In Bad Taste: A Critical Essay, Illustrated by The
Best American Poetry 2007, et al.
Copyright Ó by G. Tod Slone, editor, The American Dissident, 3/7/08
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]
Gracq, La Littérature à l’estomac [N.B.: Gracq refused France’s
most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, in 1951]
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.
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.
it comes to arrogance, power, and lack of accountability, journalists are
probably the only people on the planet who make lawyers look good.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
. […] 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,’
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
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.
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?
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:
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
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.
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:
Stone, Barry White,
the undulant jherricurls,
every 6th or 7th song
always early autumn river foam
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,
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
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
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
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
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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