Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Kevin Young and David Lehman, eds, _The Best American Poetry 2011_

I REALLY OUGHT to read these always worthwhile anthologies before the next one appears.

I do get to them, though, and I have a hypothesis to advance. It seems to me that the volumes in the series edited by male poets are much likelier to concentrate on poetry similar to that of the poet himself than are the volumes in the series edited by female poets.

In the 2011 volume, we have a great many poems that are largely in conversational language with occasional tweaks of rhetorical heightening or fancifulness, lots of poems that handle closed forms in ingenious, contemporary ways (owing to the serendipity of alphabetical order, we have two consecutive poems, by Rachel Wetzsteon and Richard Wilbur, that use a rhyming haiku stanza), lots of poems about family and personal history... in other words, lots of poems with a certain kinship to the work of Kevin Young.

I had a similar feeling about the Charles Wright (2008) and David Wagoner (2009) volumes, whereas the Heather McHugh (2007) and Amy Gerstler (2010) volumes were remarkable for their variety.  Even Lyn Hejinian (2004), who is closely identified with a particular tendency, came up with a volume of greater breadth than the male poets tend to (Paul Muldoon [2005] excepted).

It's not that the poetry Young selected is weak, or not worthwhile; there is a lot of great work in here. It's that one would finish the book with the feeling that the shoreline of American poetry is a much narrower strip of beach than it actually is.

Yes, I realize that the editor's task in these volumes to pick the poems s/he really feels are the best, rather than to try to come up with an array of work that could be called "representative." The series is not "The Most Representative American Poetry," after all.  Even I, fatally drawn to poetry anthologies based on suspect premises, would think twice before acquiring such a thing.  But I do wonder whether women poets--perhaps women writers generally, I don't know--are prompter in seeing the value in work quite unlike their own than men poets are.

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