Saturday, 14 May 2011

Guest Review: Loveday on The Best American Poetry 2010


Mike Loveday reviews
The Best American Poetry 2010
edited by Amy Gerstler

“Anthology” – the word is derived from ancient Greek: flower-gathering (anthos-logia). Since 1988 David Lehman has carried armfuls of the very best flowers to readers each year, carefully nabbing them from American poetry fields like a passionate, wise, maverick botanist. The annual Best American Poetry anthology (BAP hereafter) is a now classic series, the format freshened each year with a new guest editor (Lehman remaining the constant, behind the scenes). Since John Ashbery in 1988, the roll call of editors reads as a who’s who of great American poets – here are five particular years selected to give you a sense of the variety of poets who have been involved: Louise Glück (’93), A.R. Ammons (’94), Richard Howard (‘95), Adrienne Rich (’96), James Tate (’97). And here’s a reviewer’s confession – Richard Howard is a poet whose name I didn’t know before. Howard has written eleven volumes of poems, is a Pulitzer poetry prize winner and ex- U.S. poet laureate, so slap me if need be. But this kind of thing happens time and again for a British reader properly peering into the landscape of American poetry, especially via the BAP anthology.

Maybe it’s the equivalent of an American reader landing at Heathrow and suddenly discovering Selima Hill, Philip Gross or Alice Oswald for the first time – only they’ve been waiting patiently for you at the airport all along with a bucketful of great books in each hand, all set to drive you to your destination of choice. So there is a sense of poetry flourishing in an unfamiliar way in these pages – an unexpected, dazzling variety of writing. You would have to be an extraordinarily well-read British reader to be familiar with all the wonderful poets in this anthology, and you end up reading the book with a kind of shame-faced awe and delight.

BAP 2010 is guest edited by Amy Gerstler, whose collections include Bitter Angel (a 1991 National Book Critic’s Circle Award winner, full of conviction, tenderness, wit and a sense of controlled exploration). Gerstler states in her fascinating introduction that she wanted poems in the anthology which reminded her “to act as though I have a soul, despite the fact that it sometimes goes missing”. She continues: “Lose touch with wonderment and… [you] start to wizen like a prune.”

The writers in BAP most familiar to British readers – poets with transatlantic appeal such as W.S. Merwin, Billy Collins, Derek Walcott, Louise Glück, Anne Carson, Adrienne Rich – I would argue do all share some level of elegant understatement, which appeals to mainstream British tastes, whatever the darker or more rebellious undercurrents in their work. A deliberate exception to this style may be Sharon Olds, much loved and celebrated here also, most especially for poems speaking in new ways about female experience.
And yet, as might be inevitable in an anthology of individual poems (not poets) - which changes the reading process - it was generally poems from unfamiliar writers which struck me. Here are five of them (in alphabetical order, as in BAP).

Sandra Beasley“Unit of Measure” – a list poem in the manner of Koch’s “One Train” which quirkily refreshes that form. It opens “All can be measured by the standard of the capybara” and proceeds with a series of comparisons e.g. “Everyone is more or less alarmed | than a capybara”, or “Everything is mistaken for a Brazilian dance craze | more or less frequently than the capybara”. The absurd humour and affectionate detail deliberately risks irrelevancy before resolving into something more profound – a statement about human inclusion, exclusion and individual difference: schools of fish speak to the capybara: “One of us, they say, one of us, | but they will not say it to you”.

Amy Glynn Greacen – “Namaskar” – A poem whose tight formal rhyme scheme initially provokes resistance, but is sustained so playfully it becomes liberating. In a poem describing yoga, the balance between moods of control and of expression feels apt:
“…Here we are all
Posers, and maybe posturing is part
And parcel of a process we don’t call
By its right name anyway. But if we fall
Flat on our asanas, that’s all right: the art

Of falling’s still an art.”

Jeffery McDaniel  – “The Grudge” – “I watered my grudge” McDaniels writes, and in tightly-packed, engagingly acerbic free verse describes the grudge as flowering plant:
“I watered it,
went out there at midnight,
with a can of spittle, moon dangling
like a lightbulb from its frail cord.”

The poem ends with poisonous delight “as the venomous petals bloomed”. A guilty pleasure.
Catherine Wing“The Darker Sooner” – a wonderful mix of lyricism and language games, in a poem about time and loss in the context of a stumbling relationship: “Then came the darker sooner, | came the later lower… We were after ever”. A gently persistent rhyme is worked right through to the tender close of the poem: “Instead of leader we had louder, | instead of lover, never. And over this river | broke the winter’s black weather”.
Matthew Yeager“From ‘A Jar of Balloons, or the Uncooked Rice’ ” – perhaps the strangest poem in BAP 2010 – a twelve-page long single stanza of nothing more / less than a series of mundane questions, broken into free verse of roughly equal line length. The questions are about preferences and choices in routine daily life:
“Are you punctual? Is your signature
legible? Have you ever had a birthday go
uncelebrated? What’s the largest TV set
you’ve ever lived with? Showers or baths?
How much cash do you like to carry?
Ever been knocked unconscious?”

The questions flow with apparent randomness, yet there are themes which surface and re-surface,  whether suddenly or in phases  – food, travel, consumerism, relationships. Over twelve pages, the intimacy of the poem’s questions becomes at once gently familiar and a strange form of psychological interrogation. The reading experience brings home to us that our thousands of daily choices, whether unwitting or not, announce our identities.

Among the writers more familiar to British readers, poems by Carson, Collins, Hicok, Merwin and Walcott I found especially memorable. But the poem which struck me most in the entire anthology is by Louise Glück  - “At the River”. Its meditative, wide-ranging reminiscence is profound yet unpretentious, playful yet ultimately tragic.

Of course there will be poems in BAP that as a reader you either dislike or don’t connect with. That’s part of the point of this kind of anthology – like picking through a chocolate box, everyone has their personal coffee crème.  A first version of this review blithely attempted a comparison of mainstream British and US poetry, using BAP as a model. It’s dangerous to generalise, especially on an unsettled topic. Two issues in particular seem important to highlight nevertheless.


An idea circulates that American poetry may be less concerned with form than its British counterpart (see the debate in New British Poetry, ed. Simic & Paterson, Graywolf Press, Minnesota, 2004, pp. xxi & xxiii). I would suggest that in the context of BAP this observation isn’t entirely true, unless there’s a tacit understanding that “form” is defined only in its narrowest sense of fixed, “traditional” forms (ones that perhaps use regular rhyme and metre). I’d suggest BAP is deeply concerned with form in its most long-standing sense – pattern, repetition / variation, shape – in ways that would be very familiar to readers of mainstream British poetry. Perhaps the difference is that the various poems presented in BAP 2010 are more formally wide-ranging and bold than we often find side by side in mainstream British poetry (without being unapproachable - only two or three poems in BAP are extremely “avant-garde”).

Similarly the point has been made that American poets are less likely to be “voluptuaries of words” than British poets (see Simic & Paterson, p. xxi). A reader of BAP 2010, I would suggest, would resist agreeing with this idea.

So BAP can be seen to coincide with British readers’ tastes in many ways, while still pushing poetry’s boundaries. It offers a good, alternative model for adventure within the mainstream, while accessible and entertaining, and not simply in terms of quantity and range of poems. What we are given in BAP time and again, is the poem as attentive botanist and the poem as pioneer, travelling fearlessly Into the Wild.
There are 173 pages of poems here, plus a 45 page appendix of fascinating short commentaries by the poets (as well as useful introductory biographies). Add to this two good-length essays by Lehman and Gerstler which examine the poetry agenda. Rumour has it a British equivalent of BAP is on the cards, and by all accounts it will be a very welcome addition to the annual poetry calendar this side of the pond.


With each annual anthology of this kind, it is surely more than a purely competitive “Best Of” element which seduces us. It is the sense of comprehensiveness, that this process has required exhaustive research. When I read through a newspaper’s end of year “Best gadgets of 2010” I want someone else to have put some hours in, enduring the hard labour, so I can put my feet up for the weekend, lounge back like a true Poetry Royal and enjoy the pick of the poetry-caviar being spooned ceaselessly into my mouth.

The lasting impression of this book is a sense of sheer generosity and scope within its pages - each year BAP offers a welcome introduction to a new, or simply different, world.

Mike Loveday is a British poet.  He is editor of Fourteen Magazine, and completing his MA at Kingston University in Creative Writing.
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