The best of the best American poetry
“The Best of the Best American Poetry” collects 25 years of the best poetry published in this country, including poems by Sherman Alexie and the University of Washington’s Heather McHugh.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘The Best of the Best American Poetry: 25th Anniversary Edition’
edited by David Lehman and Robert Pinsky
Scribner, 322 pp., $18
Robert Pinsky, U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000 and the editor of the double-superlative “Best of the Best American Poetry,” acknowledges that choosing a hundred poems from the couple of thousand that have filled the 24 volumes leading to this one is bound to be doubly intimidating. After all, “posterity chooses” — for all our theories or visceral reactions, future readers will decide by their spontaneous preferences what lasts. And posterity judges the bone-headed anthologist who guessed wrong.
Pinsky, though, guesses pretty well, at least as judged in the short term. His criteria, he says, are “ear and imagination. ... the art of the individual human voice.” That would seem to leave things wide open, but the results are hard to argue with: poems by Sherman Alexie, Billy Collins, Kay Ryan, Adrienne Rich, Richard Wilbur, a Who’s Who of 21st-century American literature — a little heavy on free verse, perhaps, but then so is contemporary poetry.
“Garbage,” a long poem by A.R. Ammons, will remain as fresh as its subject matter won’t. Ammons writes, “garbage has to be the poem of our time because / garbage is spiritual,” and if you doubt it, he heaps image on image to convince you: “the garbage trucks crawl as if in obeisance, / as if up ziggurats toward the high places gulls / and garbage keep alive, offerings to the gods of garbage, of retribution ...” Retribution? The word delves into the heaped associations of language itself, and we realize that it means at root a giving back. And more, because connotations accumulate as surely as those “ziggurats” of refuse climb skyward.
Robert Wrigley’s “Religion” also delves profundities below the quotidian. In ordinary language he begins, “The last thing the old dog brought home / from her pilgrimages through the woods / was a man’s dress shoe, a black, still-shiny wing tip.” The title has already alerted us, though, to the little sparks that will become an intense light: “pilgrimages”? And what about that sly “wing tip”? The poem traces the way the “rescued / or stolen odd shoe” becomes the dog’s totem as she moves toward death. Without insisting, Wrigley offers us a totem of our own.
In “Past All Understanding” Heather McHugh, who teaches at the University of Washington, offers another dog poem that is far more than that. At Gas Works Park her dog bursts into a “pure fur paroxysm” at the sight of a woman playing with her child and of a “host of red and yellow kites.” Leave it to a dog, “holding his ground with four feet braced against an over-turning earth ...” , to express the wonder and alarm that we have been bred to repress for the sake of civilization.
These poems and dozens more in “The Best of the Best American Poetry” take us beneath the veneer that hides the clashing and meshing of matter and spirit.