by Ed Ochester (ed.)
University of Pittsburgh Press 2007
Reviewed by Graeme Bezanson
Take Me To Your Readers
Ed Ochester’s 48-poet, 367-page anthology is a good number of things, though true to its title is probably not one of them—unless, that is, your definition of “American Poetry” means only books published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, and your concept of “Now” includes 1967. So what we really have here—and let’s call a spade a spade, shall we, people—is a retrospective of forty years of that venerable institution, The Pitt Poetry Series.
The odd discord between the book’s broad ambitions and narrow focus continues beyond the title and 1980s textbook design (a comfortably lame, stylized sunburst donning the cover). Just inside, Ochester’s introduction speaks of his belief that APN is “truly a cross-section of the best of contemporary American poetry.” He goes on to describe his “hope that the variety represented here will be particularly useful as a text in poetry reading and writing classes”—and so we get to the root of the strangeness, I think. Not content to play the spinster retrospective, Ochester & Co. seem to have designs on prom-queen popularity, which in the world of poetry anthologies equals classroom ubiquity.
And high school may just be the target market. Ochester really spells it all out in his introduction, offering nuggets like “Many contemporary poems have a first-person speaker in which the personality or psyche of the speaker is noticeably the subject or part of the subject of the poem.” He concludes this discussion of the “I” in poetry with what has be the funniest sentence ever written about an American poet: “William Carlos Williams wrote an amusing poem about what it feels like to be a tree, but he was a medical doctor, not a sugar maple.” Amazing.
Elsewhere in the introduction Ochester includes the obligatory paragraphs about the popularity of poetry (not so hot), the number of different voices in America (lots), and the level of “difficulty” required for a great poem (zero). He also touches on a couple of other ideas which thread through the anthology, the least compelling being a theory that “[m]any shorter poems, which is to say most poems, have a two-part structure.” Here he describes a binary construction as lending a sense of completeness, citing the setup and punchline of a joke as one example. More interesting is the value Ochester places on humor, which comes to delightful, refreshing fruition a number of times as one progresses through the book’s assembly of poets.
Appearing alphabetically (save Muriel Rukeyser, who gets a specially-introduced section tacked on at the end), APN features work from poets published under the watch of Paul Zimmer (who was the first Pitt Poetry Series editor) and Ochester himself (who took over as editor in 1979). To complicate matters slightly, not quite everyone who has published with Pitt is represented. Excluded are the winners of the Starrett first book prize, the Donald Hall Prize, and the Cave Canem Prize—that is, “unless the authors had published at least one other book.” There are a number of absences which seem to go unexplained by this rule, however—perhaps most notably that of National Book Award finalist Carol Muske–Dukes, whose three books with the University of Pittsburgh Press go un-excerpted.
Those who do make it behind the velvet rope get around six to eight pages each, prefaced by a bio and author photo. The collection of poets is remarkable in its diversity across gender and ethnicity—while their work may come filtered through the editing of an ivy-educated white male, the poets themselves are generally apart from this limited sphere. Some contemporary staples do appear, in the form of poets like the hugely popular former laureates Billy Collins and Ted Kooser. Also present are well-established poets like Sharon Olds, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Denise Duhamel, Robin Becker, and Virgil Suárez. A couple of recent newsmakers are also included, such as Daisy Fried and David Wojahn, 2007 National Book Critics Circle and Pulitzer Prize runners-up, respectively. The crew is rounded out by a ragtag group of poets who enjoy cult followings, poets who have spent ages on the periphery of real recognition, and poets who are, I think, just generally not well known, including what feels like a fairly significant number from the Pittsburgh area.
It’s disappointing, then, when the members of this diverse crowd all seem to keep ending up in the same place. A large part of this phenomenon may be due to Ochester’s accomplished editing, which manages to carve a striking arc across the anthology. There is definitely a vision at work here, which helps the collection become a cohesive book, but which also keeps the moments of surprise to a minimum. In APN there is an overwhelming prevalence of contemplative storytelling, moments of everyday narrative lineated and elevated towards some epiphany. There seems to be a kind of default poem that is scattered liberally throughout the collection, which quickly begins to feel like filler. These meditative poems become repetitive, if not for their subject matter then for their mood. From their first lines on, it seems like same note is hit, over and over:
The moments pass,
Moment by moment,
Like they’re on the fast track to somewhere…
“Moment” by C.G. Hanzlicek
When summer ended
the leaves of snapdragons withered
taking their shrill-colored mouths with them.
They were still, so quiet…
“Emplumada” by Lorna Dee Cervantes
How far away is your happiness?
How many inches?
How many yards?
“Happiness” by Malena Mörling
I’ve betrayed them all:
comlumbine and daisy,
even the rain barrel
that spoke to me in a dream.
“Perennials” by Kathleen Norris
The openings of these poems aren’t really objectionable in and of themselves, but there’s not much to get behind here, either. I can’t help glazing over slightly upon the recurring contemplation of flowers and happiness, their relation, the implications about our fleeting world, etcetera. What I find lacking here is a little excitement, and it can take a pretty significant amount of skipping around APN to get there.
Nevertheless, there is a handful of surprises to be found. Russell Edson contributes some of his little prose poems, which offer a much-needed reprieve from the neat, regimented stacks of lines that make up almost all of the book. (Elsewhere in the collection, Quan Barry adds extra spaces between some words, which in this context feels like a revelation.) Lynn Emanuel is a bright spot, who in one of the poems appearing here writes, “someone must save us from the literalists and realists, and narratives of beginning and end, someone must be a river who can type.” Imagination is allowed refreshing latitude, as in her “Homage to Sharon Stone”:
Or you could think of the black car as
Lynn Emanuel, because, really, as an author,
I have always wanted to be a car, even
though most of the time I have to be
the “I,” or the woman hanging wash;
I am a woman, one minute, then I am a man,
I am a carnival of Lynn Emanuels:
Lynn in the red dress; Lynn sulking
behind the big nose of my erection;
Another interesting moment comes from Bob Hicok. His poem “Twins” is wonderfully odd and unnerving, concluding:
She says I hung up the phone an hour ago and she says
I hung up the phone last year and still we go on talking
she says and she says we go on talking even while I am dead
and even while I am coming back to life.
She is two places at once and she is two places at once
which is four places at once.
She has to go back to sleep now and she has to go back to sleep now.
She says are you asleep now and she says yes and are you asleep now
and she says yes and they go on talking about being asleep now.
She has a dream and she has the same dream and in the dream
she is dreaming what she dreams and she is dreaming what she dreams.
Then it rains.
Larry Levis, we are warned by the book’s introduction, is a writer of difficult poems. His stunning “The Smell of the Sea” is APN’s most devastating work. Weaving in and out of fable, childhood memory, and the robbery of a Utah record store, the poem rumbles towards its conclusion:
This is usually the moment when the Fool is hanged & the poet disappears because
He doesn’t know what happens next & a hunger with a mouth as small as the eye
Of a sewing needle overruns & darkens the flaxen grasses & the willows & the staring
Eyes of ponds, & you know there wasn’t any king. There was only a man who owned
A record store & who believed two murderers would be kind, & keep their promises,
And waited for it to happen, lying there on his side, waiting until they were ready to drive
The unbelieving pencil through his ear.
More bright spots appear in this anthology, many stemming from the high value of humor that Ochester mentions in his introduction. The idea that a good poem does not have to be wrought with seriousness allows for some entertaining moments—Daisy Fried, Christopher Bursk, Denise Duhamel, and Edward Field are all pretty consistently funny. Other poets chime in, as in Dorothy Barresi’s “Sock Hop with the New Critics”:
Crinolines, saddle shoes, blow jobs, Pat Boone.
The bone scripture of words
in a sweating, decorated gymnasium.
Myth builders, punch spikers
dance with themselves
in pairs, “It’s a goddamn ghost farm in here,”
Tate churls, missing Pia Verba,
his cupcake who’s home,
washing her hair.
Unfortunately, these moments of humor and surprise are still the odd ducks. The vast majority of the work in APN conforms to a marked style and set of themes, the most prevalent being the struggle of relating to family. A vastly disproportionate number of the poems collected here deal with parents and children coming to terms with seminal family moments. Perhaps the theme is a natural outgrowth of a preference for poems of personal narrative and epiphany, or perhaps it is the content that precedes the form. Either way, it is in the realization of this theme that Ochester is most successful as editor. A typical example of the kind of poems that constitute much of APN comes from Cathy Song. “The Day Has Come When My Mother,” in its entirety, reads:
The day has come when my mother
no longer knows me.
It comes on a day of dying
like words torn from a typewriter.
Weightless, they scatter, generous
as sighs, across the table, the patio,
where the attendant wheels her,
leaning into the dead
weight of her,
through so many
blossoms it actually
looks like snow.
Elsewhere in the anthology we find poems like Lynn Emanuel’s “Halfway Through the Book I’m Writing,” which opens: “My father dies and is buried in his Brooks Brothers suit.” Robin Becker writes in her poem “Adult Child”: “Now that my parents are old, they love me fiercely, / and I am grateful that the long detente of my childhood / has ended; we stroll through the retirement community.” Peter Everwine contributes “In the Last Days,” which opens,
In the last days of my father’s illness
he lived on, separate from us, in a tiny room
with a window in it, where we could look in and watch
him laboring at his heavy sleep.
Often these poems of family tend toward the confessional, as in much of Sharon Olds’s work collected here. Other examples include Gray Jacobik’s “The Shabby Truth,” which begins,
The Chowder House on Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey:
across the table, my grown son. I have just told him about
the second time I was raped, at twenty-eight, how it ended
my working in a massage parlor because I couldn’t overcome
my fear of men after that…
“Heart Fire” by Maggie Anderson strikes a similar opening note: “Three months since your young son shot himself / and, of course, no one knows why. It was October.” Another poem of this ilk is “When My Father Was Beating Me” by Toi Derricotte, worth noting if only because it is one of the only prose poems in the anthology. Other poems on family include the redundant “What I Learned from My Mother” by Julia Kasdorf (which could have been disastrous but actually ends up as a quirky, touching list-poem) and “What my mother taught me” by Shara McCallum (which is less successful).
This notion of family is coaxed to a fortuitous conclusion by Dean Young, who brings up APN’s alphabetical rear. His last poem is the curious and extraordinary “Lives of Robots,” which closes,
of the swallowed poisons do you try
to bring back up, which best left
to pass through? There’s the truth-sounding
lie and the lie that makes no sound,
dropped to depths unilluminable.
My father lied to me about the reward.
My mother lied to me for my own good.
At least turn me over so I can see the sky.
Coming from perhaps the least expected place—one of the most offbeat poets in the anthology—it is nonetheless an ending that is particularly apt.
Or, rather, it would have been a particularly apt ending, but unfortunately an ending it’s not. APN has a couple of final shudders in it yet—the first being a short introductory essay and nine-page excerpt from Muriel Rukeyser’s Collected Poems (released in 2004 by University of Pittsburgh Press—run, don’t walk, to your local bookseller). It’s definitely possible to make a case that Rukeyser’s work deserves special consideration, but the placement after the book’s real emotional conclusion, the fact that the section is not appreciably longer than the space devoted to the other poets here, and the uninspired selection of her work all add up to make the Rukeyser section feel like an afterthought tacked on for the sake of publicity.
Following Rukeyser is another embarrassing section, the fourteen-page “Suggestions for Further Reading.” The conspiracy-minded could devote much discussion and analysis to Ochester’s checklist, which is, unsurprisingly, not adventurous. Even more interesting are the distinctions he makes between “Essential” books and those that are merely “Recommended.” Frank O’Hara, for instance, is “Essential,” the only poet included from his New York School compadres, which goes a long way towards explaining many of the values revealed over the course of the anthology. Cummings makes the sanctum sanctorum while Stein does not; Plath: in, Berryman: out; and so on. It’s all a little over the top: too much posturing, too strong a play at authority, too far a reach.
Which, in the end, is the problem with this anthology. As a retrospective of the Pitt Poetry Series, it’s a decent piece of work, occasionally surprising, often so-so, but on the whole well put together. As the definitive anthology of what’s going on in poetry at the moment, however, it’s disheartening. A plausible alternative for someone with genuine interest in American poetry now is Sarabande’s impassioned, if imperfect, Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century. For a look at relatively recent work that continues to influence and shape the direction of contemporary poetry, there’s always the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry. Scribner’s annual Best American Poetry does a better job of rounding up work from active poets—the point being that one need not, and should not, be satisfied only with what’s on offer in American Poetry Now. To return to Ochester’s introduction, he writes: “Some readers avoid poetry in general because they want to read only the ‘great poems.’ To my mind, that’s akin in its intelligence to such thoughts as: ‘I only eat great meals,’ ‘I only play great games of tennis,’ ‘I only go to great movies,’ and ‘I only have great sex.’” The logic of his argument is dangerously flawed: Ochester ignores that a desire for greatness can, and often does, coexist with the reality of having to slough through the mediocre. If you asked them, I don’t think many people would not want to eat great meals, watch great movies, and have great sex. The fact that a large number of people end up doing something roughly equivalent to sitting alone on the couch, eating McDonald’s while watching Soul Plane on the CW does not mean that we should be happy with settling. There are definitely “great poems” out there in America. That Ochester has found only a few is not surprising—indeed, many editors never find any. But to encourage a culture that is satisfied with settling is just depressing.