The Best American Poetry

Robert Bly, Editor, David Lehman, Editor Scribner Book Company $17.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-684-86003-9
Now in its 12th year, the Best American franchise is perhaps the biggest-selling in poetry. Each year, poet and critic Lehman taps a different gray (or graying) eminence to help choose 75 or so poems from the nation's literary magazines. This year's guest editor, Iron John author and midwestern surrealist Robert Bly (Eating the Honey of Words; Forecasts, Mar 29), has followed his predecessors in the series--John Hollander, Richard Howard, Adrienne Rich and Harold Bloom, to name a few--by choosing poems that complement his own style and tendencies. Short, crypto-surreal works by Franco Pagnucci, Thomas R. Smith and Peggy Steele strongly recall Bly's work from the '60s, while Charles Wright, Lydia Davis, Gray Jacobik, and John Balaban turn in halcyon tableaux and wistful vignettes worthy of the superlative in the title. The rest of the book is mainly divided between the academic--many of the poems are tributes to well-established literary men (Thoreau, Hemingway, Pasternak, Lawrence, Kierkegaard, Freud)--the poor-spirited (Dick Allen's unfunny ""The Selfishness of the Poetry Reader""; John Brehm's half-apologetic account of hating his students in ""Sea of Faith"") and the (more or less probingly) self-involved. As with many anthologies, the Table of Contents and Contributors' Notes make significant reading on their own. Forty percent of this year's contributors are women; at least 45% were born before the U.S. entered World War II; one could further break things down by race, class or region, and find the collection thoughtfully put together. But Bly's test for best-ness, he notes in his preface, was ""heat"" (""heat of friendship""; ""heat of form""; ""heat of the blues""; etc.), which excludes, for example, Language-oriented writing, because ""those poets work very hard to drain all the meaning out of the words they use."" No matter how well-constructed or demographically correct the poems included may be, these empty categories and dismissals don't justify the bland, predictable self-affirmation Bly's choices finally reflect. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 09/06/1999
Release date: 09/01/1999
Genre: Fiction
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