Mark Doty is the guest editor for this year's Best American Poetry anthology, and here he takes us through the long hours and the ultimately rewarding experience of a year of reading more than anyone could ever be expected to read.
When David Lehman invited me to take on the project of guest editing the Best American Poetry 2012 – the twenty-fifth edition of the annual anthology that appears in September of each year, bringing forth jubilation and curses among poets throughout the land, I was intrigued. I spent some time, just now, choosing that word intrigued. Delighted – though I was, as well as honored and pleased – seems to lack complexity. What I want here is a word that combines pleasure with a degree of challenge, a nuanced acknowledgement that one doesn’t really take on such a task lightly, without thinking about just what you’re getting yourself into.
Poets, by nature, favor anarchy, or at least resist consensus. When anything smacks of the official or the imprimatur, you will find them muttering in the lobby, grumbling in the vestibule, or cursing under their breaths outside the door. Poetry thrives on the unofficial, the unnoticed, the neglected, the unauthorized. Ask Emily Dickinson.
But on the other hand, the solitary nature of our art makes us long for company, and every poet wants to be heard. Even as private a poet as Dickinson wanted to be read, which is why the terms fame and publication occur again and again in her work; she was summoning her audience into being, even if it took some time for them to arrive.
This contradiction – the fact that we poets tend to be poor team-players and that we very much want to be loved – is what causes us to react so strongly to the Best American Poetry. We are fascinated by it, and love to criticize it. It is widely read indeed; a number of younger poets who are now well established, a National Book Award winner among them, have told me that one of these anthologies was the first book of poems they ever owned. And it is widely bashed as boring, dominated by insiders, or beside the point.
But I was also aware that here was a chance to point readers toward 75 wonderful poems (each volume includes exactly the same number). I happen to think this is a particularly vital moment in American poetry, and that poems of great formal variety and genuine ambition are being published now in many venues, from big-ticket journals to small enterprises that open up like mushrooms after rain and often close just as quickly.
I mean ambition in the best sense of the term – that the best of our poems are grappling with the hardest things to say: what it’s like to be awake, to be a thinking and feeling person in these vexed, dizzying hours. Maybe it feels no more difficult to be human than it did in, say, 1650, but I remain deeply convinced of the urgency of speaking in our times, of naming where we are. That was why I said yes to David’s offer; I wanted a chance to demonstrate the liveliness, emotional vigor, intelligence and wit our art offers just now, an array of gifts to the culture that all too often go unopened.
What I hadn’t imagined was the sheer tonnage of verse that would almost immediately descend upon my post office box, and continue to do so from January to December. In truth, no one can read every poem published in America in a given year, mainly because it would be a superhuman achievement to find them all. But Lehman has assembled a remarkably efficient and thorough means of getting work at hand to his guest editor. I began very early on to put some poems in a “probably maybe yes” pile, and David read these with enthusiasm, venturing an opinion now and then before sending me another envelope, box, sack, sled or howdah full of poems. Sometimes I’d read a little at a time, grabbing a few poems between phone calls or before making dinner. Some days I’d set aside long, indulgent bouts of wandering in journals for hours. Plane trips and train journeys were especially good, though it meant I was always traveling with an extra bag, usually a cloth tote stuffed to the brim with poems. Read, winnow, recycle, hold back the best, repeat.
Here is what most surprised me: I read more poems than any reasonable human being would ever read in a year’s time, and it was fun. Joyous, bracing, the kind of pleasure that gives you energy rather than robbing you of it. Sometimes I’d read for a couple of hours and think, oh why not, an hour more. I’d think I’d had it, then notice the cover of a journal I hadn’t seen before, and before you know I was deeply immersed again.
Of course there were times I looked at teetering piles of photocopied papers and stacks of magazines, or remembered the five new online journals I’d just heard about, and felt overwhelmed, mildly resentful, and a little ill. But the truth is, whenever I started to read, these feelings passed, often remarkably quickly.
Because, of course, contemporary American poetry is actually terrifically interesting – especially if you approach each poem as if this one might be masterful. This could be a miraculous marriage of sense and music from a poet you’ve never heard of before. Or it might be someone I’ve been reading for years, appearing with a poem impossible to forget.
If these criteria sound exacting, they are. Only 75 poems, out of many thousand, and that demands that the chosen few be distinctive indeed: gorgeous or possessed of a perfectly achieved plainness, startling or inevitable, uncommonly well made, grave, hilarious, wrenching, sly, urgent, arising from a profound need to speak.
This returns me to the theme of ambition; each of the poems I chose, out of my dauntingly large “maybe probably yes” pile, is trying fiercely hard to get at something crucial, trying to find form and language for what might otherwise go unnamed.
I know I missed things; no one can read that much without some good stuff slipping through the cracks, and I’m sure there were valuable poems that never crossed my threshold, sad to say.
The nature of an anthology like this is that decisions have to be made quickly, within the bounds of the year; there isn’t time to spend months debating the value of one poem over another. What I was making, finally, is a snapshot of our moment, and a testament to the kinds of poems that move me and matter to me.
I’m sure that my edition of the BAP will raise some hackles, as they all do – but I am also utterly certain that this is a readable, energetic, engaging sampling of an art I love. Like most committed readers of poetry, I’m always wanting to share poems I like, pass them on to anyone who’ll listen. That’s what this book is. Is it “the best of” anything? Who cares, really? To my mind these are 75 reasons to be glad to be alive now, when such art is being made.