Flowers of Evil

William Logan reads all of David Lehman’s forewords to The Best American Poetry


ANTHOLOGIES—WEREN'T they Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal?  More than a quarter-century ago, in the wilderness between Ludlowville and Ithaca, David Lehman had a vision. He would go forth and assemble an annual anthology of the best American poetry.  Lehman is an enthusiast, the hail-sonnet-well-met type that poetry cannot do without. He soon had a working formula for what has become an institution. A different poet is chosen as editor each year, tasked with choosing some seventy-five poems from all those published. On New Year’s Day, the pair sets about reading the year’s magazine verse as it appears. They trade favorites back and forth, the final decision always lying with the editor of the moment, and somehow by New Year’s Eve the next December the volume is complete.

This is much harder than it sounds. The New Yorker publishes a hundred or so poems a year, Poetry three times as many;  but add dozens of quarterlies, scores of fly-by-night little magazines, then perhaps a hundred websites (for the Internet, too, was soon considered), and many editors must have felt they’d made a bargain with the devil—and the devil was David Lehman. Only a masochist would read thirty or forty thousand poems in a year—a few of them wonderful, perhaps, but vast legions published though unpublishable and read though unreadable. It’s a tribute to the American character that no editor has thrown up his hands come mid-July and walked away from the whole mess.

[M]any editors must have felt they’d made a bargain with the devil—and the devil was David Lehman.

The State of the Art: A Chronicle of American Poetry, 1988-2014 is a collection of Lehman’s annual forewords, which unfortunately soon succumbed to their own formula: a potted summary of current events; a proud declaration of the range of magazines represented; a list of the poems’ odder forms and even odder subjects;  praise for the guest editor (the word “distinguished” was used all too frequently);  and, as the years went on, an increasingly desperate attempt to find signs that poetry was still part of American culture. 

Dona Nieto, a California performance artist who calls herself La Tigresa, bared her breasts and declaimed “goddess-based, nude Buddhist poetry” at timber sites north of San Francisco to protest the logging of ancient redwoods.  Anonymous cyber-scribes adapted familiar lines by Longfellow, Poe, Whitman, Ogden Nash, Joyce Kilmer, Alfred Noyes, and Clement Moore to satirize the post-election stalemate in Florida.  Salman Rushdie in the Guardian versified the electoral results in the manner of Dr. Seuss. 

And so on, in the case of 2001, through traces of poetry during a quiz show, two television dramas, and a movie, followed by news clippings about an investment banker, Shaquille O’Neal, and the financial advisor to Leonardo DiCaprio (whose name is misspelled). These non-event events, which make poetry sound more marginal than ever, were dull enough to read about at the time—now they’re just tedium fossilized.  A few years later the editor was compelled to report that Jennifer Lopez had written a poem, and that he’d been asked to analyze it for a gossip magazine. This is news that doesn’t stay news.

It’s an awful thing to say, since the volumes themselves are so inoffensive, full of poems that even when they bore reading don’t bear re-reading, that the worst thing about The Best American Poetry is the forewords. Lehman’s taste for public-relations prose makes the poor reader lightheaded:

We may take solace in the way the art has been flourishing, against the odds, and in defiance of the gloom-sayers.  We may rejoice in the abundance of our common poetic heritage and try to add our own indelible contributions. (1994)

Modern American poetry is a cultural glory on the level of jazz and abstract expressionism.  It is constantly renewing and refreshing itself, and so the spirit of discovery will always play as great a part in the making of this anthology as the pleasures of abundance. (1995)

I had the vision of an annual anthology that would chronicle the taste of our leading poets and would reflect the vigor and variety of an art that refuses to go quietly into that good night to which one or another commentator is forever consigning it. (1998)

It is tempting to conclude that poetry remains the touchstone art, a supreme signifier, emblematic of soulful artistry, the adventurous imagination, and the creative spirit. (2002)

The endless puffery is exhausting—Lehman might be auditioning for a job as a presidential speechwriter, or just CEO of Blurbwriter Academy: “poetry of high quality is appearing in a dizzying range of publications,” “in recent movies poetry is associated with liberation, truth-telling, and self-actualization,” “many of us turn instinctively to poetry not only for inspiration and consolation but also as a form of action and for a sense of community.” 

[T]he worst thing about The Best American Poetry is the forewords.

The Best American Poetry is harmless American hoopla in a country given to hoopla (that similar volumes now appear in Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand says little about the idea and a lot about the influence of American culture). At a time when there are fewer readers of poetry than ever, perhaps poets feel better when Lehman exclaims, in his Panglossian way, that poetry is getting better and better. We have an American poet laureate, a poetry month (April, of course), and poems on placards in subways and buses; yet most volumes of poetry, even those from major presses, sell fewer than five hundred copies.  

Though Lehman knows all this, somehow every year his discovery of scraps of poetry in movies or on television (usually by a poet long dead and sculpted in marble) leaves him convinced that soon poetry will be a major art again, and parents won’t wring their hands when their cross-eyed child announces that med school and law school are all very well, but it’s poetry, poetry, poetry that makes his heart beat faster. Does anyone believe that American poetry is better off now than half a century ago, when Lowell appeared on the cover of Time? An idiot journalist in 1999 apparently predicted that poetry would be the “next great nation-sweeping pop-cultural revolution.” Good luck, Nostradamus. 

Does anyone believe that American poetry is better off now than half a century ago, when Lowell appeared on the cover of Time?

It would be crazy to imagine that more than three or four of the two thousand poems published in the series will be found in poetry anthologies fifty years hence, and crazier to try to pick which ones. It would be easier to read the entrails of sheep. (In half a century of scanning magazines, I’ve only twice read a poem that seemed anointed—Bishop’s “One Art” and Larkin’s “Aubade.”) It’s fortunate that the Elizabethans and Jacobeans did not latch onto Lehman’s idea first (though they had anthologies, like Tottel’s Miscellany)—otherwise we’d think their taste ran toward time-serving hacks, now unknown noodles and noddies, with a few bright stars who somehow wandered in by mistake. Had such a volume been published in 1609, an editor might with more justice have dedicated the whole of the contents to Shakespeare’s sonnets rather than limiting the Bard to one or two. In any period, there are likely to be three or four poets writing exceedingly well, scores of well-meaning second-raters, and thousands who can’t write a line without torturing the innocent reader. The Best American volumes drown the brilliant in a sea of mediocrity. No wonder it sells.

In half a century of scanning magazines, I’ve only twice read a poem that seemed anointed...

Amid all the Pollyanna-ish gush about contemporary poetry, Lehman has his bêtes noires, among them critical theorists (the subject of his book Sign of the Times), people who hate workshops, and contemporary poetry critics. Oh, those wretched critics! There’s a “vacuum of genuine critical response,” an “absence of reliable, disinterested, intellectually strenuous criticism.” “Much contemporary criticism,” Lehman grumbles, “is singularly shrill, sometimes gratuitously belligerent, even spiteful”—indeed, “it is highly possible that the perennial crisis in poetry is really a crisis in the criticism of poetry.” That’s a very peculiar thing to say, since many readers are under the impression that, compared to movie and theater critics, poetry critics are far too softhearted. The critics of our day, according to this medicus medicorum, suffer from the “notion that the job of the critic is to find fault with the poetry.” No critic believes bitching and bellyaching are the sole purpose of criticism; but, without criticism, criticism is just a minor subsidiary of corporate relations. (Better the occasional disgruntled critic, however, than Lehman’s goofy delight at the “boost” in a poet’s “market value” after she read the inaugural ode for Bill Clinton.)

The Best American volumes drown the brilliant in a sea of mediocrity. No wonder it sells.

Lehman eventually unearths the Moriarity behind this crisis, a critic named William Logan, and spends three pages totting up his crimes. Much though I’m bewildered by Lehman’s judgment elsewhere, by all evidence this William Logan is a thorough ruffian who may singlehandedly be responsible for the decline and fall of American poetry. An anathema (and a fatwa, for good measure) should long ago have been pronounced against this assassin, as Lehman calls him.  Stop this villain, and American poetry will be hunky-dory.

Lehman is a cheerleader for American poetry, and I suppose that if American poetry needs a cheerleader he’s as good as any. I like the democracy of The Best American Poetry, the divergent tastes of the editors—it’s like a frozen cross-section of American verse. The poems are often superficial, alas, and there’s an unhappy tendency to favor the quirky and contrived; but contemporary taste is always the product of evanescent fashion, the sentimentalities of the day, and wild prejudices only time will temper. The generation of Lowell and Bishop, the strongest generation of American poets that followed the moderns, has now been reduced almost entirely to Lowell and Bishop, so far as major figures go—with stray poems by Berryman, Jarrell, Roethke, and almost no one else. The kindness and geniality of The Best American Poetry does nothing to fend off the savage taste of the future.

...Lehman says almost nothing of interest about American poetry, and little beyond platitudes that would embarrass a self-help guru. His insights are almost always of the cocktail-party kind.

In his annual foreword, Lehman has a perfect soapbox. It’s a pity that he wastes it on trivia and gossip. He’s so busy catching up with the year’s news feed and totting up the various forms and subjects that force his poets into poetry, Lehman says almost nothing of interest about American poetry, and little beyond platitudes that would embarrass a self-help guru. His insights are almost always of the cocktail-party kind. Still, in the past decade the forewords have gotten slightly better. Lehman is given now to meditations on the decline of reading, on “Dover Beach,” on the career of Billy Collins, or even on anthologies themselves. These are more compelling because more personal, entertaining if not deep. 

Even when I agree with his sentiments, Lehman’s prose is so clunky, thrown together from hackneyed allusions and used car parts, that I have to take a handful of aspirin after reading that Wallace Stevens “opined” something or other, a new movie is “slated for summer release,” a poet “burst onto the scene,” and the singer Jewel is a “sultry songstress.” (When “opine” and “slated” move in, all hope of sincerity moves out.) Sometimes the writing descends into lunatic absurdity, no sillier than when Lehman compares poetry to a team sport—“you play for a chance at post-season glory (the sportswriters call it ‘immortality’)”—or thunders that Maya Angelou has become a “symbol of unity in multicultural diversity,” whatever that means.

Lehman’s clichés are those of hacks everywhere, from the gobbledegook of “it was a truth universally acknowledged that the book trade now functioned within a vast literary-industrial complex whose corporate masters were ruled by an unforgiving bottom line” (poor Jane Austen!) to the silliness of “the nation’s hot romance with poetry shows no sign of cooling off.”   Worse, the occasionally deranged syntax leaves the reader bemused: “poems that take big, important concepts...and render them in compelling terms and true,” or, hilariously, the “spontaneous answer given by many was: How can there be not?”  

Not even a cynic would deny that good poetry is being written in this country; but, when a man tells you against all evidence that “poetry in the United States today does have a vital readership,” you wonder what he’s been drinking. The State of the Art would have been far better had it consisted of the introductions by the various editors, odd though those introductions and editors have sometimes been. With its small-town boosterism, its stultifying repetitions, and its excruciating prose (by Time magazine out of Variety), this anthology of forewords is the longest short book I’ve ever read. 

WILLIAM LOGAN'S latest book is Guilty Knowledge, Guilty Pleasure: The Dirty Art of Poetry (2014). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Poetry, The New Criterion, and other magazines.