, I was due for another collection of nonfictional prose.”  How to differentiate their periodic poems from those forced out by MFA graduate students having to satisfy a writing-course assignment?  Cite the first lines of Brad Leithauser’s poem, “A Good List,” published by The New Criterion (The Old Criterion?):

Some nights, can’t sleep, I draw up a list,

     Of everything, I’ve never done wrong.

To look at me now, you might insist

     My list could hardly be long,

But I’ve stolen no gnomes from my neighbor’s yard,

     Or struck his dog backing out my car.

  When asked about writer’s block by a student, I told the student I never suffer it, but simply do not write when I have nothing to say, whereas the poets in this volume seem all to be writing when they have nothing to say.  It is that “beaverish” compulsion that dilutes poetry today, rendering it on the brink of irrelevancy.  God forbid writer’s block!  Reading this anthology, I do discover plausible reason why not to send my poems to the featured literary journals in it.  The only reason why the series continues must be that it sells.  Therefore, one must ask what is wrong with the buyers.  Well, I got my copy from the public library!  Yes, one must therefore ask what is wrong with the nation’s public librarians seeming blind annual purchase of each new edition.  “One of the best things going in modern American literature,” notes Library Journal.

  In conclusion, the large majority of “best” poets in this volume are college professors, who dare not go against the grain, make waves or rock the academic boat.  It shows pitifully in their verse.  The large majority are in dire need of new experience or better yet purposeful conflict with immediate power.  They need to put themselves or be put on the edge.  For the latter to occur, all they need do is counter the herd of immediate colleagues with a little dose of well-placed critique.  Yet they don’t.  Dahn Shaulis, a friend, wrote regarding the anthology:

After scanning the book, I came out completely unmotivated to write any poetry.  Looks like the book gets submissions from various poetry journals.  Seems more like an ad for the journals than anything else. 

  Likely, many poetry journals were not even consulted by the two selecting editors.  How can they in all honesty thus call their selection the “best”?  In fact if the term “best” had been eliminated from the title of the series and replaced with “favorite poems of two career professors,” I wouldn’t even have written this review.  But why don’t the editors encourage all poetry-journal editors to submit several “best” poems by, for example, making a statement in each “best” volume with contact information?  In any case, I bet you thought I’d forget to mention my first choice for “best.”  Well, it sticks out like a sore thumb.  It just doesn’t belong with these other poems at all.  Brian Turner’s “What Every Soldier Should Know,” published in American Poet, is written from personal war experience and is powerful.  How odd to read Turner’s poem, then Richard Wilbur’s excerpt from Opposites and More Opposites, also published by American Poet.  The first few lines follow: 

What is the opposite of baby?

The answer is a grown-up, maybe.


The opposite of kite, I’d say,

Is yo-yo.  On a breezy day

You take your kite and let it rise 

  And on and on it goes, merry-go-round of the “best” disengaged verse. Unsurprisingly, not one poem in this volume was critical of the literary milieu.  Furthermore, not one poem risked anything on the part of the poet writing it.  For those criticized in this review, be forewarned of the inherent, intellectual weakness of ad hominem argument, as in shoot the messenger in an effort to negate his message.  The choice between silence and vigorous debate is up to you.

  By the way, I’d recently sent out a questionnaire regarding, amongst other things, the lack of vigorous debate in the literary milieu to 130 “high-end” literary journal editors, many of them university-based.  Only one editor filled it out!  This review of the “best” was sent to the same 130 and received a few responses, one indirectly from Turnrow (University of Louisiana at Monroe), editor William Ryan with whom I’d “battled” last year.  It confirms my observation regarding the discouragement of vigorous debate in the literary milieu:

This notification has been sent from the ULM Computing Center to inform you that your message - A literary review apt to make you turn in your graves.. anyone want to publish it? - has been quarantined by InterScan MSS due to undesirable verbal content in the message.

  An editor of Briar Cliff Review, with whom I’d also “battled,” sent the following email:

Surprise-surprise: I agree. These are dreck. But there are still many professor-poets I hold in high regard.

  The editor of the Bitter Oleander agrees with my observations in entirety and notes:

The reason no one reacts is because they love the mediocrity, the comfort of it all. It's all about the academics supporting academics who are going nowhere. All about MFA programs producing candidates who can do nothing more than teach in MFA programs and perpetuate the banality, the flat-line ink in so many poor journals. Who can tell the difference?  […] 

  Furthermore, he praises the essay:  “Really good work...wonder if anyone else will respond?”  But if indeed, as he states, the essay is good, why didn’t he express any interest in publishing it? Evidently, few if any editors at all will offer to publish it for the simple reason that mention in The Best American Poetry constitutes one of their objectives.  “We have sent Lehman a copy of every issue and book we publish,” notes the editor/publisher of Bitter Oleander Press.  Sadly the objective of getting into Lehman’s anthology is held far more important than exposing truth and accountability.  As for Cowger, mentioned above, she was perturbed by the tone of the essay, while not by the banality of the “best” poems criticized in it:  

I hesitate to say I agree with you, not because there isn’t truth to be found, but because of all the screaming and raised fur—no one wants to hold hands with a rabid dog. Take all the rampant emotion out of your essay, strip out the blood and matted fur, the ranting growl in the back of the throat. State your case as simple truth and tantalize me with a stiletto worth using—slim and sharp, a weapon that slides easily between the ribs.

  Tame, docile debate without “raised fur” and “rabid dogs,” however, is hardly what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they enacted the First Amendment.  Sadly, Cowger fails to note a cogent example of “rampant emotion” to support her argument.  Evidently, this essay succeeded in raising the “fur” on the back of her neck and compelled her to “scream” and “growl” like a “rabid dog.”  So, clearly, it hit a tender nerve and as novelist Martin Amis wrote, “If you can't annoy somebody with what you write, I think there's little point in writing.”

  The editor of Main Street Rag responded, but only because I’d prodded him by sending him a personal query.  He agrees with Cowger on the tone of the review-essay:  “the manner and tone you used make it unprintable for most publications--mine included.”  But he even goes further as to question why anybody would write a negative review about anything and indeed on his website, notes, “not interested in negative reviews.” 

[…] I'm about as open as you will run into. I've published things that criticize me and totally disagree with my own personal opinion, but your tone in the essay/review is acerbic and serves no purpose other than to criticize. Whether that book appeals to you or not--whether it appeals to me or not--doesn't matter. Whether the poets involved offered a level of risk to satisfy you (or me), is irrelevant. Some people will like it for what it is--regardless of whether they agree with the title. Live with it. It's a subjective world (as your review clearly demonstrates). […] 

  Well, I’d missed that no “negative reviews” comment perhaps because I’d focused in on another comment on the Main Street Rag website:  “Pissing off politicians, corporations, zealots, and/or lawyers is acceptable and, in fact, encouraged.”  Blatant poet hypocrisy, indeed!  In vain, I tried reasoning with the editor.  In other words, why should pissing off poets, academics, and their established-order milieu not also be fair game?  His was a vile double standard:  mellifluous sycophancy for poesy, while the acerbic hammer for politics!  In the name of truth, however, what’s good for the pol goose is good for the lit gander!

  “Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead,” noted Sinclair Lewis in his Nobel Lecture.  Maybe not “clear,” but certainly “dead.”  Some, perhaps many, poets and professor poets perceive that something indeed is screwed up in the milieu, but rather than standing up on their hind legs to protest it, either ignore it or simply use it to fabricate more poems.  Alison Luterman’s last verse in “Saddam Hussein Is Writing Poetry in Solitary Confinement,” published in The Sun and not appearing in this anthology (why not?), illustrates this perfectly.

Most poetry is bullshit, of course.

But if a slender line of truth

Could reach to the bottom of the ocean,

And snag a great blue whale in its delicate noose,

And haul her up so we could feel, just for a second, her

Smooth enormity—

Could we understand it then? And would it change us? 

  From a vague statement of poetry being “bullshit,” Luterman then unintentionally illustrates the point with the subsequent lines in her poem.  Is there any hope?  Probably not, especially, if the poet today continues to place trope manipulation on a far higher level than truth telling.  Indeed, whenever I see “well-crafted poetry,” another term for “best poetry,” in submission guidelines, my mind says don’t bother.  Now, here’s a great idea for a future anthology.  Perhaps Lehman could push it at Scribner’s?  Every poet knows exactly what truths he or she shouldn’t write about because such might hurt his or her career in poetry.  Thus, why not an anthology of poems written by poets who actually dare risk by telling risky truths?

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