Collins: The 2010 Scarriet Tourney Champ and still in the hunt in 2012
Two years ago Billy Collins won it all: the Scarriet/BAP March Madness Tourney, and last year Scarriet/APR crowned Philip Larkin—only because one of Larkin’s best poems happened to be published in APR.
This year, the recent Penguin Anthology of 20th century American poetry, edited by Rita Dove, was the book used by Scarriet, but we confined the tourney to living authors and we did draw from a few poets not included in the anthology, because we figured: look, it’s missing Plath and Ginsberg, so we allowed ourselves that license.
The best poems in the Dove come from dead poets—in fact, when it comes to good poems, or famous poems, the latter half of the book is falling off a cliff: where are those “best-loved poems?” The last 50 years haven’t produced any. They don’t exist anymore. It isn’t that good poems are no longer being written; it’s that we lack an apparatus to compile and display poems that stick in the public consciousness. What’s missing is salesmanship that relentlessly pushes The Famous Poem. The Big Poem lifts all boats, but the sea itself is dry. The boats have been cut up for firewood and set aflame, that individual poets might warm their hands.
Part of the problem is that editors no longer know what The Famous Poem is.
The novelists are writing the famous poetry—yes, poetry is still earning its keep—in novels.
And if the poets accuse the novelist by saying, That’s not poetry! who is going to take the poets seriously? The poets who have been saying poetry isn’t poetry anymore for at least 50 years?
So the irony. Poetry still sells: but in Booker Prize-type novels. Of course this is embarrassing to the poetry anthologists and to poetry in general.
Here’s what happened: it was laid out by Harold Bloom in the New York Review 25 years ago—if you are a poet, you must choose either Emerson or Poe as a model, (Bloom said it explicitly, just like that) and (according to Bloom, with the weight of the New York Review’s taste behind him) you better not choose Poe. Emerson’s children are Whitman and Williams, Poe’s, European prose masters and poets who write the pure fire of meter and rhyme, like Richard Wilbur or Seamus Heaney. But of course rhyme is not something one simply chooses to do—one must do it very well to have an impact. To even slightly fail at rhyme is to crash and burn. Line-breaks in prose never prove disastrous—it always works, in its way. One cannot demand poets perform a formalist high-wire act; and if they don’t want to do it, why make them get up there? Most poets are happier performing line-breaks on the ground. You can’t make someone risk their life for their art. You can’t tell someone who lives in a valley to climb a mountain.
The bigger problem, however, is that the whole idea of The Famous Poem has been abandoned. Here’s a universally admired poem has been replaced by You might like this one.
What’s important about the Universally Admired Poem is that it, more than anything else, defines poetry for us all. Defining it on a blackboard (or writing on a blackboard, ‘A poem can be anything’ or ‘A poem ought to have a political agenda’) is all well and good—but it really is the poetry, or the poem, that shows us what poetry can do, what poetry is. What else can tell us, but the poem that is universally admired?
“Universally admired” might stick in some people’s craw—but what does that say about their craw? How can “universally admired” be anything but good? Yet there will be those—you know who you are—who will object to that phrase, and who will fear its implications.
In Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project Anthology, published in 2000 and titled America’s Favorite Poems, with American poets and poets from other countries, Poe, Shelley, and Billy Collins are excluded. (Rita Dove, who published Pinsky in her anthology, was included in Pinsky’s book). These are quibbles, perhaps, but excluding those three poets seems a bit…crazy.
But back to Collins versus Mazer. Perhaps we don’t live in a ‘Poetry Anthology Age’ and there’s no hope of producing popular poets anymore. It seemed for awhile that Billy Collins was poised to become another Robert Frost in terms of notoriety, but the Robert Pinskys of the world perhaps don’t want it to be so.
We know this: Mazer will need to be at his best to advance past Collins!
Mazer has already upset Ashbery—and Heaney! Can he do it again?