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David Lehman's Incestuous Coterie: Why the New 'Best American Poetry' Sucks Even More Than Its Twenty-One Predecessors

For years, theseries has been on a downward slope (using slope in the most generous sense of the word). For its 2009 edition, it seems to have reached a final resting point.
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For years, the Best American Poetry series, edited by David Lehman, has been on a downward slope (using slope in the most generous sense of the word). For its 2009 edition, it seems to have reached a final resting point--its funeral home, with Lehman's past and future ghosts reading out the last rites. The BAP is supposed to be the Holy Grail for American poets, with bountiful material rewards for the chosen; but one cannot escape the feeling, twenty-plus years after the inception of the series, that it has absolutely run out of steam, having become a coterie affair where one goes not so much to seek the most exciting in poetry, but to admire, with horror, the quaint artifacts and robust machinations of the Old Masters--often their least effects (much as The New Yorker culls gorgeous little unwanted turds from the likes of W. S. Merwin and Richard Wilbur) jostling for their fifteen seconds of infamy.

Compile Lehman's increasingly desperate forewords in defense of his precious anthology year to year, and you have the record of the poetry establishment's grotesque self-justification. We do not need to be relevant or exciting or new or accomplished or anything, damn you! It's the reductio ad absurdum of an aesthetic that builds from banal diversity and ends in democratic piffle. As if anticipating exactly this harsh review, Lehman objects: "Poetry criticism at its worst today is mean in spirit and spiteful in intent, as if determined to inflict the wound that will spur the artist to new heights if it does not cripple him or her." Get ready, Professor Lehman, for a "mean" and "spiteful" review of the low-hanging fruit you've offered me yet again. You preemptively advise critics like me (unwanted thorns from your point of view): "If you have too good a time writing hostile reviews, you'll injure not only your sensibility but your soul." Thank you for your concern about my soul, but let me assure you that I'm NOT having a good time writing this review.

It's a pretty lengthy foreword; it defends the existence of poetry against hostile readers, reviewers, and indeed non-readers, as the out-of-work salesman for a Rolls Royce establishment might defend his companies' alleged masterpieces in a time of Toyotas--or bicycles. It's best for the soul to skip it altogether, and ditto for David Wagoner's desperate defense of his choice of the year's best of the best.

What I'd like to focus on is the aesthetic that seems strewn all over this particular anthology: poetry as a mechanical art. Walter Benjamin talked about the lost aura of the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction. What we have here is poetry that is so seeped in the mechanics of mechanical reproduction that it seems to be looking beyond its status as a work of art, and reaching toward something of populist gnosis. It is poetry as facsimile, poetry as self-imitation, poetry as garbage in, garbage out. If there's one impulse defining this grab-bag of remainders and leftovers, it's that poetry is a robotic enterprise turned in on itself, self-sufficiently generating new items from within its own production sphere. Poetry is presented as working best when it shows least reliance on looking outside itself to be shocked, surprised, horrified at what it finds. Everything in this anthology is self-contained, sealed off, hermetically profuse.

Let me select a few stitched-together products from the factory floor to illustrate my point. Here's some of Mark Bibbins's "Concerning the Land to the South of Our Neighbors to the North": "West Virginia was made overseas and brought to us, chunk by chunk, / aboard container ships." Later, he goes on: "Scientists predict that Colorado will soon be an archipelago, / though not in our lifetime, and Florida shall turn dusty / as the Necco Wafers scattered nightly across Massachusetts."

This is gibberish pretending to be poetry. What on earth does any of it mean? This is what I mean by poetry generating itself from itself, without relevance to the empirical world or any sense of reality. All right, I'll say weird stuff about the fifty states, just meaningless stuff, and string it all together, thinks Bibbins's clogged brain one fall morning at the New School. How hard can it be? Which is precisely the point, because everything in this anthology screams: Poetry is not hard at all! Anyone can do it! You don't need to know any actual art or music or politics or philosophy or history or geography or biology or physics or even other poetry to do it. The subjects and predicates in the above poem are completely interchangeable. It could have been "Colorado" rather than "West Virginia" that was brought over "chunk by chunk." And what does it mean anyway? In his explanation, Bibbins remarks, "I realized after writing the poem that it's a sort of gawky distant cousin of John Ashbery's 'Into the Dusk-Charged Air,' to which the former tips its star-spattered hat." May I suggest, Professor Bibbins, that it's more like inbreeding first cousins, incest's ravishing deformity?

Catherine Carter's "The Book of Steve," where God makes not Adam and Eve, but Adam and Steve, signals a familiar outpost in the American poetry landscape: poetry as jokery, poetry starting from a weird/ironic/crazy premise to generate its own flabby middle and end. More and more, the poet in America is forced to assume the guise of comedian, pressing the entertainment function to its limits. It's the Billy Collins brand of poetry, where once you establish the basic alteration among a set of existing variables, absolutely nothing unpredictable follows. Here's some of "The Book of Steve": "So he was scratching and chatting, naming away, / when up came Adam (Yahweh had been practicing men). / 'Hey, dude.' 'Hey, Adam. You think this looks / like a crocodile?' 'I dunno. More like a fox?'"

All I can say is, I'm glad God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, because the human race would have died of sheer boredom with Adam and Steve in charge from Day One. The most irritating thing about this poem is its earnest political correctness--a political constituency pleased, some kudos earned, all at no cost to the poet's soul. Pretty "lighthearted" (and lightweight!) as Carter explains in her note.

Here's another "list poem" (can I also call it the rant poem, the invocation poem, the chant poem, the mechanical fart poem?): Rob Cook's "The Song of America," part of which reads: "I'm raising my child to write a treaty for his own smells, / the ones that hurt the self and the ones that hurt others, / and a treaty for the poison sumac whose only emotion is hunger." The poem goes on: "I'm raising my child to conquer the fickle magnitude of clouds, / the raw cover that inhabits unwanted dreams, and the signal / from the meadow permitting him to bow down in lust."

Actually, the last three lines are mine. It's a line-machine, try it for yourself. And again, I have no idea what any of this means. Is the poet raising his child to be a surrealist-in-diapers? A baby Breton? Is it an argument for childlessness? I don't know, and that's the point of this kind of poetry: its denseness masks any honest emotion, but does it with a smile on its face. A smile of complicity. A smile of unearned honor at the widespread dishonor tainting everyone else. It is a poetry of mockery, because it denies the brute facts of life and death. Yes, poets must imagine alternative, superior worlds, but they cannot deny the present world--even if they're tenured.

Part of one of the stanzas of James Cummins's "Freud" reads: "They co-opt Jesus into their hired gun-- /... And he'll return--to give the "sons" a beating? / No wonder we're devouring poor old Freud! / We'll swallow any tale "revealed" by "Dad." Somehow this feels like a huge letdown after Nietzsche, whom I read in my teenage years, along with Freud, the two-headed deity of adolescent angst. I'm not sure what Cummins is trying to bring into disrepute in this poem. It's a pretty light spanking Christianity is getting at the hands of Cummins, one that leaves me wanting to kiss and play at the feet of a true-believing Christian, instead of wanting to see him written out of history. I think this comes from letting the ornate bubble of the premise be determinative, enclosing, complete, instead of a wild ride into the nowhere. I return via this poem to a familiar America, which leaves me unimpressed.

Here's part of another Freud poem, "First Time Reading Freud," by Douglas Goetsch: "Why did our professor have to tell us / about the woman he saw at Woodstock / lifting her naked baby to manipulate his penis in her mouth, both mother / and son cooing, he said, with pleasure?" It's interesting that this is someone discovering Freud for the first time in a classroom, taught by a professor, a sort of antisex education between the covers. As with every personage touched by this kind of poetry, Freud ends up becoming a lighthearted joke.

If modernist poetry was the enlightenment on steroids, and postmodern poetry its even snarkier cousin, refusing to accept the veracity of any observation/belief/dogma, then the bulk of the academic poetry written today is from a stance of moderate, earnest, entirely boring emotion; there is nothing at all subversive about it. It is almost a return to premodern feelings, where one expresses wonder at things the human being is supposed to have dominion/authority over--I imagine a Bangladeshi or Zimbabwean poet, completely removed from the crushing history of the last 250 years, writing like Debora Greger, in "Eve in the Fall": "I heard a rustling, insistent, / a tree trying to shake off the past / or a river feeling its way past a wall // toward some vast body of tears/ it hadn't known existed."

This sort of stuff is easy to write as parody, though for the life of me I have never been able to write seriously in this vein of earnest simplicity, and it seems astonishing to me that early twenty-first-century poets can possibly write like this, without a trace of irony and self-consciousness. This sort of poem demands to be imitated, and it is extremely easy to do. "A tree trying to shake off the past" and "a river feeling its way past a wall?" It's like talking about nightingales and summer rain and fleshy shoulders with the seriousness of the premodern.

I'm tempted to like Jim Harrison's "Sunday Discordancies." The plaintive fear of mortality that creeps in seems incongruous in this anthology: "I heard on the radio / that we creatures have about a billion and a half / heartbeats to use. Voles and birds use theirs fast / as do meth heads and stockbrokers, while whales / and elephants are slower. This morning I'm thinking / of recounting mine to see exactly where I am." Yet if there's one thing American poets can't do, it's mortality. It always comes off as preening denial of it, especially when it seems to be acknowledging its inevitability. Harrison's poem is almost an exception, yet it proceeds by constructing parallels, comparison after comparison, in the muddle of which the human being is lost or misplaced. The poem doesn't have a philosophical base--we might say that it takes off from an observation, and doesn't know where or when to stop.

There is the poem of nonsensical sophistication, which is so filled with private code words and diffuse references that one can't possibly find a steady toehold. This sort of poem is slippery as an eel, and again very easy to imitate, because the second one is pinned down by a thought one can slide over to another. An example is Terrance Hayes's "A House Is Not a Home," part of which reads: "I decided then, even as my ears fattened, / to seek employment at the African-American / Acoustic and Audiological Accident Insurance Institute, / where probably there is a whole file devoted / to Luther Vandross." Hayes continues later: "I already know there is a difference / between hearing and listening, / but to get the job, I bet I will have to learn / how to transcribe church fires or how to categorize / the dozen or so variations of gasping, one of which / likely includes Ron and me in the eighth grade / the time a neighbor flashed her breasts at us."

What? What is the "African-American Acoustic and Audiological Accident Insurance Institute"? You'll find lots of this made-up capitalized stuff in current American poetry--an easy way to import portentousness when the material is flimsy to the point of nonexistence. Luther Vandross, transcribing church fires, eighth grade breast flashing--what the hell is going on? Also the pseudo-profundity: "There is a difference between hearing and listening." Because it is an African-American writing this poem, we must impute jazziness to it--its saving grace, its code of honor, its point of entry.

In his ode to Walt Whitman, "A Democratic Vista," Daniel Hoffman imitates "The Poet" thus: "'I know nothing grander, / More positive proof of the past, the triumphant / Result of faith in human-kind than a well-contested / American national election,'" a sentiment we / Perhaps had better leave Open- /ended." Hoffman explains: "How reassuring that a plurality of Americans have validated Walt Whitman's idealism and mine." If idealism has been reduced to what happened during and after the 2008 election, then idealism is a puny toy indeed. I suspect this poem to have leeched everything of protest and remonstrance from Whitman--it's a calm symposium of self-satisfied poets indeed from which such a content communiqué could have issued. In a way, all American poets imitate Whitman--still, it's nasty to see it done so casually.

There is a lot of God-revisionism going on in this anthology; God is always ready to be reinterpeted, he's the last entity these days you're going to hear a pipsqueak from. So Tina Kelley, in "To Yahweh," defines God (I suspect this is not the first such attempt in three thousand years): "God is weequashing: The spearing of eels or fish from a canoe by torchlight. / God is the inventing of words like weequashing. // She is not the fire darkening down. / She is the goldfinch singing the whisper song."

All right, God as weequashing is rather innocuous, and sedative. Perhaps the most common technique in American poetry is to simply take a concept and define it, loading it down with descriptions that explicitly acknowledge their disconnectedness from the thing being defined. It's a rather easy trick, once you get the hang of it. Kelley explains the poem: "The epigraph came from a selection of my book club, weequashing surfaced during some quality time with the Oxford English Dictionary, and the fire darkening down is how firefighters talk, overheard on my late-night rewrite shift at the Times. The whisper song came from the Audubon bird encyclopedia, curing mice in a cello was a delightful bit found online while researching the cello I was learning to play, and the acrid or burned quality of space from an article in the Atlantic by William Langeweische." But what do these serendipities add up to? And again, it could have been any five or ten things put together, and the result would have been the same non-definition of God (or Bach, or Einstein, or Heaven, or Peace). Because to define God is not the problem at all; in this trick poem the idea is to put together glamorous-sounding fragments to lend glamour to the poet.

And poets in America today are defining nothing as much as they are defining poetry itself. Almost every other poem Billy Collins writes seems to be some sort of definition of poetry. Lance Larsen, in "Why do you keep putting animals in your poems?" says: "A poem is grave / and nursery; the more creatures you bury in one place, / the more hunger bursts forth somewhere else, / like bats at Carlsbad when the brightest day turns dark." He could have defined poetry by putting not animals but airplanes in the poem. Or antiques. Or architecture. Of course a poem is like all kinds of animals. Or all kinds of architecture. There's nothing to it.

There are lists and there are crazy lists, and Thomas Lux's "The Happy Majority" is of the latter variety: "I have some plans: to discover several new species / of beetle; to jump from a 100-foot platform / into a pile of multicolored lingerie; / to build a little heater / to read 42,007 books... / to learn to read and/or write / Chinese, CAT scans, Sanskrit, petroglyphs, / and English." And blah-blah-blah. I think this is the ridiculously easy kind of thing they must teach at MFA programs all over the country. Like, what are the things I would do if I met Moses in a laundry room in a twenty-fifth century spaceship? The list doesn't have to make any sense at all. It just has to sound good.

I conclude with Sharon Olds's self-described "descriptive frenzy" in "Self-Exam." She explains that she's "pretty amazed to see that there are no similes here, it's all metaphor--whereas often...[her] poems seem anxious about the extent of the 'transformative claim' in metaphor, seeming more comfortable with the more literal-minded 'like."" Olds's anxiety about metaphors versus similes aside--it's rather an earth-shattering worry, isn't it?--the content of the poem is easily reproducible, once one accepts Olds's basic metaphysic of human being as the sum of the body: "And the matter feels primordial, / unimaginable--dense, / cystic, phthistic, each breast like the innards / of a cell, its contents shifting and changing, / streambed gravel under walking feet." Olds goes on: "One marches, / slowly, through grave or fatal danger."

Is this a self-exam, or the Siege of Stalingard or the Fall of Berlin? This is very, very easy to duplicate. Take an ordinary corporeal act (especially if it's something redundant and politically correct) and turn it into a massive act of war or metaphysical breakthrough. We all in the end have our irreducible bodies to turn to. Look at your body, look at it hard--there's enough stuff there to make a Best American Poet out of you, if you take care not to say anything that means anything.

So there you have it. Workshop students, take notes, sharpen your pencils, get to it. If you follow these simple rules of poetry-making--follow the code that's been laid open for you--one day you just might end up in the rarefied place David Lehman has created for you, where you can go and die. No mortals will intrude on your peace, only a machine's steady hum, lulling you to deny that you ever existed on earth.

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