The Best American Poetry 2006
Picking on the Best American Poetry series is like shooting a fish in a barrel. Picking on the Best American Poetry series as edited by Billy Collins is like shooting a minnow in a shotglass.
So despite the fact that the subsequent criticism doesn’t even really require Rocket Science Powers and can be more graphically appreciated via the brutally, brilliantly maladaptive cartoons of Jim Behrle, I’m going to criticize anyway, because I want to clarify the distinction between judgment and taste and demonstrate the potentially degrading consequences of pretending that the latter can ever replace the former, even if the former does in part depend on the latter. Be thus forewarned that I’m going be paying more attention to BAP 06 as an artifact that bullies and violates the poems or ‘singles’ of which it is made, and offering only a brief peek at the poems themselves. You can get that review somewhere else. You can likely get it everywhere else.
Here’s what Collins has to say for himself in his introduction to this year’s volume, after beginning by noting, in his patently genial-abrasive way, that most poetry (he even estimates a literal percentage) is crap, and hoping against hope that those from whom such crap issues will take it upon themselves to shut the fuck up. He reports that he found his editorial process fairly easy, and sets himself an avuncular antagonist of all those who might find such a task challenging: “… literary judges typically complain about the difficulty of making up their minds when faced with such an abundance of good work, but I found it fairly easy to man the pearly gates of this annual collection.” It is here, of course, that Collins lays the scene for the argument the introduction surreptitiously advances. Admission of difficulty unnecessarily muddies the waters, and thus smacks of the fuzzy-headed intransigence of academicians and ” poets” for whom anything but a clear window – a polished window — an open window — is proof of the most willful opacity. In defending his freedom to resist apology for his tastes (and who could deny a man his tastes, after all?) Collins acknowledges that the most reductive form of taste-making could easily describe his editorial process: “In one way “best” meant I could simply pick what I liked…”
Well, yeah. That’s one way of looking at what you’ve done here; the task is to convince us that there is any other intelligible way to make sense of your selection process. Even Collins senses that it might be wise to justify his selections with something other that his fancy (“surely,” he writes, “judgmental was not always a term of condemnation”), but before doing so hearkens back to the glory years of bare-knuckled criticism, when titans of mind strode the landscape, swatting away the inconsequential with one hand and tossing off the occasional bon mot with the other: “When personal taste was a legitimate basis for literary criticism, readers looked to critics to guide and deepen their literary experience by pointing them toward works of value and saving them from wasting time on dross.” I find the mild appeal for pity that follows this stunning misapprehension of the golden years especially telling — “I admit to feeling nostalgic for those days,” Collins writes, and I’m sure he does. He might also miss the days when kids did what they were told, American cars were the best in the world, and anything that smacked of difficulty or discontent was likely engineered by ideologically-crazed Stalinist scientists, whose only agenda was to fatally disrupt the placid surface of democratic lives, well-lived. And turn down that noise, that jungle music!
Collins then commences to assemble a shaky approximation of argument as to why his tastes are, in fact, something more than a peevish expression of his own private literary utopia. The term on which his standard seems to hinge is voice, even though he never bothers to qualify or explore what voice is, or how it might operate. Like a biblical seer or pyramid-scheme confidence man, Collins simply trusts that those who have ears to hear will do so, and assumes that for those who do not “speak” to him the fault is theirs alone, and no prejudice or inadequacy on his part. He is thus happy and comfortable to report that he would reject a poem because “he failed to hear a human voice speaking,” all the while knowing that what he describes as a “failure” is in fact a patronizingly polite way of declaring unworthy the poem he’s allegedly failed. Elsewhere, he explicitly pines for “the recognizable sound of a human voice…” and finally defines his “process” as characterized by the following question: “Do I hear a voice that is making reasonable claims for itself—usually a first person voice speaking fallibly but honestly — or does the poem begin with a grandiose pronouncement, a riddle, or an intimate confession foisted on me by a stranger? Tone may be the most elusive aspect of written language, but our ears instantly recognize words that sound authentic and words that ring false.” Would that we had ears of such surpassing precision and wisdom! Our poetry might be as bland as Collins hopes, but our political culture would be much improved. Fortunately and un-, the belief is false.
And yet, despite narrowing the range of his taste to admit what is, essentially, only one kind of poem, Collins insists that the poems he’s chosen represent the art as a “wild hodgepodge of verbal activity” and reassures us that he is … “bored by poems that are transparent from beginning to end…”, thereby implying that we won’t find any of those poems in the following pages, no sirree, only wildness of the varieties both hodge and podge.
Let’s sum up.
Billy likes poems that talk to him, like one dude talks to another dude, just like it says in the introduction to the Lyrical Ballads, that signature document of dudes talking. But he doesn’t want the talk to be too grand, or adopt too complex a diction, lest it lose its dude-ness. And he doesn’t want anything that might not imply personhood, and as for what person the poem ought to imply, well, let’s make the person someone recognizable, and who is Billy most likely to recognize? Anyone who reminds him of himself, I reckon.
As for your humble essayist, if I want to hear a familiar human voice, I’ll listen to my voicemail prompt, and if I want to encounter someone I recognize, I’ll look in the goddamned mirror.
Collins’s introduction to the Best American Poetry 2006 is indisputably bullshit; it is bullshit in its Platonic form, the quintessence of bullshit, the mold from which all lesser expressions of bullshit are cast. The gross production of all the cattle in Texas, as well as the fertilizer used to grow the grass to feed them, could not reek more noisomely of bullshit. The problem, however, is not the bullshit itself, but the consequence of the bullshit for the poems unfortunate enough to meet Collins’s criteria, some of which are good, and don’t deserve to be esteemed by Collins, who has once more refused to give us any reason to believe he is something more than an idiot, halfway to an idiot’s best guess at clever.
What I want from an edited volume is this: that the editor apply, in the act of judgment, a set of analytical and evaluative resources that allow her to consider not only the merits of aesthetic choices relative to competitive aesthetics, but relative to that aesthetic itself. In other words, I want to know what the editor finds as the best of everything, not the best of what she likes. She might like monologues written from the point of view of Princess Diana, but I wouldn’t want to read the year’s best of those. Actually, I would, but only for the novelty value, and not as an index of the state of the art.
It’s true that any effort to capture the “state of the art” is inevitably partial and partisan. But that truth is to be struggled against and minimized, not embraced as an excuse to paint the town in seventy-five shades of pink. Even in the apocryphal golden age whose passing Collins disingenuously mourns, the most partisan of critics used their taste to make claims about what in poetry was worthy, essential, possible, true. And they fought. Collins cannot fight, and for two reasons: it’s easier to condescend than fight, and you want to avoid the fight if you don’t have the intellectual (talk about a word now heard with horror) chops to make a real claim and justify it. He’s a traffic cop elected by a fluke of public whimsy to high office, and he judges as if his tastes — vain, easy and self-indulgent—were a tribute to the volk rather than the most hateful underestimation of their dreams and powers.
The most powerful presence in the collection is “The Third Hour of the Night” by Frank Bidart, which of course isn’t there. I guess Benvenuto Cellini doesn’t have a recognizable human voice.
But of the poems that are: there are pieces BAP 06 that are goodish, but if you read Collins’s introduction, you run the risk of only seeing their outlines, and not their richer shadow-selves. In fact, you may suffer the same risk if you read the poems at too great a clip, or consume too many of them in a row. Cute blond, cute blond, cute blond: fetish! If you have three cats of differing breeds, you have pets; if you have three black cats, you have an infestation. Read with this psychological dynamic in place, and recall that poets like Reb Livingston and David Kirby can do better than they’ve done here, and in fact did do better, in the very year celebrated, in journals that perhaps did not make it through Lehman’s filter, of whatever substance it might be made.
The following poems succeed despite their accidental conformity to the “standards” Collins applies —
“Please Don’t Sit Like a Frog, Sit Like a Queen” by Denise Duhamel: a poem that, appearing from nowhere, immediately becomes a poem you’ve known your whole life, learned from your mother, who learned it from hers.
“For My Niece Sidney, Age Six” by Amy Gerstler: if you’re going to talk to someboy, don’t talk to them with any less candor, imagination and weird tenderness than this.
“At Gettysburg” by Laura Kasishcke: quotidian, distantly hysterical, distracted in its metaphysics and deeply, unsettlingly creepy. I want this poem to bite Billy Collins in the face.
“The Sharper the Berry” by Mark Pawlak: like an island bird nesting in its weirdly elaborated evolutionary niche, the parts of this piece — which seem easy to discern and even predict — end up performing an act of aggression that seems to surprise even the poem.
I’m done for awhile with books that come from on high, manufactured as an act of noblesse oblige by the big kids of the industry in compensation for sins visited against us in the form of books of evil and chicanery. I haven’t enjoyed my visit, and I feel stuffed with creamy froth that has settled into the lard it truly is. Next time, a review of a book from a press run off of someone’s desktop, served with love. In the meantime, if you see Billy Collins, bite him in the face, right in the face, right where it hurts.