The Acid Tongue
The Best American Poetry is Vacuous
Selected By Cyril Wong
This review of the 2009 Best American Poetry series is probably an obvious choice; in fact, it is very easy to search for nasty reviews of the series in general. Reviews like Anis Shivani's diatribe in the Huffington Post are almost a certainty when one tries to establish anything as the best or the most definitive with regards to poetry in America. I wished I had picked this review for Acid Tongue sooner; and I hope it is not too late to include it now, as it sets that sufficiently bitchy tenor for a new year of Acid Tongue-tributes to literary nastiness:
For years, the Best American Poetry series, edited by David Lehman, has been on a downward slope...it seems to have reached a final resting point--its funeral home, with Lehman's past and future ghosts reading out the last rites. The BAP is supposed to be the Holy Grail for American poets, with bountiful material rewards for the chosen; but one cannot escape the feeling, twenty-plus years after the inception of the series, that it has... become a coterie affair where one goes not so much to seek the most exciting in poetry, but to admire, with horror, the quaint artifacts and robust machinations of the Old Masters...jostling for their fifteen seconds of infamy.
Evil, yes? Things start to pick up in a simultaneously caustic and semi-academic fashion:
Walter Benjamin talked about the lost aura of the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction. What we have here is poetry that is so seeped in the mechanics of mechanical reproduction that it seems to be looking beyond its status as a work of art, and reaching toward something of populist gnosis. It is poetry as facsimile, poetry as self-imitation, poetry as garbage in, garbage out. If there's one impulse defining this grab-bag of remainders and leftovers, it's that poetry is a robotic enterprise turned in on itself, self-sufficiently generating new items from within its own production sphere.... Everything in this anthology is self-contained, sealed off, hermetically profuse.
From a discussion of failed aesthetics to now the individual poets in the anthology—the attack is relentless and the blows get lower beneath the belt:
Here's some of Mark Bibbins's "Concerning the Land to the South of Our Neighbors to the North": "West Virginia was made overseas and brought to us, chunk by chunk, / aboard container ships." ...This is gibberish pretending to be poetry... All right, I'll say weird stuff about the fifty states, just meaningless stuff, and string it all together, thinks Bibbins's clogged brain one fall morning at the New School... In his explanation, Bibbins remarks, "I realized after writing the poem that it's a sort of gawky distant cousin of John Ashbery's 'Into the Dusk-Charged Air' ... May I suggest, Professor Bibbins, that it's more like inbreeding first cousins, incest's ravishing deformity?
In discussing one list-poem, the reviewer reminds us that anyone can write like these poets in the anthology:
Rob Cook's "The Song of America," part of which reads: "I'm raising my child to write a treaty for his own smells, / the ones that hurt the self and the ones that hurt others, / ... I'm raising my child to conquer the fickle magnitude of clouds, / the raw cover that inhabits unwanted dreams, and the signal / from the meadow permitting him to bow down in lust." Actually, the last three lines are mine. It's a line-machine, try it for yourself. And again, I have no idea what any of this means...and that's the point of this kind of poetry: its denseness masks any honest emotion, but does it with a smile on its face.
Then a not-too-brief intellectual rant appears again at some point in the breathless review (I am only mentioning it here because it is actually informative):
If modernist poetry was the enlightenment on steroids, and postmodern poetry its even snarkier cousin, refusing to accept the veracity of any observation/belief/dogma, then the bulk of the academic poetry written today is from a stance of moderate, earnest, entirely boring emotion; there is nothing at all subversive about it. It is almost a return to premodern feelings, where one expresses wonder at things the human being is supposed to have dominion/authority over... This sort of stuff is easy to write as parody, though for the life of me I have never been able to write seriously...without a trace of irony and self-consciousness.
After sarcastic digs at lists about nothing, a recurring over-obsession with mortality, the umpteenth self-reflexive poem about poetry, any pretentious use of surrealism for surrealism's sake, the invention of new words for no better reason other than they sound good ("nonsensical sophistication," describes the reviewer), earnest politicising about race to sexual identities, any attempt at "God-revisionism", the reviewer ends his own list of tired poetic trends with Sharon Old's "self-described 'descriptive frenzy'" as well as his persistent belief that we could all be Best American Poets if we wanted:
QLRS Vol. 11 No. 1 Jan 2012
Take an ordinary corporeal act (especially if it's something redundant and politically correct) and turn it into a massive act of war or metaphysical breakthrough. We all in the end have our irreducible bodies to turn to. Look at your body, look at it hard--there's enough stuff there to make a Best American Poet out of you, if you take care not to say anything that means anything.