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Review of The Best American Poetry 2004 (edited by Lyn Hejinian)

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Here is a review of the 2004 manifestation of the celebrated poetry anthology series.
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  Wednesday, November 28, 2007Review of The Best American Poetry 2004, edited by Lyn Hejinian¬†Okay, obviously I am not completely au courant with the poetry world (hey, I livein The Provinces!) if I am reviewing this book two years later, but I didn't buyit when it came out and saw it in the library on that one Saturday afternoon visitI made with Lee a few weeks back and picked it up. I've been reading it since andfigured it would be behoovy (to use a Stephen Colbert coinage--or is that PaulDinello's writing coming out of Colbert's mouth? Hmmm.) to say a few words.First off, I'll say it's worth snagging a copy; there's much writing that holds upto sustained readings, and you will find this dirt-cheap online because they printa shitload of these every year and obviously supply exceeds demand (it's poetry!).I didn't even read Lyn's introduction, went right to the candy, but I did see sheended her essay with a splendid Eigner poem. Isn't it cool that Larry Eigner wentfrom Swampscott, Mass. to California where a whole generation of soon-to-belanguage poets embraced his writing. I've seen very good critical writing on hiswork by the likes of Bernstein and other language schoolmates. Hell, remember thatRon Silliman dedicated In the American Tree to him! What a wonderful, lasting giftMr. Silliman made with that gesture!Okay, so I figured I'd just glibly go through poem by poem and obviously I'm goingto be brief as it's almost 1 a.m. and there are seventy-five poets representedhere!I am going to notate poets who have a language poetry affiliation AND who appearedin the anthology I just cited above with an ITAT next to the poem. I'm going tobe doing that by memory so I might miss one or two, and there is no negativejudgment implicit in drawing attention to that. These are the editor's peers andwriting colleagues for many decades, and of course she is going to appreciate thewriting of many of those poets and desire to share their writing with a largeraudience.I am going to put an asterisk next to poems I feel merit inclusion in an anthologytitled The Best American Poetry, which is of course just a taste game, mine setagainst another's, the usual de gustibus...The anthology is organized alphabetically, as usual, so....Kim Addonizio, Chicken. Poet Jenny Bitner spent several years in Harrisburg andone of her trademark poems was a poem about Chicken Little deconstructing it as asexual allegory of how relations between the sexes should be conducted accordingto the masculine powers that be. She usually gave this a highly sexualized readingwhich totally ensorceled the male poets of Harrisburg, much to the amusement of usgay men present. Later, she moved to California and I think became almost famousor something. Sorry Jenny if you're sitting next to Quentin T. and I missed thatfact. Mad props, girl! Anyway, Addonizio's chicken poem starts Why did she crossthe road? and this one doesn't really go the sexual route but more the hardluckfeminism route, and it doesn't really work. The poem ends somehow with a down bylaw convict who we are told will feel a terrible hunger / and an overwhelmingurge / to jab his head at the television over and over. Jabs his head over andover. Like a chicken in a chicken farm. Get it? Bathos is reserved for when theeffect is unintended, and unfortunately I think it was unintended here, and it'squite bathetic. Not a good start for the anthology, and not the sort of poem Iwould think Hejinian would select in a million years. Okay, it is a poem about TheDispossessed. But formalistically? No way. The poet lives in Oakland, California.Is there a proximity affection at work here?  Will Alexander, Solea of the Simooms. This is not my favorite poem by Mr.Alexander, who arguably would deserve the title of the poet most influenced byAime Cesaire writing in the English language. I understand he is undergoing someserious ill health right now and my best wishes for the restoration of his goodhealth! I believe he was caught without insurance between jobs, so if you wouldlike to help out, just Google his name and contributions and I think it willdirect you to a site with info on how you can help. It would be a very nice thingto do in this America of the unforgiving insurance game. Let's hope more humanetimes are coming.Bruce Andrews, excerpt from Dang Me. ITAT. Bruce's writing may be of the sort youshould experience performed where the sonic wall becomes an assault on that partof the national(istic) conscience(lessness) that has been engrained (against yourwill) into your soul through the assault of metastasizing media. I have alwaysfound him difficult to read on the page with some occasional great memorable lineslike sound bites sandwiched between poetic longeurs that do nothing for me.* Rae Armantrout, Almost. I think it's beginning to become apparent that no poethas so successfully transcended the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school's self-imposedlimitations as Armantrout, whose poetry seems a fruitful confluence of the poeticsof Creeley and say, Lorine Niedecker. It's a very 21st century, media-savvy typeof poetry that is deeply philosophical, often, in its questionings of thevariously constructed and nesting realities by which humans live. This piece is atrenchant little meditation on what survives of the past to justify the use ofbelief in identity, told as a personal anecdote (one of Armantrout's favoritedevices). The first standout poem for me in the anthology.Craig Arnold, Your Friend's Arriving on the Bus. One of those talky poems whichseems to arrogate importance because it's about an American's experience of Europe(here Spain) and briefly meditates on the Basque struggle, if rather glibly( You'd like to meet the Basques / They look like they are into heavy metal. Notsure if he's trying for a Frank O'Hara effect in here, but this talky poem fallsflat for me and has a clinker of an end line which the poet must have struggledwith.John Ashbery, Wolf Ridge. I'm not the person to speak of the merits of anAshbery poem, as I lost interest over a decade ago, and this poem is pretty muchtypical fare of the sort that caused me to lose interest. He seems a very niceman, and is very funny in interviews...a great avuncular presence in Americanpoetry. Wait, did I just write an Ashbery title?: A Great Avuncular Presence inAmerican Poetry. I hope not. God bless the man. Maybe I'll find a book later I'lllike again. The Darger book looked like it might hold my interest. Is that onedifferent?Mary Jo Bang, The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity. The greattitle is the best thing about this poem and it's the title of a charcoal work byOdilon Redon (one of my feyer loves). This poem seems to aspire to a MarianneMoore-like intricacy but the deep questions it asks are questions that wereasked constantly in the 1940s and 1950s in American poetry, and asked in a moreinteresting manner. Seems atavistic to me.Alan Bernheimer, 20 Questions. ITAT. Was he in that anthology? I think he was!Bernheimer has some memorable poems I've enjoyed in early collections for someyears now. This one works I guess, playing in a very humorous way with how wedecide something is even a question...playing with the various types of things wecall a question even when they are not (ex. rhetorical, nonsense, etc.) Probably agreat poem for readings, as it's brief and punchy, somewhat pithy. Not sure I'dinclude it in a BAP anthology, but this might be one of those attempts to draw  attention to a clearly overlooked poet in the culture.Charles Bernstein, Sign Under Test. ITAT. Bernstein is one of a handful of poetsin here who often make poetry the handmaiden to theory, and with varying successat various times as that's such a difficult enterprise. (Yes, all poetry is ademonstration of theory to a degree, but I am speaking here of poetry whichforegrounds theory--in one or more of its multifarious forms--and privileges it asovert discourse within the poem itself). Lines like When you say baroque you'rebarking up the wrong tree, which suits me and Why did the turtle cross theroad?--To find the chicken just don't seem worthy of the poet's time. Here Ithink the subordination didn't work. The poem is too wheedling and winsome, byturns glib and cutesy. Indeed, one could rather convincingly argue that this isn'ta poem at all, but a literary essay by the author on style, and a catalogue of hisown likes, dislikes and predilections. Of course, a postmodernist is usuallygratified when his or her writing falls between genres or renders genre-assignation impossible. I recently read this poet's first book (published when hewas like twenty-five or twenty-six I believe) online and found it very readworthyand moving. It's called Asylums I think (or something like that) and it must havecome out of the job he was working then as a medical transcriptionist...it is areally plangent critique of/empathic attack on the psychiatric biz, deconstructingthe game as it was played in the 1970s (and don't I know it...my Mom was in thesystem at that time). This can be found online if you go to Wiki I think (thinkthat was the portal I used). But I wouldn't include this poem she selected in aBAP anthology. But do you think she's going to pass over Bernstein? Get real lol.This is just community at work. Nothing dark.Anselm Berrigan, Token Enabler. Anselm Berrigan, son of Ted Berrigan and AliceNotley, is in this anthology and so is his mother (one of the greatest livingpoets, the latter IMHO). This poem has an interesting story behind it if you readthe notes in the back, so I was sad I didn't enjoy it. He reminds me of hisfather's poetry much more than his mother's poetry. It's not bad, just doesn'treally have any chakras to it. Mom's poems always have chakras.Mark Bibbins, from Blasted Fields of Clover Bring Harrowing and Regretful Sighs. These are two prose poems from a longer serial poem apparently. They didn't workfor me. They were too desultory for my taste and just didn't have any foci of anysort, visual, emotional, whatever...give me something.Oni Buchanan, The Walk. I had seen a really memorable poem by this poet once, sowas optimistic, but this poem about a strange encounter with a woman wielding ahatchet in the wilderness didn't rise to the level of allegory or whatever sort ofmeaning the poet was trying to create, at least not for me. I can only wonder. Ithink this poet lived in Hershey, PA at one point (right down the road from me!) Ilove her name.* Michael Burkard, a cloud of dusk. This poem is one of those that works on youin mysterious ways. Reading it one thinks, nothing extraordinary is happening orpresent here, yet one feels oneself oddly worked and moved. I don't quite know whythe poem is able to do that. It's a short, lyric twenty liner with no showydevices or formalistic innovation...I think because it reads like a novel in a fewshort lines. You really feel the expansive mystery present in life, and thehopelessness of ever attempting any reductionist explanation of anyone's life.Yeah, I think that's it. Maybe.Anne Carson, Gnosticism. This Canadian master of the serial poem has astonishedme many times with many different books. This medium length poem is really arather joyless concatenation of words and thoughts. There are lines trying toohard like First line has to make your brain race that's how Homer does it, /  that's how Frank O'Hara does it or Watch naked (arumim) flesh slide into cunning (arum) snake in the next verse. The gifted linguist is perhaps showingoff a little too much here. Carson is one of the most interesting figures writingtoday. Her books on literature are as readworthy as most of her poetry. I lovedThe Beauty of the Husband and her book on Simonides of Keos. Whether bringingSappho into the modern world or meditating on ancient Greek poets or Celan, thispoet is rarely less than fascinating. But here she, unfortunately, is.T.J. Clark, Landscape with a Calm. This landscape meditation on a painting byPoussin from The Threepenny Review is too mired in the conventions of literaryModernism for my taste. It could have been written many, many decades ago. Isuppose that subgenre could be revitalized, but it would take a very gifted poet.Billy Collins, The Centrifuge. What does one say about Billy Collins? It was avery readable poem. Many people will love it. He will sell more poetry books thanseveral dozen other poets in here combined who write circles around him. Does hebelieve they write circles around him? Of course not. Why would he believe that?He's Billy Collins. You go, guy! Okay, that was mean. To be fair, I have read verylittle Billy Collins. I am saving him for my dotage. My extreme dotage.Jack Collom, 3-4-00. Appropriate that this little nature meditation appeared ina journal called Ecopoetics. Slight but well-done.Michael Costello, Ode to my Flint and Boom Bolivia. Three playful stanzas. Thegenesis of the poem is interesting if you read the notes in the back. I only readthe notes on a few poems actually, as most poets are too fucking annoying whenthey talk about their own productions. Not bad, but I wouldn't expect it to be ina BAP. But when you think about the younger poets Hejinian selected for inclusion,mustn't that be a wonderful thing? To be a young writer and have that sort ofaccolade bestowed upon you? How can one not be happy for the younger poets who getin here?Michael Davidson, Bad Modernism. ITAT? I forget. This poem was too smarmy for mytaste, and too self-consciously urbane and the Ashbery epigraph was superfluous,and really comes across as a courting gesture.*Olena Kalytiak Davis, You Art a Scholar, Horatio, Speak to It. Davis gets a lotof mileage out of the line from Hamlet, and the poem turns into a fine meditationon the ghost of poetry that inhabits the poet. The poem is cast in the form of a(self?) interrogation and comes off as a very clever analysis of how the artenters the artist as a sort of metaplasia. The poet achieves a vaguely Szymborskaneffect and power here.Jean Day, Prose of the World Order. ITAT. I like a lot of Jean Day's writing;books from early in her career and mid-career still reward rereading for me. Buthere the poem's obvious attempt at critique of the (Newspeak) World Ordercollapses into desultory word salad that really doesn't hold any interest for meas a reader. Lines like these: The plaid animal thought not / furiously cribbingfrom notes / but willing then / to reset the counter at zero again / late as itwas and ruined / with finger trouble. I realize you could say well she's showingus how that's all bullshit, and subverting the rhetoric by putting it in ablender but in response to that I could turn on Hell Date and eat some pumpkinroll. And wouldn't feel any more guilty or less American, mind ye. Check out herearlier books.*Linh Dinh, 13. Every time I see this poet, I keep saying Please show us youdeserved that $250,000 Pew Fellowship you got so early in your career. Well, hereI have no complaints. It's a strong, smart sort of prose poem that seems to show
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