Monday, June 16, 2008

The Best American Poetry 2002

Edited by Robert Creeley

Though his poetry is revered in certain circles as some of the defining work of the 20th century and at least partially dismissed by others (I consider myself a member of the first group), the late Robert Creeley was a greatly respected man across the board, if not for his writing, then for his openness and generosity towards the younger generation(s) of poets to follow him. My professor, Bill Wadsworth, got to know Creeley late in life and had many nice things to say, and on his blog, Ron Silliman often writes of Creeley's enthusiasm towards young poets, in addition to Creeley's admirable work establishing the Poetics program at SUNY Buffalo.

For these reasons, I expected the 2002 edition of the Best American Poetry to be every bit as good, if not better, than Lyn Hejinian's wonderful 2004 edition. There was a good amount of negative feedback on commenting on the collection's avant-garde esotericism, which I took as a good sign, and looking at the list of contributors, from old-guard avant-gardists and language poets like Rae Armantrout, Charles Bernstein, Jackson Mac Low and George Oppen to more mainstream poets who I still enjoy, such as Anne Carson, WS Merwin and Charles Wright, I was impressed. If anything, I expected this edition to trump the 2004 edition I enjoyed so much.

Unfortunately, I was rather let down by the collection. The introduction by Creeley is one of the best parts of the book, as he discusses Ezra Pound and the necessity of a poet's attention to sound, echoing Charles Olson's insistence that the poem remain founded upon the syllable. Creeley also writes against the reader's search for a "why," stating that "in the poem, however, that place we are finally safe in, understanding is not a requirement. You don't have to know why. Being there is one requirement." How wonderfully reminiscent of Gertrude Stein's comment that enjoying her writing is understanding it.

My favorite poems were generally the ones I expected to like the most due to my prior familiarity with the contributors. Jackson Mac Low's "And Even You Elephants" successfully utilizes a procedural method; while also interjecting "connecting words" to otherwise disjointed statements. The decision to center the text also impressed me, especially in conjunction with long, full-lines that are each end-stopped.

Harry Matthews' "Butter & Eggs" is probably my favorite piece of poetry I've read by him thus far. In a poem which at first appears almost slight due to its straightforwardness, Matthews is able to address issues of art's "utility," the distinction between art forms as differently received as recipes (!) and, of course, poetry. Matthews also indicates how a finite number of elements may be repeated in different formations and contexts to create differing effects. By far one of the most effortlessly stunning poems I've read in a while.

The pleasures weren't entirely predicted, as Pam Rehm and Sarah Manguso both impressed me, the latter with a charming romantic entreaty on behalf of a friend, and the former with an almost Armantrout-esque piece, albeit one less linguistically knotty and more overtly political than anything Armantrout would attempt.

I noticed that many of my favorite poems are positioned in the middle of the book. Could it be that my mood affected my appraisal of the individual poems? The poems I found problematic were clustered together, just as those I enjoyed were. Anselm Berrigan's "Zero Star Hotel," bothered me, not so much for its willful opacity as for its lack of a conceptual context, and Ashbery's "The Pearl Fishers" contained some wonderful lines, such as the closing "It was a Royal Accident./ You can't rely on those,/ they always win," but for the most part rattled me for its slightness. Perhaps these are both poems I would enjoy better contextualized with other pieces by the same poets or grouped according to some aesthetic or theme. Jeffrey Franklin's "To a Student Who Reads "The Second Coming" as Sexual Autobiography" is simply unfair and needlessly vindictive. I don't see the purpose of the poem to do anything other than make desultory comments about said student in the title.

A number of poems, such as Maxime Kumin's "Flying," Donald Hall's "Affirmation," and Elizabeth Chapman's "On the Screened Porch," dealt with aging and lost loved ones, themes certain to resonate for Creeley, who was at that point at the end of his long life and shortly after the death of his beloved sister, but those above mentioned poems generally fail to rise above wistful nostalgia, no matter how pleasant.

The balance of the traditional and the playfully experimental, such as Juliana Spahr's "Some of We and the Land That was Never Ours" is actually well maintained throughout by Creeley, the collection simply comes off at times as weary and overall lacking the punch of the 2004 edition. A nice enough volume whose only real flaw is that it doesn't transcend its origins in the luminous manner of Lyn Hejinian's later edition.

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