The Best I Can Do This Year:

Lehman's "Best American Poetry 2001"

"David's Lemon"

Essay #1: "On The Prosing of Poetry"
Essay #2: "I=N=C=O=H=E=R=E=N=T"
Essay #3: "The Argument for Silence"

The following poems fromThe Best American Poetry,2001 are cited in this article:

1. Nights
Lyn Hejinian

2. Doubt
Fanny Howe

3. Where Leftover Misery Goes
Alice Notley

4. Notes About My Face
Michael Burkard

5. Blouse of Felt
Amina Calil

6. T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M
Thomas Sayers Elliss

7.Music for Homemade Instruments
Harryette Mullen

8.Our Kitty
Carole Muske Dukes


Here it is again: that annual Rubik’s cube of a collection we rush to buy, eager to hold each poem to the light, to turn it this way and that before skipping around aimlessly and then closing the book in resigned bafflement, placing it next to the other unsolved collections in this series. Next year, will we rush to buy it again?

It’s a yearly tradition, this snuffed prelude to Christmas where every poem is opened in hope and discarded in despair. No book of poetry raises so much expectation—and lets us down so hard. The Best American Poetry is the Best American Paradox we have; from its title, to its foreword, to the content itself.

Consider how the title promises a winnowing out, a narrowing down, the most worthwhile use of our precious time; a competition, a rating, exemplary models—in short, winners. Once past the gilt-edged sign, however, we are in a suburban poetry mall, wandering and foot-tired, eyes caught by bits of glitter here and there, everything turning into nothing-I-want or unable-to-find. Then the inevitable questions: why did these poems win? What rating system was used? How were the sources for them selected? Does anybody like these poems?

We understand “best” in relation to the Olympics—but what does the word “best” mean here? We don’t know. And worse, we shouldn’t have asked. As we enter the poetry manager’s office of the Foreword, David Lehman—series editor and motivational speaker—wants us to see that there is no real best—or, if there is, we shouldn’t desire it. What we should desire instead is the proliferation of poetry throughout the land, an increase of poets, an increase of readers, an increase of writing programs. Poetry, Lehman assures us, is on the rise in America. In the same way that each generation is taller, reaches puberty sooner, lives longer, and is more affluent than the previous ones, so does the impulse to write and publish poetry grow stronger, the need to attend creative writing workshops become more pressing. Poetry is every American’s birthright and the mission of poetry managers, like Lehman, is clear:

“ to nurture talent and keep the love of poetry at its liveliest, most receptive, and most creative state, and if the student publishes few poems but becomes an avid reader we will have done a job that others have relinquished.”
That is to say, the job of convincing people they are poets, and to pay for the privilege of being so convinced. If they publish few poems, that’s fine, as long as they buy books of poems and keep the poet managers alive.

To be the best means that there are others less than best, a conclusion Lehman must obscure in his Foreword. Such a conclusion might demoralize the poet work force. Therefore, he champions the practice of poetry in all corners of American society, gathers data on the occurrence of poetry lines quoted by basketball players, media stars and other public figures—proving that even famous people have fragments of poems embedded in them like shrapnel from their school days.

The Best American Poetry is the Best American Parodox we have; from its title, to its foreword, to the content itself.

It is not clear what his roster of famous-people-who-know-a-line-of-poetry-and-maybe-even-write-some proves, other than that they are like eveyone else. Maybe that’s the point—we shouldn’t feel bad if we’re not “high culture” ‘cause even our celebrities are cool with not having any real knowledge or understanding of poetry. Doesn’t stop them from being poets. Lehman reminds us that we are a nation of poets, and that everyone is born with the inalienable right to attend a creative writing program.

Before handing to Robert Hass—guest editor for this volume—the job of reconciling the title of this series with the philosophy in its Foreword, Lehman poses the overarching paradox of the project:

“The Best American Poetry is committed to the notion that excellence in poetry is not incompatible with the pursuit of a general audience.”
Paradoxical, because, committed or not, this series has achieved the distinction of making excellence in poetry irrelevant, and thereby, the pursuit of a general audience impossible. What general audience, for example, would admire these lines?
I thought I saw a turtledove resting in a waffle.
Then I saw it was a rat doing something awful.1
Who would deem them “excellent”? There is no incompatibility—any general audience would perceive, correctly, that the lines are drivel. End of pursuit.

Pity Robert Hass then, as he awakens one bright summer morning, full of purpose, as, cup of coffee in hand, he begins to

“..take out the boxes of marked-up magazines and xeroxes of poems from magazines, my own markings and the xeoroxes and notations of the indefatigable David Lehman, and try to find what I was looking for.”

To be the best means that there are others less than best, a conclusion Lehman must obscure in his Foreword. Such a conclusion might demoralize the poet
work force.

As Hass shuffles through his boxes, day after day, worrying that he has no “principle of selection” and that in the absence of one, he needs to make his own taste “definitive”he is thrown into a state of doubt:
“Some days I liked nothing. I had no clear sense how much of this was mood, and how much the quality of the work I happened to be reading.”

Perhaps Hass’s mood played a part in the selection of “Doubt” by Fanny Howe, a three-and-a-half-pager filled with lines of such memorable music as:

Virginia Woolf committed suicide in 1941 when the German bombing
campaign against England was at its peak and when she was reading
Freud whom she had staved off until then.


Anyone who tries, as she did, out of a systematic training in secularism ,
to forge a rhetoric of belief is fighting against the odds. Disappoint-
ments are everywhere waiting to catch you, and an ironic realism is
always convincing.


Hope seems to resist extermination as much as a roach does.2

(plus three more reader-numbing pages)

As the project progressed, perhaps a darker mood descended, as reflected in Alice Notley’s four-and-a-half page, unpunctuated run-on sentence of a poem which needs to be read holding the book sideways:

if its a spiritual offense does it as wrongdoing take place more in more in the second


or spiritual world and is the significance of the double now that i might be might the
one who offends in other circumstan or that it takes two to make an offense but how
was i used and why were the others not usable was it because they were always too3

(plus four and a half more small type, sideways, reader-numbing pages)

Finally, Hass clings unashamedly to the Creeley and the Bly, to the Gluck and the Tate, to the Hollander and the Hall, to the Olds and the Rich, as if they are rocks for the hand in a mad current of broken off images, encrusted bromides, burnt slabs of rhetoric, and jagged pieces of interrupted thought:

|        cuban
|        painter

       WRONG 4


My collar holds a ball, mitts bulb-ended5


No wonder they call it Yaddo.
After Faber and Faber
it’s the whitest, most minus-da-groove
diaperspace I go:

icka tit,
icka clit,
icka prick,


I dug you artless, I dug you out. Did you re-do?7


I’m John Fucking Keats returned in Kitty’s body.8

Anyone would do as Hass did; hold on to the sound of a familiar voice, to Yusef, to Ashbery, to Hillman, to Kizer and Koch. No matter that it’s the same old poetry club—or even your wife—no matter if the poems are not some impossible-to-measure “best”—Hass knows he’ll be lucky to get out of Lehman’s enterprise alive.

There is no incompatibility—any general audience would perceive, correctly, that the lines are drivel.

Just as we take the title of the book at face value, Hass takes his responsibility as editor at face value. He does not know that the indefatigable Lehman, like a zany zen master, has posed to him an unsolvable koan: Grasshopper, what is the best American poetry for 2001? Every answer will be wrong. Meanwhile, Lehman seems to chortle as he surfs America from his armchair, eager to document the next misuse of some lines of Shakespeare by a famous basketball player, some star’s revelation that he or she also writes poetry, a game show contestant who can figure out the number of lines in a couplet. All evidence that poets have a product America wants:

“Readers do exist, more than you might have thought. The trick remains
how to reach them.”

Here’s a good trick Mr. Lehman: give us what you promise. Give us a book full of poems that show mastery, that change us, that do for us what poetry must do: make us feel something new, something deeper, something that astonishes us and gives us pleasure; give us poems that deliver the emotional and aesthetic and intellectual goods—that are, without a doubt, the best. If your book is smaller by 50 percent, by 70 percent, by 90 percent, if you just give us one poem, but it is the best, then you will have done the job “that others have relinquished.” If you cannot do this, then please change the name of this annual disappointment to The Best I Can Do This Year. We’ll understand.

                                                                                          [copyright 2001, Joan Houlihan]

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