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The State of the Art

The State of the Art: A Chronicle of American Poetry, 1988-2014

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    The State of the Art
    Book Description:

    The acclaimed annual,The Best American Poetry, is the most prestigious showcase of new poetry in the United States and Canada. Each year since the series began in 1988, David Lehman has contributed a foreword, and this has evolved into a sort of state-of-the-art address that surveys new developments and explores various matters facing poets and their readers today. This book collects all twenty-nine forewords (including the two written for the retrospective "Best of the Best" volumes for the tenth and twenty-fifth anniversaries.) Beginning with a new introduction by Lehman and a foreword by poet Denise Duhamel (guest editor forThe Best American Poetry 2013), the collection conveys a sense of American poetry in the making, year by year, over the course of a quarter of a century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-8097-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Denise Duhamel

    In May 1987, I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with an MFA. In September 1988, I bought my first copy ofThe Best American Poetryseries (guest edited by John Ashbery). It never occurred to me that I was reading the inaugural volume. I assumed the series had been waiting for me all along. Maybe it was my earnest involvement with the world of poetry—everything from “slamming” at the Nuyorican Poets Café to spending lunch hours reading chapbooks at Poets House—that made me take David Lehman’s enormous endeavor for granted. For me, such an anthology was a most...

    (pp. xvii-xxvi)

    I wrote this book almost without knowing it. Since 1988, whenThe Best American Poetrymade its maiden voyage, I have written a foreword for each year’s volume. The first year the task was relatively easy. I needed to announce our existence, to state the rationale for the book, to say a few words about the year’s guest editor, and to summarize such rules as we provisionally adopted. While we had a two-year commitment from the publisher, no one expected the series to last. It took us all by surprise when it did. By the time Bill Clinton challenged George...

  3. 1988 “like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo”
    (pp. 1-3)

    The poet Don Marquis proposed a lovely simile for a perennial problem. “Publishing a volume of verse,” he observed, “is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”

    But bringing out a new poetry anthology—with plans to make it an annual event—isn’t simply a quixotic gesture or a defiant one. It is also the product of a calculation. Given the popularity of creative writing programs in the United States today, isn’t it reasonable to suppose that the potential audience for poetry is much wider than defeatists would think? There are annual anthologies...

  4. 1989 in an unlit alcove where bookstore patrons fear to tread
    (pp. 4-6)

    A little while ago in Ithaca, New York, the university town where I live, two good bookstores decided to merge and relocate. With some fanfare, after inevitable delays, the new store opened. I headed straight for the poetry section. It was impressive: an alcove with tall bookcases on facing walls. There were easily twice as many shelves than at either of the former locations. There was only one problem. Something was wrong with the lighting system, making it difficult to read the titles on the spines of the books.

    That seems an apt metaphor for the condition of contemporary poetry....

  5. 1990 to inflame passions, disturb the complacent, and arouse the anxiety of despots
    (pp. 7-10)

    The Best American Poetry, now in its third year, has already gone far to debunk some popular misconceptions. Poetry doesn’t sell—yet the 1989 volume appeared last fall on a best-seller list compiled from independent bookstores. Poets are supposed to be the only audience poets can count on having—yetThe Best American Poetryhas been thoughtfully and generously reviewed by critics who do not themselves write poetry. The many positive responses to this series have helped to prove a point and to challenge a glib supposition. Poetry in the United States today does have a vital readership; rumors regarding...

  6. 1991 a poem entitled “Cigarettes” by a poet named Ash
    (pp. 11-13)

    Conventional wisdom has it that most of the poetry written in an era is fated to be minor. In the cosmic view of things, this proposition seems self-evident. Judged by the standards of Shakespeare and Milton, how many contemporaries will strike future generations as major? Critics, whose job it is to make discriminations, are not the only ones who put poets in their place. The poets themselves do it unconsciously. It may help motivate us—some of us anyway—to adopt Hemingway’s metaphor and imagine that we are getting into the ring with Rilke when we write our next poem....

  7. 1992 The question of poetry and its audience
    (pp. 14-16)

    I remember when the Carter administration invited several hundred poets to the White House for a celebration of American poetry. There was a reception, handshakes with the president, the pop of flashbulbs. Concurrent poetry readings in various White House rooms capped off the festivities. In each room a few poets had been asked to read. The rest of the poets, the ones who hadn’t been asked to read, could attend the reading of their choice. A year later, Jimmy Carter lost the presidency.

    I used to think that this incident was a parable for poetry in our time. It seemed...

  8. 1993 the gust of fresh air that turned into the blizzard of ’93
    (pp. 17-20)

    Even an optimist on the subject of American poetry has days when he wonders whether it’s a losing cause—which for a romantic may be the noblest cause worth fighting for. There are also days when, in the words of Frank O’Hara, “I am ashamed of my century / for being so entertaining / but I have to smile.” One Wednesday last May, Esther B. Fein of theNew York Timesreported in her “Book Notes” column that John Ashbery had won the 1992 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize fromPoetrymagazine. On the same day, in the same column, Fein...

  9. 1994 It’s safe to say that the inaugural was the best-attended poetry reading of the decade
    (pp. 21-25)

    One of the few persons associated with the Clinton administration whose stock has never stopped rising is the poet Maya Angelou, who presented her inaugural ode with all the splendor of ceremony on January 20, 1993. Not everyone thought “On the Pulse of Morning” was a wonderful poem, but it was good theater and shrewd politics. Ms. Angelou rhymedSiouxandJew,GreekandSheik, sweetly opposed war and “cynicism,” and ended wishing everyone “good morning.” People were deeply moved by her performance. The novelist Louise Erdrich enthusiastically declared she “felt that this woman could have read the side of...

  10. 1995 At least somebody played ball in 1994
    (pp. 26-30)

    A recent survey of Americans indicates that many are suspicious of art. “I’m glad it exists,” one woman said. “But I don’t necessarily like it in my house.” That may sum up a current attitude toward painting. With poetry, however, it’s a different story—the opposite story. Everyone seems to be writing the stuff or talking about poetry’s resurgence. The very wordpoetremains an honorific, if only when applied to singers and politicians. New York governor Mario Cuomo, on the eve of electoral defeat, struckNewsweek’s Joe Klein as “A Public Poet in Autumn.” The same magazine’s headline writers...

  11. 1996 a given volume in this series might hang question marks over all three terms in the title
    (pp. 31-35)

    American poetry sometimes seems to be split down the middle. In the summer of 1995, half the crowd cheered Bill Moyers’s latest TV extravaganza,The Language of Life,documenting a poetry festival in New Jersey that drew thousands of enthusiastic fans. The other half roared their approval when Helen Vendler ripped Moyers to shreds in theNew York Times Book Review.“It is never a service to a complex practice to dumb it down,” Vendler argued. The division between those who regard Moyers as a hero and those who cordially despise what he does seems suggestive of deeper conflicts and some...

  12. 1997 As a gimmick, if that’s what it is, National Poetry Month worked
    (pp. 36-42)

    Every force creates a counterforce, and the ballyhooed recent resurgence of American poetry has been no exception. For every CNN report touting the “spoken word” scene, hip-hop poems, and poetry slams, a dour voice has piped up that it is not amused. There are those, there have always been those, who contend that what is new is meretricious and what is old, irrelevant. A vague dissatisfaction with what contemporary American poetry has to offer is a staple of Sunday book supplements. Rather than printing a review of a new poetry book each week, the editors salve their consciences by running...

  13. The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988–1997 (1998) The debate is joined
    (pp. 43-47)

    WhenThe Best American Poetrywas conceived ten years ago, it seemed to me an idea so inevitable that I wondered that no one else had acted on it. I had the vision of an annual anthology that would chronicle the taste of our leading poets and would reflect the vigor and variety of an art that refuses to go quietly into that good night to which one or another commentator is forever consigning it. I had been reading literary magazines by the dozens and was impressed by the quality of the poetry that regularly appeared in print to little...

  14. 1998 The president spoke of having had to memorize 100 lines of Macbeth
    (pp. 48-52)

    Not very long ago, the coverage of poetry in the national press was dominated by complaint and self-pity: the lament for a lost audience, the noise of interminable debate about the use of poetry in an age of technology, the growl of congressional disapproval. How quickly that has changed. Poets today still face major obstacles as they struggle to gain acceptance or even just to make ends meet. But the prestige of the art has steadily climbed since this decade began, and it has paralleled a growing public appetite for the best poems of our moment. The nation’s hot romance...

  15. 1999 “Whitman rocks”
    (pp. 53-61)

    “Not so long ago, the phrase ‘California wine’ belonged in the same book of oxymorons as, say, ‘living poet’ and ‘Dutch cuisine.’ You knew, on some level, that such things existed, but you didn’t necessarily want any of them at your dinner table.” Jay McInerney, who wrote these lines, thought them witty enough to serve as the lead of aNew Yorkerpiece he recently wrote about California winemaker Robert Mondavi. The expulsion of poets from ideal republics is an old story, and what is most interesting in McInerney’s formulation is the type of exclusion specified: the poet is barred...

  16. 2000 “Now I know how poems feel”
    (pp. 62-68)

    At the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam in June 1999, a symposium of poets, critics, and editors convened to discuss the state of the art in our various nations. Orhan Koçak of Turkey summed up one familiar complaint: “hypertrophy of supply, atrophy of demand.” Several delegates mentioned the decline of good, disinterested, practical criticism. “The best critics are the poets themselves,” Poland’s Adriana Szymanska said, but Jonas Ellerström, the Swedish publisher, countered that most poet-critics preach to the converted, and the group debated whether critics should or should not be poets themselves. Have poetry readings made as great an impact...

  17. 2001 “Everybody else was analog and Nietzsche was digital”
    (pp. 69-75)

    A curious thing has happened. While American poetry continues to flourish, this has occurred in an inverse relationship to the prestige of high culture as traditionally understood and measured. High culture has taken a beating. At regular intervals journalists announce the demise of the “public intellectual.” Stories circulate about dysfunctional English departments (Duke, Columbia). Outrageous hoaxes bamboozle the faculty’s talking heads, whose peculiar patois and preference for theory over practice provoke savage indignation in some corners and satirical merriment in others. A respected professor at a major university told me that the only thing unifying the warring factions in the...

  18. 2002 The day now marks a boundary
    (pp. 76-82)

    The year 2001, like the year 1984 before it, arrived with heavy baggage. Both had existed (and do exist) outside of time as visions of tomorrow. Readers of George Orwell’s1984may forever associate that eponymous year with the dystopian universe of Big Brother, the Thought Police, Newspeak, Hate Week, and Doublethink. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001:A Space Odysseymade the millennial turn seem synonymous with the sci-fi future, antiseptic but threatening, where spaceships dance to theBlue Danubeand astronauts lose at chess to a sinister computer with a mind of his own. But where the actual 1984...

  19. 2003 “How many people have to die before you can become president?”
    (pp. 83-91)

    On being named the official state poet of Vermont in 1961, Robert Frost acknowledged the honor in epigrammatic verse. “Breathes there a bard who isn’t moved, / When he finds his verse is understood,” he wrote, declaring himself happy to have won the approval of his old “neighborhood.” Twenty-five years later, the position that had dowdily been called Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress—a position that Frost had held when Dwight Eisenhower was president—received a major upgrade in title. It was to be the same nondescript job (give a reading, give a speech, answer the mail) but...

  20. 2004 canons do not remain fixed for long
    (pp. 92-98)

    “Anthologies are, ideally, an essential species of criticism,” wrote Randall Jarrell inPoetry and the Age.“Nothing expresses and exposes your taste so completely—nothing is your taste so nearly—as that vague final treasury of the really best poems that grows in your head all your life.” Every reader is perennially compiling, enlarging, and revising such an anthology, which can never be “final” or definitive any more than a published anthology can be or should be exhaustive or complete. Anthologies are selective; they project an editor’s taste, but they are also exercises in criticism. Their job is not only...

  21. 2005 the creative writing workshop [and] the fall of civilization
    (pp. 99-107)

    There are many reasons for the surge in prestige and popularity that American poetry has enjoyed, but surely some credit has to go to the initiatives of poets and other interested parties. Some of these projects involve a media event or program; just about all of them end in an anthology. Catherine Bowman had the idea of covering poetry for NPR’sAll Things Considered, and the book of poems culled from her radio reports,Word of Mouth(Vintage, 2003), makes a lively case for the art. The “Favorite Poem Project” launched by Robert Pinsky when he was U.S. poet laureate...

  22. 2006 Accessibility—as a term and, implicitly, as a value
    (pp. 108-112)

    Back in 1992, when he made his first appearance inThe Best American Poetry, Billy Collins was a little-known, hardworking poet who had won a National Poetry Series contest judged by Edward Hirsch. He had supported himself for many years by teaching English and was, like many other poets, looking for a publisher. Charles Simic chose “Nostalgia” fromThe Georgia ReviewforThe Best American Poetry 1992and for the following year’s Best , Louise Glück selected “Tuesday, June 4th, 1991” fromPoetry. Others, too, recognized Collins’s talent. The University of Pittsburgh Press began to publish his books in its...

  23. 2007 Undoubtedly the most parodied of all poems
    (pp. 113-119)

    A parody, even a merciless one, is not necessarily an act of disrespect. Far from it. Poets parody other poets for the same reason they write poems in imitation (or opposition): as a way of engaging with a distinctive manner or voice. A really worthy parody is implicitly an act of homage. Some great poets invite parody: Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence” prompted Lewis Carroll to pen “The White Knight’s Song” inThrough the Looking Glass.In a wonderful poem, J. K. Stephen alludes to the sestet of a famous Wordsworth sonnet (“The world is too much with us”) to dramatize...

  24. 2008 Who says that hot poems can’t get you into trouble in 2008?
    (pp. 120-126)

    In a wonderful essay inThe Dyer’s Hand(1962)—an essay written far in advance of the ubiquitous writing workshop—W.H. Auden prescribed the curriculum of his “daydream College for Bards.” Matriculated students in the “daydream college” must learn at least one ancient and two modern languages. They have to memorize thousands of lines of verse. Forbidden from reading criticism, they must exercise their critical faculties by writing parodies. They need to take courses in prosody, rhetoric, and comparative philology. Most unconventionally, they are required to study three subjects from a varied group, including “archaeology, mythology, liturgics, cooking,” and they...

  25. 2009 “that is how I should talk if I could talk poetry”
    (pp. 127-139)

    What is a poet? In his “Defense of Poetry,” Shelley writes, “A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.” The solitude and sweet darkness, the emphasis on the unseen, the nightingale as the image of the poet, the listeners entranced but bewildered: how romantic this formulation is—and how well it fits its author. Matthew Arnold alters the metaphor but retains something...

  26. 2010 McChrystal sent copies of “The Second Coming” to his special operators
    (pp. 140-146)

    Over the years I’ve read novels centering on lawyers, doctors, diplomats, teachers, financiers, even car salesmen and dentists, but not until 2009 did I come across one about the travails of the editor of a poetry anthology. When word ofThe Anthologist, Nicholson Baker’s new novel, reached me last September, I couldn’t wait to read it. Baker’s novels defy convention and reveal an obsessive nature, and I wondered what he would make of American poetry, for surely his novel would reflect a strenuous engagement with the art. The title character here, Paul Chowder by unfortunate name, has put together an...

  27. 2011 in Dickinson’s brain, “wider than the sky”
    (pp. 147-157)

    What makes a poem great? What standards do we use for judging poetic excellence? To an extent, these are variants on an even more basic question. What is poetry? Poetry is, after all, not a neutral or merely descriptive term but one that implies value. What qualities in a piece of verse (or prose) raise it to the level of poetry? The questions face the editor of any poetry anthology. But only seldom do we discuss the criteria that we implicitly invoke each time we weigh the comparative merits of two or more pieces of writing. And to no one’s...

  28. 2012 the “uncanny” is a category too little invoked
    (pp. 158-162)

    A few years ago my wife and I moved into a New York apartment house with a flower shop on the ground level. As an inveterate anthologist who loves flowers and likes picking up a last-minute rose, I took it as an auspicious sign that the shop is called Anthology. It is a splendid name for a florist: “anthology” derives from the Greek words for “flower” and “collection.” The horticultural meaning preceded the literary sense, and editors of poetry books gathered “flowers of verse” long before a French revolutionist published his “flowers of evil.” It is good to have a...

  29. The Best of the Best American Poetry, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition (2013) “Every time I read Pessoa I think”
    (pp. 163-171)

    Forty years ago, two professors working independently—Harvard’s Walter Jackson Bate and Yale’s Harold Bloom—changed the way we think about literary tradition. InThe Burden of the Past and the English Poet(1970), Bate challenged the idea that literary influence was a largely benign activity on the model of mentor and sometimes rebellious pupil. InThe Anxiety of Influence(1973), Bloom went further and propounded a compelling new theory, which quickly caught on. Students today learn that poets labor under the weight of their self-chosen masters—that, for example, the Romantic poets had Milton on the brain or that...

  30. 2013 It was his poetry that kept him going
    (pp. 172-179)

    Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” (1821) culminates in an assertion of poetry as a source not only of knowledge but of power. Shelley’s claims for poetry go beyond the joy to be had in a thing of beauty or a memory-quickening spot of time. The criteria of excellence may begin with aesthetics but assuredly do not end there. Poetry is “the most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution.” A poem is, moreover, not only “the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth” but also,...

  31. 2014 In the antagonism between science and the humanities
    (pp. 180-192)

    Maybe I dreamed it. Don Draper sat sipping Canadian Club from a coffee mug on Craig Ferguson’s late-night talk show. “Are you on Twitter?” the host asks. “4No,” Draper says. “I don’t”—and here he pauses before pronouncing the distasteful verb—“tweet.” Next question. “Do you read a lot of poetry?” The ad agency’s creative director looks skeptical. Though the hero ofMad Menis seen reading Dante’sInfernoin one season of Matthew Weiner’s show and heard reciting Frank O’Hara in another, the question seems to come from left field. “Poetry isn’t really celebrated any more in our culture,”...