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Poetic Attention II: In Praise of Snapshots

When I was in Best American Poetry 2005, there were a number of complaints in the blogosphere about how very New York-centric the issue was.

The concern—probably a justified concern—was that the New York poetry scene is too insular and self-congratulatory. Interestingly, the guest editor was Paul Muldoon. An Irishman who teaches at Princeton (New Jersey!) had apparently been myopic. And this was before he had become the Poetry Editor at the New Yorker.

I hope you’ll agree with me that being included in Best American Poetry, while exciting, is hardly the same as being made canonical. I will cook dinner for any reader who can name fifteen of the seventy-five contributors to that journal off the top of their head. The volume included many canonical names—Marilyn Hacker, James Tate, Galway Kinnell, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Kevin Young—by which I mean, names that you should pretend you know if you don’t (and then look up very quickly). But there were also a number of names (myself included) that will be much less familiar to the contemporary reader of poems. I would hate to find myself in someone else’s list of still obscure poets, so I won’t name names. But my point is that the famous were famous before the collection; many of the obscure, remain obscure. Best American Poetry, like all the other “Bests” that have proliferated since David Lehman (one can find an annual Best Travel Writing and Best Food Writing on booktore shelves these days—if you can find a bookstore) can be a step in the process of establishing a reputation. The nature of that step shouldn’t be underestimated, nor should it be overestimated.

Most of the tooth gnashing that accompanies each new Best American is over exclusion—which comes from overestimating the power of the step. The message seems to be the limited resources of “attention for poetry” has been mis-allocated.

The truth is the Best American Poetry is one of the best generators of attention for poetry. It’s not sopping up a limited resource; it’s creating the attention by offering up an event. The Academy Awards aren’t designed to allocate a limited number of eyeballs on screens—they are designed to push you to watch more movies (so you can be in the loop when you watch the Oscars) and to see movies you wouldn’t have seen otherwise (because they get prizes, now you should pay attention). Receiving an award does little for the sales of an already popular book, film, or author; however, they can boost the sales of a relatively unknown book, film or author. In other words—they do no harm. Louise Glück was not in Best American Poetry 2005, and she seems to be doing just fine. Certainly, she has been in other volumes—but that’s my point.  We shouldn’t begrudge the attention others receive when attention getters generate more attention overall.

I was particularly excited to be in Best American 2005 because I wanted to see an anthology with my work in an airport bookstore. After years of seeing Best American Poetry for sale in airport bookstores, I couldn’t find my volume in a single airport bookstore. What can I say? The universe finds endless ways to humble me.

I love a volume like Best American Poetry because it gives you a snapshot of one editor’s (two if you count the series and guest editors) perspective. It shows that poetry is being consumed and loved and read. After a hand wringing New York Times review of James Franco’s book, the newspaper asked various people if poetry mattered. Paul Muldoon recounted attending a packed poetry festival on Fire Island, while going to a movie with three people in the audience. I think that snapshots like Best American Poetry (or Best Canadian Poetry in English, Best New Poets, etc) show that there remains a hunger for poetry, and the spectacle of contest gives urgency to the attention.

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