Question: How is reading a contemporary poem like banging your head against a wall?
Answer: You feel better when it’s over.
Actually, that’s not being fair to the wall, because the poem is more likely to result in permanent damage.
The feeling of banging my head against a wall, and not breaking through, is something I experienced throughout the annual anthology Best American Poetry 2010. This year’s guest editor, Amy Gerstler, pulled together a group of 75 poems that seem to me to embody what Tony Hoagland recently described as the poetry of vertigo (see Poetry September 2010)—verse that tries hard to make you dizzy.
But that’s not quite right either. Vertigo demands perspective. You find yourself at a great height, and the act of looking down, viewing the wide world, instills an overwhelming sense of unease. You become unstable, unsure of your footing. You think the world will come smashing up to meet you, and often it does.
No, this is a poetry of WTF. The poetry of being dumped in a forest without any breadcrumbs to follow, no perspective to tell you which way is up or down. The person who dumped you in the forest couldn’t rouse enough empathy to care that you’d never make it out alive. What I find here are many poems that have taken Archibald McLeish’s dictum, “a poem should not mean, but be” too far. It’s not that they defy explication or understanding. They defy engagement. They set themselves up as their own barriers as if daring the reader to get interested enough to give a damn.
Devotees of BAP (I have maybe eight of them) will know that it’s an inconsistent series almost by design. It does not represent the best poems of the year. What it does is (I hope at least) represent that year’s guest editor’s favorite poems from books and lit journals (online and off). Gerstler basically admits as much in her introduction when she writes “I could no more escape my own proclivities, preferences, and tastes when editing this book than I can when writing my own poems.” I respect her honesty in that regard.
This edition is heavily peppered by what passes as contemporary surrealism, non sequitur and postmodern gimmick. There are about ten prose poems, something I think is flarf, a whole lot of random associative poems and at least one that reads like a compilation of Facebook status updates. How a Billy Collins’ poem fits into this I can’t figure, but maybe the series editor, David Lehman had to remind Gerstler that Collins sells.
And there are even a few poems that left me gaping—in a good shock-and-awe way. Both Tom Clark’s “Fidelity” and Amy Glynn Greacen’s “Namaskar” are so stunning as to make me not regret the $16 I spent on it. “Namaskar” was particularly surprising—love it.
Finally, as much as I’m clearly not a fan of the selections in Best American Poetry 2010, I’m glad the book exists. Each year BAP is (along with the Pushcart annual) one of the best ways to take a crash course in major (?) trends in contemporary poetry. I may not like all those trends. I may think that too many writers get too much attention for too insignificant work, but at least it gives me something to think about. At least a publisher has put out the money to back a major poetry project like this. At least there are hundreds of poetry outlets, thousands of poets and readers (mostly the same people) and a strange little thing called po-biz that takes it all semi-seriously.
Also, and this is a good thing, The Best American Poetry 2010 is completely different from the Best American Poetry 2009. I don’t mean simply that there are different poems, but there’s a completely different aesthetic at work. This series allows the guest editor to say to the poetry world, “hey, this is what I think is important.” And as much as I may disagree with what Amy Gerstler thinks is important, I believe it’s very cool that she gets the opportunity to say it so loudly, and I’m glad I get the chance to pay attention. For a collection like this, it’s more important for the potential buyer to be familiar with the editor’s sensibilities than it is to be familiar with the included authors.