The Best American Poetry 2003

Guest Editor Yusef Komunyakaa, Series Editor David Lehman

Scribner Poetry

Thursday, September 11th, 2003

Set aside any reservations about the superlative in the title; the copyright page advises, “This book is a work of fiction.” Resist the urge to skip from the table of contents to the poets you feel safe with; the editors honor only 75 poems, one per poet. Keep track of your feelings and read from the series editor’s foreword all the way through to the end of the list of magazines where the poems were first published. Twin impulses, to decide that you love, and then that you hate, contemporary American poetry, ought to neutralize each other when you read this series, and this year’s edition is no exception.

After long experience with the BAP, I look forward most to David Lehman’s sane and wry foreword, with its summary of the year’s sightings of poetry in the culture at large. Hearing that a failed detective pilot featured a character named “Prufrock” offers a refreshing baseline against which to measure the annual hysteria over whether or not the year’s crop of poems attends to its simultaneous obligations to mean and be. My heart often goes out to the guest editor, who has to make the stock apology for the word “best” and for excluding 98.75% of the country’s actively publishing poets (if 6,000 sounds high to you, bring it down to 2,000—if there were a poetry rally, that’s the figure the Times would report—and the exclusion ratio is still 96.25%).

It’s not difficult to have your heart go out to Yusef Komunyakaa this year; his introduction mourns two losses, and now the dedicatees of his 2001 collected are gone. But I’m unclear who belongs to this exploratory school of poets he attacks in remarks such as this:

Are some American poets writing from a privileged position—especially after the fiery 1960s and ’70s—from a place that reflects the illusions of class through language and aesthetics, and is the “new” avant-garde an old aspect of the high-brow and low-brow divide within the national psyche?

and this:

…while reading the healthy heap of literary magazines, I was reminded that there exists a poetry that borders on cultivated solecism and begs theorists to decipher it. But it isn’t for me to say if this so-called exploratory movement verges on a literary deception, though it does follow an era that praised content and the empirical.

Komunyakaa attributes to this exploratory movement both the elision of political content and the abandonment of consistent framing devices of voice and narrative. I would speculate that he’s referring (as obliquely as possible) to some of the poets in last year’s BAP, edited by Robert Creeley, but his broad brush may well also be painting entire other schools of poetry. He does note indignantly that Edmund Wilson’s The Sixties omits mention of the assassinations of 1968 and generally avoids the tumult of the era, and he offers as a counterexample the opening of Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” which doesn’t actually mention any of the events Wilson ignored. He raises the spectre of Miles Davis abandoning ballads, and closes by condemning Robert Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning—which at least indicates that de Kooning is on the side of the meaning angels.

A quick graph of the Amazon reader response to the 2002 BAP confirms that the series’ readership includes many who would prefer that poetry stop exploring and start making sense; readers looking for permission to ignore the unfamiliar will find it here. That doesn’t mean, though, that the series is without pleasures for the lifer.

My chief pleasure is to find out about poets whom I either hadn’t noticed or never quite understood before. Terence Winch’s “My Work” is a light boast with unclassifiable moments: “I have open-ended stratagems / when it comes to the Germans, particularly / Goethe and Kant. They live now in my / imagination.” Maura Stanton’s “Translating” goes through Cassell’s Spanish Dictionary to answer the question, “What are the characters eating in this novel / published in Barcelona in 1901 / that I found this summer in my rented house?” and finds that “Two characters / walk through a plantation of guindo trees, / but when I look up the word, I see it means / mazzard in English.” Vijay Seshadri’s poem “The Disappearances” imagines the holocaust or rapture that takes away even “the Woolworth’s turtle that cost forty-nine cents / (with the soiled price tag half-peeled on its shell)” before collapsing the reader’s entire memory (“This is your first river, your first planetarium, your first Popsicle”) into a point of light. Kevin Prufer’s fable "What the Paymaster Said" tells of a company that instead of a paycheck offers kind thoughts, then apples, then cigarettes or bombs, and when all these are refused, makes a final offer of coffins. Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “The Dragon” passes without harm through Yeatsian symbolism, a not inconsiderable achievement in any year. Rita Dove’s “Fox Trot Fridays” gets a close dance with language in the lines “quick-quick with a / heel-ball-toe.”

The next best thing is to see work by poets I already trust: Cathy Bowman (an excitedly cluttered elegy for her marriage), Rodney Jones
(declarations such as "I can only be an animal through this violin" and "The dead, when they are recent, are as good / as they will ever be"), the late Kenneth Koch "Les morts vont vite, the dead go fast, the next day absent! / Et les vivants sont dingues, the living are haywire"), John Koethe (the terrifying last sentence ends "an ill-defined / Unease that hides the horror in the heart, but always working / Towards the future, towards the Fuhrer"), Joshua Clover (of the three poems in the book to include the deity as a character in the last lines, his is easily the most beautiful), Joy Katz, Daniel Nester (though I wish he’d cut the words "wonderful" and "otherworldly"), Ed Roberson, Lewis Warsh, and Susan Wheeler: good for them.

A lesser pleasure is to identify which of his or her own qualities the guest editor locates in the work of others. Komunyakaa’s early poems adhere to a few main rules: a speaker in an imaginary landscape declaims two parts exposition to one part paradox and conflict; the denouement includes an unexpected image and usually ends with a one-syllable noun. It’s a cousin of the inverted pyramid—the form that allows journalists to deliver the most-wanted material first while allowing editors to cut most-peripheral information from the end as space requires. Relieved of the burden of continually coming up with new kinds of insight—just how often can that paradigm shift?—the poet is expected to address unspoken tensions and deliver startling news. The problem, though, is that after all that exposition the speaker can end up sounding about as reliable as someone on trial, on the couch, or on drugs. The quick fix solution—supply a narrator (or addressee) the reader already knows, such as a famous personage, real or written—introduces another problem, namely that secondary material famously resists the spontaneity necessary to make a poem worth the effort.

While Komunyakaa’s selections include several poems that fulfill the demands he places on his own work—Stephen Dunn’s "Open Door Blues" is a few awkward locutions away from resembling both the work of both the guest editor and James Schuyler—the book includes many more pieces that opt out of the exposition dilemma by means of the literary quick fix mentioned above. Intertextual work is not automatically academic, but it’s no surprise that much of it is little more than name checking. The lead-off poem, Jonathan Aaron’s “The End of Out of the Past,” purports to be a straightforward account of a post-war noir film; the denouement reminds us that in 1947 “Half the world is lying in ruins.” A few pages later, Diann Blakely and Bruce Bond elegize (long gone) musicians Robert Johnson and Art Tatum respectively, Bond unforgivably giving Tatum’s fingertips “eyes / gazing into music beneath / the music”; Michael S. Collins takes on six figures (no, not a hundred Gs—public people including Nietzsche, Jimi Hendrix, and the spy Robert Hanssen); Ray Gonzalez walks amiably in Max Jacob’s shoes; W.S. Merwin rides Zbigniew Herbert’s bicycle; Ishle Yi Park’s take on Korean history is that “Queen Min was the bomb”; Myra Shapiro stays in the Istanbul Four Seasons, formerly a prison where Nazim Hikmet was once incarcerated; David Wojahn attempts a Scrabble (TM) elegy for William Matthews (“Jerboa on a triple: I was in for it”); and Anna Ziegler, the youngest contributor, presents a diorama of the moment when Edward Hopper realizes that the people in his paintings need to be evacuated.

In his watershed 1988 collection, Dien Cai Dau, Komunyakaa ups the conflict, cuts back on the paradox and ditches the blues landscape—the guardshack that houses an angel in I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, the preceding book, is now “somewhere near Phu Bai,” and the speaker leans “on the sandbags,/ taking aim at whatever.” The content overwhelms the conventional structure time after satisfying time; allusions to classical Chinese poetry line up jaggedly with the absolute incoherence of the speakers’ missions: “You//peer down the sights of your M-16,/seeing the full moon/loaded on an oxcart.”

Granted, it was over a decade after the helicopters closed down the American Embassy in Saigon when Komunyakaa published poems about his experiences in Vietnam, but the demand he raises in his introduction is not to erase current events. In that spirit of directly addressing at least some of what’s on everybody’s mind, Galway Kinnell’s “When the Towers Fell” covers the manned missile attacks on Lower Manhattan—as always with Kinnell, there are moments of undeniable force. Frank Bidart curses bin Laden. Susan Dickman aestheticizes suicide bombings in Jerusalem (titled “Skin,” the poem begins: “And what are they to do with pieces of it that lie in the grass / or waft down afterwards . . .”). J.D. McClatchy’s more competent suicide bomber poem “Jihad” ends with the English translation of the word Islam. Robert Pinsky scores points in his September 2002 “Anniversary” by dreaming up a movie in which “captured heroes // Tell the interrogator their commanding officer’s name / Is Colonel Donald Duck” only to give the points back a few stanzas later when he wonders whether kids today even know who Donald Duck is. Richard Wilbur identifies with the hunted in rhymes that to these ears sound superfluous:

Whatever he has done
Against our law and peace of mind,
Our mind’s eye looks with pity of a kind
At the scared, stumbling fellow on the run.

Without the repetitive abruptness of war to inspire them, Komunyakaa’s books following Dien Cai Dau, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Neon Vernacular, alternate between bittersweet memoir and recalcitrant monologues the authenticity of which can’t be doubted, although the aesthetic interest can. The choppers of Dien Cai Dau flying away backwards are far more uncanny than the juke joint dance with a married woman that leads the speaker to confide that “I’m still backing away / From the scene, a scintilla / Of love & murder.” As Komunyakaa backs away from the intensity of his own exploratory work, Mark Halliday, Heather Moss, Michael S. Harper and Billy Collins seem also to be carrying the burden of a closeted excitement about the “exploratory,” Halliday dallying in the pleasures of use and mention, Collins rifling Lisa Jarnot’s dresser drawer.

Only two poems in BAP 03 continue to baffle me after several readings: is Linda Gregg saying she wants to shoot Brigitte Bardot? And what on earth is Stanley Moss saying is the connection between death and color?

You aren’t done with this book until you’ve read the contributor’s notes. My favorite sentence may be this from Merwin:

For many years, he kept an apartment in the West Village, on Seventh Avenue, from which he watched the World Trade Center being built.

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2 Responses to “The Best American Poetry 2003”

  1. Ron Silliman Says:

    Being disingenuous as to whom Komunyakaa is attacking is not a good idea. In being deliberately vague as to whom the transgressors might be, Komunyakaa is empowered to attack people without them being able to appropriately respond.

    If we want to follow his lead & use a 1960s metaphor here, it’s a tactic not unlike the Sixties police practice of billy clubbing people around their lower backs, where the bruises don’t show, but which can be even more painful (I know, I was hospitalized for bruised kidneys after such an assault once).

    You let Komunyakaa off way too easily in this regard. Still, it’s good to know that this series — which I’ve found unreadable over the years with the lone exception of the volume edited by Creeley — is open to including the likes of Terence Winch, whom I would agree is a terrific writer.

  2. Jonathan Says:

    Nice review, very tactful. I wonder what would happen if we compared the Creeley and the YK BAPS side by side, poem by poem. Aaron against Ashbery or Berry against Bernstein, Bidart against Bidart. Sort of a poetry face-off. I’ll be attempting this soon in my blog.

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