RANKING THE POEMS IN THE 2015 BEST AMERICAN POETRY

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Before we rank the 75, we’d like to observe a few things.

The 2015 BAP guest editor Sherman Alexie, in his personal, Foetry-influenced, “Sherman Alexie Speaks Out,” overview of his BAP selection process on the BAP blog, in the wake of the Fi-Yen Chou controversy, made a boast:

Alexie, for the job as BAP Guest Editor, had read, he thinks, “1,000 poems” last year.

But that’s only 3 poems a day.  Many of the poems in the 2015 BAP are 20 lines or less. How long does it take to read three short poems? Ten minutes? Five minutes? How long does it take to reject a short poem? If the few first few lines do nothing for you? Ten seconds?

Alexie writes, “I think BAP 2015 contains a handful of incredible poems and dozens of good to great poems.” [italics ours]

The editor, himself, admits that approximately half of the poems in BAP 2015 are less than good.

We heartily agree with the editor, but leaving aside the worth of the poems in the 2015 BAP for the moment—with increased access to all the poems published today, one cannot find, within a year, 75 good poems?—leaving this depressing thought aside for the time being:—if half the poems which made it to BAP 2015, by editor Alexie’s own admission, were less than good, we must conclude that most of the 1,000 poems he read were quite bad.

And so, Sherman Alexie couldn’t have spent more than ten minutes a day in his role as guest editor of BAP, actually reading poems.

Alexie speaks of his role of Guest Editor for Lehman’s famous series as a great honor. Why, then, so little effort?

Alexie does say that “it could have been” that he read “3,000 poems.” But again, the vast majority had to be less than good, and if we triple the number of poems looked at, we are still talking a half hour per day, total, reading poems to find the best poems for BAP 2015. Most people read FB for that amount of time before getting out of bed.

If we look at the first poem in BAP 2015, we find a poem that is so bad, it almost causes us to weep. It is difficult to imagine someone reading this, and not only not rejecting it, but liking it, and then, over time, re-reading it, judging it, and finally selecting it as one of the best poems published in 2015.

“Bodhisattva” by Sarah Arvio begins with the couplet, “The new news is I love you my nudist/the new news is I love you my buddhist” and it continues with treacly half-rhymes and sound references to ‘ring around the rosy,’ a love poem of the vaguest sort, which was chosen, we guess, for being cute, or nice, or daring to cash in on “nude” sounding like “new” and “new” sounding like “news.”

In his foreword to BAP 2015, series editor David Lehman earnestly defends Dylan Thomas, quoting these lines for especial recommendation: “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,/Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.” And, getting into his Thomas-worship, Lehman also quotes, “Though wise men at their end know dark is right,/Because  their words had forked no lightning they/Do not go gentle into that good night.”

We have a theory: since rhyme went out of fashion 50 to 100 years ago in the West, poets have forgotten why it existed in the first place, and it’s not rocket science: add definition and emphasis to both the poem’s musical flow (meter) and unfolding prose meaning.

What the forgetful poets have done, since the free verse revolution, is carry sound-correspondence back into their work, but in all sorts of silly, clumsy, cute, irrelevant and show-off-y ways. It is as if the human face were forgotten (“Though wise men at their end know dark is right,/Because their words had forked no lightning they/Do not go gentle into that good night.”) and now we adorn the torso with an eye here, a nose there:

In the BAP “Contributors’ Notes and Comments,” Arvio, who turns out to have a rather distinguished resume, pedantically lays out the sound resemblances in the poem for us, as if no one would notice them, and is simply happy to have them merely sitting there in the poem for their own sake, as if she had done some magical thing by finding the word “body” in “buddhist.” This just indicates what sort of poetic era we are living in: one of playful mannerism, lacking all seriousness.

The serious poems are almost all written in prose; stately mini-fictions: the poem by Glück, for instance.

The criteria for the best poems felt like the following: 1. Tell us something from your life. 2. Be sincere.

If this is “quietism” (Poe by way of Silliman) so be it.

One cannot simply wish that non-lyric poems be good, and have it be true.

The other criterion is apparently: 1. Pop reference. 2. Funny.

Of this criterion we do not, as we chuckle, quite know what to say. See “Trades I Would Make.”

Rhyme used for a serious purpose is very difficult to do, and especially these days, when august rhyme is viewed with great suspicion (think T.S. Eliot’s opinion of Shelley, to get an idea). Jokes are wonderful—and so is prose. If these two were not able to pass for poetry (holding a number of shared qualities) we would have practically no poetry at all today.

Judging these 75, we found ourselves forced to use the following criteria:

Was it amusing? Did it try my patience? Length-wise? Formatting-wise? Obscure-wise? Did it make any sense? Did it touch me emotionally?

The critical faculty which discerns quality poetry was largely in abeyance.

All poems in the volume appear to value most a template of idiosyncrasy, with the best of them reflecting, more so than the lesser ones, a life either felt or understood, and the very best, a life felt and understood.

We ranked the amusing poems above the pretentiously obscure poems—and the few really good poems above the amusing ones. Some were so amusing, we ranked them quite high. Can you blame us? The nature of what is published today as “poetry” made this necessary.

We see immediately, with the first poem in the volume, why Alexie could not bring himself to say that all the poems he selected were, if not great, at least good.

We cannot blame Arvio, or anyone in particular, that we now live in a time in which it is natural to use sound-correspondence for its own sake—in a manner which is goofily fanciful. The contemporary unspoken rule is this: do not consistently rhyme in a way that lends weight and power to what you are saying. If you must strive towards some semblance of poetic sublimity, always do it with tortured prose—or do it inauspiciously. Don’t be too good.

As we wrote in our now famous essay, “Why Poetry Sucks Now,” our modern era is different from any other, not because it lacks good (mostly prose) poetry, but because it actively publishes and promotes bad poetry; the public has lost faith in the poetry publishing apparatus—and has simply given up.

Here, then, are the 75 BAP poems ranked, from worst (“Stein”) to best (“Morning”)—or, more accurately: unreadable to readable but obvious/boring, to readable and interesting:

If My Late Grandmother Were Gertrude Stein

Vernacular Owl

Exhibits from the Dark Museum

Dove

There Were Only Dandelions

Relevant Details

The Chickasaw Trees

A fourteen-line poem on sex

A Scatology

Makeshift

Prayer at 3 a.m.

Cedars of Lebanon

Thaw

Fornicating

The Main Event

from Citizen

There Are Birds Here

In the End, They Were Born on TV

On the Sadness of Wedding Dresses

Careful, I Just Won a Prize at the Fair

In Memory of My Parents Who Are Not Dead Yet

“DOCTORS LIE, MAY HIDE MISTAKES”

in the hall of the ruby-throated warbler

A Retrograde

Bodhisattva

Body & Kentucky Bourbon

Dear Black Barbie

City of Eternal Spring

Plutonium

Upon Hearing the News You Buried Our Dog

Candying Mint

legend

Watching the Sea Go

My Husband

In a Black Tank Top

Homeland

54 Prince

March of the Hanged Men

The Pickpocket Song

Slow-Wave Sleep with a Fairy Tale

How You Might Approach a Foal:

The Garden in August

Thumbs

Rhinencephalon

Is Spot in Heaven?

Party Games

Anxieties

Similitude at Versailles

Endnotes on Ciudad Juárez

Crisis on Infinite Earths, Issues 1-12

Survivor Guilt

See a Furious Waterfall Without Water

Antebellum House Party

for I will do/undo what was done/undone to me

House Is an Enigma

Swallowed

WFM: Allergic to Pine-Sol, Am I the Only One

Ode to the Common Housefly

Looney Tunes

Poem Begun on a Train

A Common Cold

Goodness in Mississippi

It Was the Animals

The Joins

Subject to Change

The Macarena

Eating Walnuts

The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve

Ajar

Trades I Would Make

For the Young Woman I Saw Hit by a Car While Riding Her Bike

Delicatessen

Memo to the Former Child Prodigy

A Sharply Worded Silence

So Early in the Morning

 

Congratulations to Charles Simic for winning, and Glück for finishing second; of course these are unofficial, snap judgments.

No poet under 40 contributed a great poem; is this because writing a wonderful poem today requires a certain amount of maturity? If so, this would indicate, in contemporary poetry’s favor, that the whole person is involved in producing the extraordinary poem—not merely technical skill, insight, passion. Yet one suspects this may not be true, and it is only reputation (academic/publishing) that, by this or that nuanced path, places the poet in a position to receive the highest praise.

 

 

 

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7 Comments

  1. noochinator said,

    September 20, 2015 at 9:45 pm

    Glad to see “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” made it into Brady’s top ten. Michael Derrick Hudson knew that by using a pseudonym he’d Yi-Fen Chou-ally get published!

  2. Andrew said,

    September 21, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    Tom, you’ve teased and tempted me with the titles.
    But I won’t shell out to actually READ any of these.
    I’ll have to wait till the DVD is available through RedBox at my local supermarket .

    Maybe I should just read the listed titles as a conceptual/linguistic postmodern pastiche-poem…

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 21, 2015 at 7:53 pm

      That’s the problem.

      About a third of them are very good—or have something to recommend them.

      Good things are out there.

      But the public has no faith that the poetry publishing industry has any idea what is good and what is trash, so they are not buying.

      We need honest criticism to save the art.

      • Andrew said,

        September 21, 2015 at 10:43 pm

        Amen. Amen.
        That’s why I get my news from Scarriet.

        “Without vision the people perish”.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    September 21, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    I might need to do a Part II on this and discuss the poems briefly…if you own the book, you can quickly check and see if you agree with Scarriet…

  4. mpvmuthu said,

    September 22, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    Great. This is a critical evaluation. Deserves liberal appreciation!

  5. thomasbrady said,

    September 22, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    Of course this list would be far more interesting if we saw some by others—to see how close, or wildly apart, we were to each other. And then real debating could begin!


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