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by David Lehman
What makes a poem great? What standards do we use for judging poetic excellence? To an extent, these are variants on an even more basic question. What is poetry? Poetry is, after all, not a neutral or merely descriptive term but one that implies value. What qualities in a piece of verse (or prose) raise it to the level of poetry? The questions face the editor of any poetry anthology. But only seldom do we discuss the criteria that we implicitly invoke each time we weigh the comparative merits of two or more pieces of writing. And to no one’s surprise, it turns out to be far easier to recognize the genuine article than to articulate what makes it so, let alone to universalize from a particular instance. Thus, so astute a reader as Randall Jarrell will linger lovingly on the felicities of Robert Frost’s late poem “Directive” only to conclude sheepishly: “The poem is hard to understand, but easy to love.”
The standard definitions of poetry spring to mind, each one seeming a near tautology: “the best words in the best order” (Coleridge), “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree” (Pound), “memorable speech” (Auden). Other justly celebrated statements may stimulate debate but have a limited practical application. Is poetry the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Wordsworth) or is it precisely “not the expression of personality but an escape from personality” (T. S. Eliot)? The statements contradict each other except in the mind of the reader who enjoys with nearly equal gusto the poetry of the Romantic movement, of Wordsworth and Coleridge, on the one hand, and that of the modernists who reacted so strongly against them (Eliot, Pound) on the other.
Poetry is “what gets lost in translation” (Frost); it “strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty” (Shelley); it “is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself” (Hazlitt). Although poems do come along that seem to exemplify such statements, the problem remains unsolved except by individual case. Archibald MacLeish’s famous formulation (“a poem should not mean / But be”) is conceptually useful in a class of writers but leaves us exactly where we started. Asking herself “what is poetry and if you know what poetry is what is prose,” Gertrude Stein makes us understand that poetry is a system of grammar and punctuation. “Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns”—a valuable insight, but try applying it to the task of evaluating poems and see if it gets any easier. Wallace Stevens, a master aphorist, has a score of sentences that begin with the words poetry is. Poetry is “a search for the inexplicable,” “a means of redemption,” “a form of melancholia,” “a cure of the mind,” “a health,” “a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.” It is metaphorically “a pheasant disappearing in the brush” and it is also, in one word, “metaphor” itself. The proliferation of possibilities tells us a great deal about Stevens’s habits of mind. But epigrams will not help the seasoned reader discriminate among the dozens of poems crying for attention from the pages or websites of well-edited literary magazines.
The emancipation of verse from the rules of yore complicates matters. It is tough on the scorekeeper if, as Frost said, free verse is like playing tennis without a net. (Some varieties of free verse seem to banish ball as well as net.) But even if we set store by things you can measure—rhyme, meter, coherence, clarity, accuracy of perception, the skillful deployment of imaginative tropes—the search for objective criteria is bound to fail. Reading is a frankly subjective experience, with pleasure the immediate objective, and in the end you read and judge the relative value of a work by instinct. That is, you become aware of the valence of your response, whether it is positive or negative, thumbs-up or -down, before you become aware of why you reacted the way you did. There is in fact no substitute for the experience of poetry, though you can educate your sensibility and become better able to summon up the openness to experience that is the critic’s first obligation—that, and the ability to pay attention to the poem and to the impact it has made on you. Walter Pater asked these questions upon reading a poem or looking at a picture: “What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? And if so, what sort or degree of pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presence, and under its influence?”
Whatever else it is, American poetry today is as plentiful as it is diverse. And because very good poems may reflect esthetically incompatible ideas, an editor’s job has an added complication; one must be willing to suspend one’s natural critical resistance. Poetry may happen “in the valley of its saying,” in Auden’s phrase, but discussions of poetry take place on academic battlefields. There are possibly as many different movements or schools, cliques or cabals, as there are states in the union. Conflicts may erupt, just as states may quarrel over their share of the federal budget. (The budget for poetry is small and exists therefore in an inverse ratio to the intensity of the skirmishing among poets.) The good reader is or tries to be indifferent to all this—to everything, in fact, except his or her own experience, when sitting down with, say, the latest issues of FIELD, Antioch Review, New England Review, and Green Mountains Review. I can report, having just spent pleasant evenings with these magazines, that there is a wonderful symposium on Richard Wilbur in FIELD, that one of Richard Howard’s schoolboy memory poems graces Antioch Review, that Joanne Dominique Dwyer has a brilliant poem addressed to St. Teresa of Avila in New England Review, and that there is compelling work in Green Mountains Review from two poets previously unknown to me: Anna Maria Hong and the Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst, whom Stephen Dunn singles out in an interview. Many poems in these and other new journals pass the first and arguably most crucial test a critic asks of them—that they give pleasure, sustain interest, and compel a second reading.
It may be that in specifying these pragmatic criteria, I have strayed from my original question when I meant merely to rephrase it. What do we ask for in poems of high excellence? To answer you need to make a list, and by the time you get to the third or fourth item you realize that no poem can do all the things people expect from poetry, not only because we may be perfectionists when it comes to judging the works of others but because we want mutually exclusive things. Do we read for moral fortitude, humane knowledge that can help us lead our lives? (Thus, to elucidate the dominant strain in Frost’s poetry, W. H. Auden quotes Samuel Johnson: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it.”) Or are we more interested in what the scholar calls transcendence and the reader knows to be escape—whether to Xanadu or Byzantium? (Thus Emily Dickinson: “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away / Nor any Coursers like a Page / Of prancing poetry.”) Perhaps we respond to feats of ingenuity: complicated verse forms mastered and married to colloquial speech, as in Elizabeth Bishop’s sestinas: diabolically clever meaning-making puns in the service of a narrative, as in a sonnet sequence by James Merrill. There is a delight in artifice. In past editions, The Best American Poetry has published a poem consisting entirely of palindromes (Lydia Tomkiw: “sad as samara, ruff of fur, a ram; as sad as / Warsaw was raw”) and another that exemplifies the zeugma in every line (Charles North: “To break the silence or your newly acquired Ming vase, / or raise my expectations and the flag over the Brooklyn Navy Yard”), in addition to tricky sestinas, villanelles, pantoums, centos, traditional sonnets, ballads, the occasional abecedarius, chant royal, and narrative in terza rima, though these are vastly outnumbered by the many varieties of poems in plain speech, such as you will find exemplified by Robert Hass in the 2011 volume (“When the police do a forced entry for the purpose / Of a welfare check and the deceased person is alone, / The body goes to the medical examiner’s morgue”) and by Mary Ruefle in a completely different way (“I hated childhood / I hate adulthood / And I love being alive”).
Marianne Moore valued the “compactness compacted” that she found in Louise Bogan’s poems. But excess has its proponents as well, and there will always be those who want the act of writing to be an act of defiance before it is anything else. Too many poems fail because they try too hard to change the world. But then along comes a work proving that poetry does make something happen. The timely cry of protest may have a longer shelf life than poems with immortal designs on them. Consider the case of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” tried for obscenity in San Francisco in 1957, lionized nationally more than a half century later with the release of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s full-length film homage in 2010. The actor James Franco, who has studied creative writing at Columbia, UCLA, and in the Warren Wilson low-residency MFA program, “captures the Ginsberg we hear in our heads and know in our bones,” Ken Tucker writes in his review. The acting borders on impersonation. Franco “looks at the camera with Ginsberg’s cockeyed, moist deadpan, or reproduces the Elated Allen Grin—an ear-to-ear face-splitter that can vanish in an instant.” Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” and “America” may be better poems than “Howl,” but the latter has become a battle cry for the ages, an American icon as famous as an Andy Warhol soup can.
In sum, we may like poetic conventions and traditions—and we may like seeing them sent up, too. We want poems of eloquence to recite on grave occasions, and at the same time we have a hankering to parody such utterances. We admire the artistry that conceals itself in the finished work. But we are not immune to the charms of the flamboyant or to what Wallace Stevens calls the “essential gaudiness of poetry.” We want something that sounds “at least as alive as the vulgar” (Frank O’Hara) and is in some sense original. All this, and we want the poet to surprise us with lines and phrases that echo in the mind days, even weeks, after we encountered them, because they have insinuated themselves in our consciousness.1 Everyone has his favorite touchstones. Consider the sequence of ten monosyllables that kicks off Frost’s “Directive”: “Back out of all this now too much for us.” Or the work that the definite article does to separate states of nothingness in the last line of Stevens’s “The Snow Man”: “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Think of Emily Dickinson’s genitive phrases (a “transport / Of cordiality,” “the power to die,” “A privilege of Hurricane”), of Hart Crane’s jolting juxtapositions (“and love / A burnt match skating in a urinal”), or of the amazing things that W. H. Auden can do with even so commonplace a figure as the “journey of life” in his masterly prose poem “Caliban to the Audience.”
In his “Essay on Criticism” (1711), Alexander Pope laid down the law for exponents of the heroic couplet. He prized elegance and pith: “True wit is Nature to advantage dressed: / What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” For his odes addressing the Grecian urn, the nightingale, and the condition of melancholy, Keats in 1819 went in pursuit of something different: an agency of imagination “capable of making all disagreeables evaporate”—a force of such intensity, and in so close a relationship with Beauty and Truth, that it can redeem “unpleasantness” and bury “repulsiveness.” In the American grain, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson belong to the Romantic tradition Keats exemplified but embody two extreme positions. Dickinson says that she knows exactly what poetry is. “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Poetry is, then, an intense sensation, not altogether enjoyable, like the “heavenly hurt” in Dickinson’s poem that begins “There’s a certain Slant of light.” Whitman’s most memorable criterion is as “hankering, gross, mystical, nude” as the persona of the author of “Song of Myself.” Toward the end of his prose preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves ofGrass, Whitman tells us he makes this demand of a poem, any poem: “Will it help breed one goodshaped and wellhung man, and a woman to be his perfect and independent mate?”
Harold Bloom speaks in awe of the quality of “strangeness” in the canonical works he prizes.2 I share the conviction that great poems have an uncanny power—uncanny in the loose sense but sometimes also in the Freudian sense that what we repress returns to haunt us. You feel the uncanny at work when you read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and have the illusion, as if by hypnotic suggestion, that Whitman is there in the room with you, his voice in your ear across the divide of a century and a half. The quality of strangeness is perhaps even stronger in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” the poem in which Whitman accounts for his calling as a poet. Whitman had been, in Mark Van Doren’s characterization, “a lazy, eccentric, uneducated, unsuccessful, little-known newspaper man” when he underwent the transformation, or endured the vision, out of which all his poetry seems to emanate.3 But when he sits down to write about the experience that initiated him into manhood and made him a bard, Whitman recalls the moment when, as a boy alone on the shore in Long Island, he heard two mockingbirds sing, and then one stopped singing and the other missed his mate and sang elegiac songs to her, and suddenly Whitman understood his purpose in life, “what I am for.” The next words are climactic: “And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours, / A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die.” The eight lines that follow constitute a credo and a vow:
O you singer, solitary, singing by yourself—projecting me;
O solitary me, listening—nevermore shall I cease perpetuating you;
Never more shall I escape, never more the reverberations.
Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me,
Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before what there, in the night,
By the sea, under the yellow and sagging moon,
The messenger there arous’d—the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me.
And here Whitman makes a move that lifts the poem into a higher realm of strangeness. As if unsatisfied with the epiphany he has achieved, he renews his quest or request. “O if I am to have so much, let me have more!” He begs for a “clew,” a “word final, superior to all,” that will reveal the full meaning of the parable of the two mockingbirds. And the sea obligingly “Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death, / And again death, death, death, death.” The word death appears a total of ten times in the space of five lines, and I submit that the extraordinary force of the passage owes something to the reader’s astonishment at the sight of Whitman ecstatic with the discovery that death is the “word of the sweetest song and all songs.” This is in another register altogether from Keats’s restrained admission, in “Ode to a Nightingale,” that “for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death,” but it confirms the seductive power and uncanny appeal that the death wish has for the poet in a period of doubt and anxiety. Death is either “the mother of beauty” (Wallace Stevens) or a carriage driver of marked civility (Emily Dickinson), a strangely familiar presence in either case, maternal and kind.
The power of the uncanny is pronounced in Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light.” You feel it from the moment you register the double meaning of “certain” in the first line and the arresting “Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes” two lines later:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference.
Where the Meanings, are—
None may teach it—Any—
’Tis the Seal Despair—
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air—
When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—
This cryptic utterance is as much a poem about poetic inspiration as “Out of the Cradle” is. Only in the realm of the uncanny sublime—or in Dickinson’s brain, “wider than the sky”—can the trope for illumination, a “Slant of light,” so naturally associate itself with “despair.” The author, who begins a later poem with the imperative “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” receives the “certain” gift of heaven on condition that she be wounded in the process. “It is possible to see the greater part of her poetry as an effort to cope with her sense of privation,” Richard Wilbur writes, adducing “three major privations: she was deprived of an orthodox and steady religious faith; she was deprived of love; she was deprived of literary recognition.”4 For the hurt there is compensation. The “internal” meaning-making power that Wordsworth, a more orthodox Romantic poet, called the “inward eye” enables her to tell “all the Truth” but slant, in riddling poems of extreme brevity. The “very Lunacy of Light,” as she calls it in another poem, offers enchantment: bees become butterflies, butterflies turn into swans, and the imagination turns the “meanest Tunes” in the forest into “Titanic Opera.” Nevertheless she feels the gift to be oppressive, a burden. In the key phrases, “Heavenly Hurt” and “imperial affliction,” the nouns pull in one direction, the adjectives in the other, but that is only right if inspiration is a form of creative despair. The aftereffect of that slant of light, as described in the poem’s last stanza, compounds the reader’s amazement. “The listening landscape and breath-holding shadows are among Dickinson’s finest figurations,” in Bloom’s words, “but her ellipsis is finer still.”5 The dash that ends the poem, the dashes that punctuate it throughout, proclaim the radical strangeness of her art, a feeling that is strengthened when we encounter a Dickinson poem in which the poet asserts that “success” is understood best by a fallen soldier among the defeated or when we read her pithy definition of “Heaven” as “what I cannot reach!”
Mark Van Doren, whose Columbia University students included Allen Ginsberg and John Berryman, taught that “the one thing which all new poets possess in common is strangeness.” For Van Doren, Robert Frost’s strangeness consisted in the “conversational tone” of his blank verse; for Randall Jarrell, the strangeness of Frost’s “Directive” is “far under the surface, or else so much on the surface . . . that one slides into it unnoticing.” Ever mindful of his surname, Frost sometimes depicts himself as a lonely wanderer on a snowy evening, an alien in the universe. The element of the uncanny is present in such dark, wintry poems as “Desert Places” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” But you find it also in the genial “Mending Wall,” one of the poems that prove Frost to be not only subtler than innocents who take him at his word but sophisticates who think they see through the subterfuge. The latter may argue that Frost’s poem is an argument against fences, boundaries, and property lines—that he is gently satirizing the laconic neighbor, who quotes the authority of his father: “Good fences make good neighbors.” And certainly the poem’s speaker does seem to side with the natural forces that want walls to crumble in winter weather. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” he says to open the poem, and he likes the line enough to repeat it as the poem draws to a close. There is, he points out, no reason for a fence between his property and his neighbor’s—no reason beyond the neighbor’s seemingly mindless repetition of a father’s saying, a local tradition. But you read the poem again slowly and it dawns on you that the facts do not quite line up in support of this reading. You realize that the Frost persona not only joins his neighbor in rebuilding the wall but that it is he who initiates the action; that “mending” in the title is a synonym for healing; and that Frost gives the neighbor the last word. Along the way you come across these lines:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
The pun on fence in the last word is an exquisite example of Frost’s subtlety. Is a fence a means to avoid giving offense? Analyzed this way, the poem leads not to an aporia of uncertainty but a surfeit of meaning. “And there,” in the words of Wallace Stevens, the poet finds himself “more truly and more strange.”
One of the hallmarks of The Best American Poetry is that each annual volume in a series now numbering twenty-four reflects the sensibility of a different guest editor, himself or herself a distinguished practitioner of the art. No single volume is definitive; each may be viewed not only as an addition but as a corrective. Kevin Young, who made the selections for The Best American Poetry 2011, has established himself as a singularly talented poet and man of letters. Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, his most recent collection, is characteristically larger than the sum of its parts; it is unified in tone, style, subject matter, and ambition. Young comes at you in the form of a minstrel show in one poem, a hymn in another, proverbs and prayers, diary entries and letters, to look at the 1839 slave-ship mutiny with the multiple perspectives the truth calls for. Young has edited several important anthologies. Giant Steps in 2000 presented African American poets who had recently come to the fore or were about to do so. Subsequent volumes include anthologies of jazz poems, blues poems, and a selected edition of John Berryman, the white poet who dared to adopt a persona in blackface for his most original work, The Dream Songs. Last year brought us The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing (Bloomsbury USA), a collection of poems exemplifying the modern elegy in its various guises and, as Young sees it, six stages of mourning, “from Reckoning to Regret, through Remembrance to Ritual and Recovery” and finally to Redemption. It does not necessarily follow from Mr. Young’s previous labors, but there is a strong element of the elegiac in The Best American Poetry 2011. There are two poems with “Elegy” in their titles and many more that mourn brother, lover, father, friend. There are poems entitled “Valediction” and “The Funeral Sermon,” musings on angels and the afterlife. I hasten to say that there are also poems about banking, coffee, dating, poppies, the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf last year, snow, pears, and the end of a love affair, in forms ranging from an inventory of aphorisms to a crown of sonnets. The alphabetical arrangement of the contents produces serendipitous linkages: the late Rachel Wetzsteon’s haiku sequence “Time Pieces” prefigures the haiku stanzas of the poem that follows, Richard Wilbur’s “Ecclesiastes II:I.”
I favor the idea of being as comprehensive and inclusive as possible when surveying the landscape for an enterprise that confers, in the end, an exclusive distinction. The struggle I have annually is not with unsolvable questions of poetic value, the definition of “America,” or the use of a superlative. The struggle I have is simply keeping up with the plethora of poems and poets out there begging for a hearing. Much of the mail I get is gratifying. People write that a volume in the series, or a particular poem, had a decisive effect on them. Contributors say they are happy to be included. They call it an honor. They’ve been reading The Best American Poetry and now their own work is in there. Some of the poems we have featured have become poetry standards. It’s nice to think that we played a hand in that or in the stubborn refusal of poetry to lose its power of attraction in a period of information overkill.
Poetry is unkillable. The very word is too useful. When he found out that I write poetry, a software manufacturer congratulated me on practicing “a craft that will never become obsolete”—unlike last year’s version of this year’s operating system. Whether or not he meant to be ironic, the irony is he is right. The desire to write poetry is a precious thing. It turns into a need on the one hand and a habit or practice on the other. If we were making a list of reasons to stay alive, and it seems we keep needing to do so, poetry would occupy a cherished place on the list. We have the testimony of people from any and every class, category, and income bracket. To the extent that we can bring to the publishing of poetry the same imaginative energy that goes into the writing of a poem, we will have succeeded in doing something important for the art itself, for our poets, and for readers prepared to embrace poetry if only it were presented to them in an appealing way.
1. “It is hard to ask the two questions, ‘Is this good, whether I like it or not?’ and ‘Do I like this?’ at the same time: and I often find that the best test is when some phrase, or image, or line out of a new poem, recurs to my mind afterwards unsummoned.” T. S. Eliot, “What Is Minor Poetry?” (1944), in On Poetry and Poets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957), p. 50.
2. “ ‘Strangeness’ for me is the canonical quality, the mark of sublime literature. . . . Strangeness is uncanniness: the estrangement of the homelike or commonplace. This strangeness is likely to manifest itself differently in writers and readers. But in both cases strangeness renders the deep relation between sublimity and influence palpable.” Harold Bloom, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (Yale University Press, 2011), p. 19.
3. “Walt Whitman, Stranger,” in Mark Van Doren, The Private Reader (New York: Henry Holt, 1942), p. 85.
4. Richard Wilbur, “Sumptuous Destitution,” in Judith Farr, ed., Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice-Hall, 1996), p. 54.
5. Harold Bloom, The Western Canon (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994), p. 303.
© 2011 David Lehman