The Magazine

Rhyme without Reason

There's 'something-nasty-in-the-greenhouse' about this anthology.

Jun 12, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 37 • By EDWARD SHORT
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But surely "the peanut crunching crowd" has had enough of the traumas of confessional poets. Larkin represents a more civilized point of view when he says that Plath's poems may be "to the highest degree original," but "How valuable they are depends on how highly we rank the expression of experience with which we can in no sense identify, and from which we can only turn with shock and sorrow." This is a welcome reaffirmation of the essential sanity of art.

The notion that art should be irrational, irreverent, nihilistic, ugly, formless, offensive--in fine, provocative nonsense--has stultified poetry as much or more than it has so many of the other arts. Lehman fully subscribes to this hare-brained aesthetics. How else can he justify subjecting his readers to the ravings of Anne Sexton, Bernadette Mayer, and Sharon Olds?

Many of the poets featured here have been subsidized by writing programs, and it shows. In 1985, Kingsley Amis wrote to the Times protesting that "Subsidy damages art by tending to foster irresponsibility, showiness, cliquism and self-indulgence in the artist. At the same time the public's power to choose what art it wants by financial pressure on the artist is dangerously weakened." A typical product of these mills of imposture is Jorie Graham, Seamus Heaney's successor at Harvard. For those who might find her poems somewhat elliptical, Helen Vendler explains that when Graham "comes to a concept not yet conceivable she leaves a gap in the middle of a sentence." How little this lazy-mindedness resembles Shakespeare's enraptured air:

which, but for vacancy

Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too

And made a gap in nature.

The anthology is marred by cronyism. Lehman, the editor of The Best American Poetry Series, repeatedly puffs this dubious publication and its approved poets. There is back-scratching here on an Olympian scale. No less than a third of the thousand-odd pages are given over to the people whose reputations Lehman makes his living touting. No wonder so much of the book showcases our own "clumsy or insipid versifiers," "slavish mimics of currently fashionable modes," and "opportunistic purveyors of doggerel on transient occasions."

Many of the entries have been oddly chosen. "America the Beautiful" is included because, as Lehman says, "it is both easier to sing and less bellicose" than "The Star Spangled Banner." A man named William Bronk is included for no apparent reason other than that "his poetry is concerned almost obsessively with epistemological questions." Not all readers will understand why the campy loquacity of Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler merit such generous representation. Or why we need quite so much Theodore Roethke.

A steady storm of correspondences!

A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,

And in broad day the midnight come again!

A man goes far to find out what he is--

Death of the self in a long, tearless night,

All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

If this were a deliberate spoof on Yeats it would be amusing. But no, Roethke meant it to be taken seriously, as does Lehman. In his introduction, Lehman says that posterity is "intolerant of fakes and indifferent to reputations." It is also intolerant of editors who traffic in false reputations.

Richard Ellmann excelled David Lehman in two crucial respects. He knew how to anthologize major talents, giving readers a good critical sense of their development and variety. His Robert Lowell, for example, is much richer, less uniform, than Lehman's, even though Lehman had the advantage of being able to choose from Lowell's last things. And he favored poets over poems, which suits a good anthology, designed as it should be to acknowledge achievement rather than herald promise.

Lehman too often misrepresents his major poets by selections that are either perfunctory or perverse. While there are no surprises in his Eliot, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens, he misrepresents Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, who, for all their unfashionableness, remain two of our most talented poets. And he pays too much attention to small fry. Where Ellmann included 78 poets, Lehman includes 210. One can appreciate Lehman's boldness in trying to treat the new with generosity; but, after all, too much of it is mediocre--even though we can all agree with James Merrill that

The eloquence to come

Will be precisely what we cannot say

Until it parts the lips.