On Dissent and Dissatisfaction

Well, I'm pleased to continue to hear more about the perceived controversy involved in the annual Best American Poetry anthology. Why? No particular reason, other than I like my grapes a little on the sour side.

But sour grapes aside, it's interesting to watch these conversations develop here and there. People seem really invested in several ideas. I'm not judging anyone's position here (yet...?), just observing:

1. Best of the Best
First, as always, is the concern over "what constitutes the Best." Because notions of quality are completely subjective, this will be an annual outrage, I think. There is no way we can objectify a method to identify the "best" poem. We could probably do this for the "most effective" poem, or the "most grammatically correct" or "most frequent use of anaphora," but aside from what can be quantified in/about a poem, there's just no telling.

To that end, it's interesting to see how each guest editor selects work and from where. For me, this has always been the real interest in the series. Take, for example, the disparate journals selected by Jorie Graham and Adrienne Rich; or then again by Robert Creeley and Lyn Hejinian. On the one hand, I think it is fully the responsibility of the guest editor to make broad, wide-reaching assertions about taste (truly this is what we consider their "poetics") in making these selections. The variable nature of the anthology is, I think, its greatest strength.

If the same sense of poetics were supported each and ever year, we'd say precisely the same poets writing precisely the same poems there. And to some extent, it has been noted, many poets do appear again and again. But let's not forget the significance of the first-timers, the younger voices who have appeared in the anthology.

And I want to say, for the record, that the BAP anthology once presented me with what was and continues to be one of my most-loved poems: Thomas Sayers Ellis's "Atomic Bride." And when I was just a fledgling little squirt in college, it directed me to a smattering of (living) poets I could read and learn from. There were few (obvious) resources like this for me then.

2. Cronyism
Cronyism is the other major concern, and maybe/maybe not with good reason. I like the word "cronyism"—I mean, the way it sounds—and I'd like even more to think that I do or could soon have my own little band of cronies. In fact, there are at least three people on my blogroll I'm going to hit up first when it comes time to amass the cronies. Hell, maybe my blogroll in its entirety is my band of cronies. Who can say—except someone outside the group.

And that's really the function of cronyism. Like all communities, cronies are most succinctly defined by who they are not. Those outside the BAP circle are most aware of their outsideness, but this is true of any group. It wouldn't be as wrong, I suppose, if the anthology were called A Few Good American Poems from the Past Year or Really, Some Newer Work You Should Have Read or Some Stuff We Liked.

Or, if there were more than one anthology series each year that had the breadth and weight of a BAP. Then all sorts of crony groups could put forward their agendas. And at least then, although we wouldn't have solved the problem of cronyism, we would have created more opportunities for access to more poets writing a wider variety of poetry.

But what really impacts the definition of something being the "best" is the scarcity of other things that are as good. So if we were to flood the market with equally-good poems, all poems would become mediocre.

Friends, what we really need are some crappy poets putting out some crappy anthologies.

I don't see cronyism as such a nefarious thing. Unfair? Probably. It's a lot like life. You lose 95% of the time and the other 5% you're just really fucking lucky.

3. Making People Feel Bad
Lastly, I'd just like to comment that while the overall discussion is interesting and potentially effective, I also get concerned that some people I really care about, who have been included in the anthology, are feeling bad. I don't think it's their "fault" they were selected but I think that when we question the ethics and effectiveness of the selection process, we're also calling into question the quality of ALL the work selected.

And I don't care if their poems are the best or not. I like them. And I like those people. And I'll tell you, if there's one thing I've learned about the poetry world, it's that I'm a lot happier when good things happen to the good people I like rather than when good things happen to people who are assholes.


  1. Atomic Bride is such a great poem.

  2. I enjoyed reading your thoughts here, Charlie. I'm surprised, however, that more people aren't talking about BAP from a readerly perspective. My personal beef started years and years ago when, moved by a strong urge to start reading more poetry and not knowing where to begin, I purchased three editions of the anthology at Barnes & Noble. To be honest, part of me *still* wants my money back. I put more naive faith in the series' title than I should have, and because I was navigating this new world alone, wasted a lot of time convinced that contemporary poetry sucked. I even latched on to New Formalisism for a while, because I believed free verse was merely self-absorbed claptrap. It's not all BAP's fault, of course, but as a reader I expect(ed) so much more...

  3. All poetry is subjective. But when a certain level of nepitism is involved, it's really in poor taste to parade it as something else. Best is quite a title. Does it live up to that? Does it pretend to?

  4. I dig the sperm dam poem. I dig you. I dig your readers. I dig poets. I dig critics. I dig inside jobs. I dig protest. I dig gold fish in gold fish bowls.

  5. I've heard a story (possibly apocryphal) that Ashbery, when asked to guest edit the first-ever book in this series, asked if they couldn't just call it "Very Good Poems."

    I appreciate the series for giving me (much like you described) a window into contemporary poetry when I was younger and first getting interested in poetry but didn't know where to find *new* poems, exactly -- as opposed to what we were reading in school. I'm not sure I ever paid the "Best" part of it that much attention, one way or the other.

    I agree, it's great to see new poets make it in there. And I'm happy to see people I know in there and think that this will help their work find new readers.

    And on a mostly unrelated note, it was a pleasure to meet and read with your friend Stephanie Lenox. Her poems are great! It would increase my trust in the BAP series to see one of them in the 2007 edition.