Robert Lowell ruled mid-20th century poetry. Privileged, no fiction, crazy, avoided rhyme. Perfect.

What’s poetry? Names of race horses.

The necessarily accidental is important to poetry, just as it is for any pleasurable human activity.

J.V. Cunningham (1911-1985) is given 3 pages in J.D. McClatchy’s 560 page The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry (McClatchy was a long time professor at Yale and editor of the Yale Review).

Cunningham, the rhyming, court jester, poet among the prose poetry royalty of this post-High-Modernism 20th century-defining anthology, is represented by 2 poems and some epigrams.

Here’s Cunningham’s first stanza from “For My Contemporaries” (reprinted in the volume); the quatrain serves as an ironic epitaph for the book and its 65 poets:

How time reverses
The proud in heart!
I now makes verses
Who aimed at art.

The irony is that “verses” are not “art” since the Pound/Eliot/Williams revolution a hundred years ago. Cunningham, the oddball rhymer, has failed to make “art,” and now merely makes “verses.”

When McClatchy’s anthology came out in 1990—during the glorious beginnings of MFA America, this was surely how these verses were read: Poor Mr. Cunningham, versifier, admits he failed at “art.”

Today, we can read these lines as a sly prophecy: time punishes the “proud” who “aimed at art,” (“art” according to MFA tastes) the “proud,” in the end, forced to admit poetry is “verses.”

There is some verse in this anthology—Roethke, for instance.

McClatchy’s high-minded and reconciling introduction begins:

“There is no need for any anthology to choose sides. No critic has to deploy our poets into opposing battle lines with names like Paleface and Redskin, or Academic and Avant-Garde.”

Hold on a second. The avant-garde is academic. “Paleface and Redskin” one ought to recognize as poetry criticism terms, such as “raw” and “cooked” or “ancient” and “modern.”

American poetry criticism has been timid since 1900—pushing real critics like Edgar Poe and William Logan aside as too fearsome or mean (honest talk apparently promotes those dangerous “battle lines).

Not only timid, but naive, for McClatchy’s battle talk assumes academia isn’t everywhere since Modernism’s climb to prominence in the early 20th century.

McClatchy goes on:

“Best just to duck: the field echoes with sniper fire from the poets themselves. Whitman complained he couldn’t stomach Poe’s “lurid dreams.” Dickinson wouldn’t read Whitman at all: she had been told he was “disgraceful.” William Carlos Williams railed at T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land for having wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it.”

McClatchy assumes that Whitman dissing Poe is an issue for people outside of academia—it’s not. The man on the street today, if they look at poetry at all, is not saying to themselves, “Oh God, Whitman doesn’t like Poe!” It’s a purely academic concern. McClatchy’s second example is pertinent outside of academia—the morality of poetry—but notice this example is from the 19th century. In the third example we are back in the 20th century: it’s only an issue to a few inside academia that WC Williams felt “The Waste Land” was an “atom bomb.”

Richard Hugo (1923-1982), with 5 pages in the anthology beginning on page 194, wrote gritty, authentic poems about Montana working-class towns—when he was a professor. (University of Montana.) “Degrees of Gray In Philipsburg” begins:

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The poem goes on for three more stanzas like this—it would make a great beginning to a hard-boiled detective novel, but as a poem, what’s the only thing we get?

“You” are having a really lousy time in Philipsburg, Montana.

We see in the short Vintage bio of Hugo: “Hugo was born and educated in Seattle. He studied there with Theodore Roethke, the strongest influence on his early work.” (Both were troubled men who didn’t live to be 60.)

Roethke was born in 1908, almost too old to be in this anthology, but perhaps McClatchy, in his ecumenical spirit needed to include “The Waking” with “Skunk Hour,” “One Art” and “Daddy,” some decent rhyming poems, among all the 20th century prose poems.

Or maybe the issue isn’t rhyme at all—Roethke taught Hugo; this is what’s important; respectful, institutional continuity.

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, who open the anthology, privileged, and privileged to receive 20 pages apiece (most poets get about 5) were both teachers. Bishop taught at Harvard; Lowell was the first “name” poet to teach at Iowa and jump-start the Creative Writing Program era.

Creative Writing programs typically consist of two branches: Fiction and Poetry.

This leads to an interesting observation about contemporary American poetry.

Let’s forget about rhyme and form. It became increasingly irrelevant as the 20th century progressed. Writing students choose fiction or poetry. So what characterizes this “poetry” that no longer looks like poetry?

It makes sense that what’s most important for American poetry is that it be unlike fiction, or at least unlike what fiction often aspires to become—a film. Otherwise the MFA in poetry might just disappear—why couldn’t “poetry” students just get an MFA in writing?

Why get a poetry MFA? To learn the craft of rhyme and meter? Is that what Jorie Graham learned and subsequently taught? No.

What, then, describes the kind of poetry that we see in 1990’s The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry?

Is this why poetry has become so unpopular? Why poetry these days has no clout? Look what it had to do and what it has to do (we are still in the MFA era): don’t be fiction and don’t be poetry—as it existed for centuries prior to the 20th.

I already mentioned Hugo (whose work in the anthology seems nothing like Roethke’s) and his poetry which reads like the first page of a hard-boiled detective novel set in Montana.

Is critically acclaimed poetry today nothing more than a kind of mentally defective fiction? Fiction, but fiction unable to be carried to completion?

The ballad is a poem that tells a story; but there are no ballads in McClathchy’s anthology of five hundred plus pages.

One does not get an MFA in poetry to learn to write ballads.

It seems the MFA in poetry is determined to keep “story” away, since students might be inclined to get a fiction MFA, instead.

Is there a kind of unspoken rule about poetry as comatose fiction? Fiction which deliberately fails as fiction? Richard Hugo can write a damn good introductory paragraph or two for a Montana mystery novel—therefore he’s a poet.

Richard Hugo’s poetry is depressing.

The introductory (or back-drop) rhetoric of hard-boiled detective fiction is commonly stark and moody.

Edgar Poe, creator of the template, begins one of his famous detective tales: “At Paris, just after dark one gusty evening in the autumn of 18__”

The master sets the mood with just a few words.

20th century poets generally did the same—but using far more words; perhaps because they had to write about something, but no actual tale was forthcoming?

Very few Americans are going to sit and watch a movie without a love story. Movies and novels need a love plot. Your fiction MFA student knows this.

Was MFA poetry, which began to dominate letters starting in the middle of the 20th century, concerned with love?

McClatchy’s anthology contains only a few pages of what could be called love poetry. There are but two love poems of the “I love you” variety—only two, in its 537 pages: “Having a Coke with You” by Frank O’Hara and “To Dorothy” by Marvin Bell, the latter of which may be the worst love poem ever, as it begins:

You are not beautiful, exactly.
You are beautiful, inexactly.

Robert Lowell sets the tone. In his 20 pages of poetry there’s one reference to romance: “too boiled and shy/and poker-faced to make a pass.” It isn’t until page 47 of the anthology that we get “I Knew a Woman” by Roethke, which seems more about sex than love, but in this anthology we certainly can’t be picky.

Audrey Lorde’s “Movement Song” (p. 414) opens with

I have studied the tight curls on the back of your neck
moving away from me
beyond anger or failure
your face in the evening schools of longing
through mornings of wish and ripen
we were always saying goodbye
in the blood in the bone over coffee
before dashing for elevators going
in opposite directions
without goodbyes.

“Over coffee before dashing…? This is OK but still rather reticent and indirect. Not the mad Romanticism of Diane Seuss (whose collection just won the Pulitzer).

There’s this from “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass (p. 470) but can this even remotely be called love?:

There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river…
…It hardly had to do with her.

Yes, a poet can certainly stand above a man and a woman and make remarks about how they will never be one, as Hass does in “Misery and Splendor” (p. 472) but what is this really saying except ‘too bad, you guys?’ This might end a novel nicely; the poem hasn’t earned this ending, though; that’s sort of the problem:

They feel themselves at the center of a powerful
and baffled will. They feel
they are an almost animal,
washed up on the shore of a world—
or huddled against the gate of a garden—
to which they can’t admit they can never be admitted.

It’s a brutal scene—though it feels like a poetry invested in abstraction somewhat against its will.

The height of love in the volume is reached by Marilyn Hacker’s

If we talk, we’re too tired to make love, if we
make love, these days, there’s hardly time to talk.

Or this, from Hacker, with roaring rhetoric, a few pages later:

Tomorrow night the harvest moon will wane
that’s floodlighting the silhouetted wood.
Make your own footnotes; it will do you good.
Emeritae have nothing to explain.
She wasn’t very old, or really plain—
my age exactly, volumes incomplete.
“The life, the life, will it never be sweet?”
She wrote it once; I quote it once again
midlife at midnight when the moon is full
and I can almost hear the warning bell
offshore, sounding through starlight like a stain
on waves that heaved over what she began
and truncated a woman’s chronicle,
and plain old Margaret Fuller died as well.

Or we could possibly consider these from the anthology, love: “Daddy” by Plath or Sexton’s “I have gone out, a possessed witch…” or Louise Glück’s

It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.

I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
the man’s mouth
sealing my mouth, the man’s
paralyzing body—

Not really.

C.K. Williams has a poem on suburban pals lured by a pimp for cheap, quick sex in NYC; the poem lurid, passive, reactive, helpless.

The overriding tone of the Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry is learned, luxurious, meditation tied up by sadness. Here is Richard Howard, one of those masters born between 1925 and 1929:

Rezzonico…Disraeli…We realize our task.
It is to print earth so deep in memory
that a meaning reaches the surface. Nothing but
darkness abides, darkness demanding not
illumination—not from the likes of us—
but only that we yield. And we yield.

The poets of this volume have all been trained not to be Romantics; a few rebel, but mostly they shy away from poetic devices that moan and sing. The anthology meticulously talks and talks and talks.

When did American poetry feel comfortable with the fact that the Keats cat and the Shelley cat and the Byron cat no longer dwell in the household, just because a guy named Ezra told them to go? When did poetry become supercilious chat, baroque chatter? If perception in life is nearly all, think how ruthlessly perception rules poetry: when rejection of rhyme came to be seen not as a palace assassination but as an exhausted queen doing loads of purple laundry, “I’m too busy to rhyme,” American contemporary poetry must have begun to feel like a starving person listening to financial advice—on how to give endlessly to charity.

How does one bypass all the usual academic netting and state plainly the gist of what troubles professional contemporary American poetry? I may be failing, but I hope we can see it’s necessary more than one person try.

Modern American poetry has long needed a wake-up slap. Which, of course, will not do any good. Time must deal with poetry.

What do we get in McClatchy’s excellent anthology? Character development, psychological insight, plain talk, insights, philosophy, humor, love? Not really. We get something more effete and specialized. The chaste and the vocabulary-heavy.

I hope it doesn’t sound too strange to say it plainly.

The voice in almost all the poems in the Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry is the same: the voice of a very wealthy person, cultured, delicate, shy, deeply self-absorbed, of a calm disposition, fond of secular iconography, passing memories, trinkets, country roads, and anxious to introduce us to a sky as it might appear at dusk…

Salem MA 5/20/22


Anthologies are my favorite way of reading poetry.

Authorial vanity cries out “Read my book! Get to know me! Immerse yourself in my book’s theme!”

I reply, “Have you written Paradise Lost? If not, let me return to The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry (I am only fluent in English and don’t have much faith in translation) where I can read not only many poems, but many poets, and immerse myself in an era.”

In 1990 J.D. McClatchy, editor of the Vintage anthology just mentioned, assembled the best of Elizabeth Bishop (b. 1911) thru Gjertrud Schnackenberg (b. 1953), 65 poets in a not-too-heavy paperback—over 500 pages, which I purchased in 1999, and still not falling apart.

When was an entire book of poems, by one poet, been worthy of praise for all the lines in it? We probably need to go back to a small quarto volume by Poe or Tennyson.

Beyond Tennyson floating in dust or Shakespeare staged in heaven, a poetry anthology, light enough to peruse while holding it aloft in one hand, is the only way to properly commune with the Muse.

As I read my McClatchy (actually a gift to my wife, but between her subscription to Poetry and several other journals; recent purchases of Nikolayev’s translation of Pushkin, Steven Cramer’s latest volume; and the ten million novels she’s currently reading, I don’t believe she’ll miss it) I discovered good poems from poets I never had any interest in, and poems so bad they made me laugh. My laughter produced not a smidgen of guilt, since the anthologist selected only poets covered in poetry prizes—my mockery could never in a million years break down their highly credentialed immunity.

I will be guilty, however, in the eyes of a few of my readers (I am thinking of one in particular, a highly educated, avant-collecting, condescending, fellow) should I make these private feelings known, that I now take the liberty to reveal, chuckling a bit, I won’t lie, at the very thought of it.

Why isn’t Marilyn Hacker (pg 489) more famous? She writes like Byron. I think the problem is, in order to write like Byron, you must be Byron. Also, Hacker was born around the same time as John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Had she been born in 1842, instead of 1942, Hacker would be better known. No one really talks about her anymore.

There was just too much competition for a poet publishing in the sex, drugs, and rock and roll 60s and 70s—the worst time to be a poet in the United States. Hacker’s work is impressive—as reproduced in the Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. Is she still risqué? That shouldn’t be the question. Is she good? She is, and accessible, too, unlike poets who eclipsed her, such as Louise Glück and Jorie Graham—poets we occasionally pretend to understand, but don’t. (Glück and Graham were model-beautiful in the 80s. Hacker was not.) It was a quieter and cooler world in the 1980s when Graham and Glück became known, a window of time for high-brow poetry to carve out a dignified and contemplative space for itself; the 60s rock culture, which had sucked all the cool out of the room for so long, had come down to earth. John was dead, Paul had a mullet. Poets could now be called on to deliver “Eleanor Rigby” and “A Day In The Life” vibes—in a place both more rarefied and more practical—the MFA as a ticket to poetic respectability was still real and fresh. The college protest was now less cool than college itself—the poets could smoke pot in college; they could have their cake and eat it.

Donald Justice (p. 210 in the Vintage anthology, poorly represented by mid-life crisis poems) was a poet (40 years old in 1965) swallowed up by the youth culture; old, he mentored Jorie Graham at Iowa—the critic William Logan learned under Justice at the same time; Logan, whom Graham admired, reviewed her first book.

In 1980, the original Modernists were dead, the Rock culture was exhausted, the larger culture had become corporate, cheap, goofy, and trite; it was time for academia and poetry to shine. Helen Vendler and Jorie Graham, who would have been buried and ignored in the 1960s, were somehow actual (gulp) stars in the 1980s. William Logan became the sybil who reminded the poets of the 80s and 90s that they weren’t really stars—because, well, they weren’t. Somebody had to be funny (rude?) and tell them.

Poetry died in the poetic 60s and gave birth to comedy in the non-poetic 80s. William Logan was SNL for what was left of the poetry public that the Modernists had chased away with their unsentimental theory and sophistication.

The New Critics—only one of its core members is represented, p. 67, Robert Penn Warren (b. 1905)—made a great deal of giving the study of poetry largely over to the text. Yet I can describe most of the poets in the 1990 Vintage anthology with a single gesture-–I don’t need words, and my summation refers to no text whatsoever. Imagine I am making the universal sign of sucking on a joint—thumb and finger planted on pursed lips.

One could learnedly can go on for hours about form and its relationship to content, the theories of the French, and Pound’s “make it new,” but hey you try reading the late night confessions of C.K. Williams, Robert Pinsky, Mark Strand, Robert Hass, Charles Simic, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Hugo, and Frank O’Hara without smiling knowingly at my gesture. So much for the authority of text-centered New Criticism.

The Vintage anthology is 65% white men, 30% white women—who published largely in the 50s thru the 80s.

It’s a record of weed.

We just couldn’t see it for all the Brooks and R.P. Warren tweed.

New Criticism was the only real educated influence on poetry in the 20th century, mingling the text-obsession of Derrida with the sandy grains of Imagism, a crashing wave that reached from the early days of the 20th Century—John Ransom, the T.S. Eliot of the American South, was born, like Eliot, in the late 19th century, to Debussy and the turmoil of the French avant-garde—all the way to the 1990s and its small End of History window where the inscrutable poetry of a Jorie Graham could mesmerize and soothe us.

There are two types of bad poetry.

One. A poem describes some well-known event in which the poet feels he is heightening or adding meaning to the event—but isn’t.

Two. A poem attempts to be metaphysical—no event is described, except accidentally, so the poet hopes the reader will not be able to judge whether an event is described well—or even at all—since that was not the intention.

The first example can be found in the Vintage anthology on pg. 521, in a poem by Edward Hirsch. The poem is called “Fast Break” and attempts to describe a basketball game.

A rebound: “gathering the orange leather/from the air like a cherished possession.”

The prose-poem’s line breaks and stanzas are supposed to replicate the quickness of the play (they don’t).

The failure of the poem increases in its attempt to find a final straw of meaning in its empty enthusiasm (“our gangly starting center”) at the end:

with a wild, headlong motion
for the game he loved like a country
and swiveling back to see an orange blur
floating perfectly through the net.

Edward Hirsch is a distinguished poet (even if in a pot-smoking era) and yet this may be the worst poem ever written.

The second type of bad poem is demonstrated on page 525 by Jorie Graham’s “Over and over Stitch.” Unlike Hirsch’s poem—which attempts to describe what is already real (sadly, “orange leather” for “basketball”) Graham takes the opposite approach, describing nothing at all:

Late in the season the world digs in, the fat blossoms
hold still for a moment longer.
Nothing looks satisfied,
but there is no real reason to move on much further:
this isn’t a bad place;
why not pretend

we wished for it?

The poet is being intentionally vague (here in the first 7 lines) hoping the reader will mistake vacuousness for philosophy. The poet isn’t going to let herself err in the direction of describing a basketball as “orange leather,” and look! she triumphs.

We might blame Graham’s distinguished teacher, Donald Justice, more than Graham’s privileged and highly educated background. Just look at this existential nightmare of a poem written and published by Justice himself and unfortunately reprinted by McClatchy in the Vintage anthology (p 210):

The Evening of the Mind

Now comes the evening of the mind.
Here are the fireflies twitching in the blood;
Here is the shadow moving down the page
Where you sit reading by the garden wall.
Now the dwarf peach trees, nailed to their trellises,
Shudder and droop. You know their voices now,
Faintly the martyred peaches crying out
Your name, the name nobody knows but you.
It is the aura and the coming on.
It is the thing descending, circling, here.
And now it puts a claw out and you take it.
Thankfully in your lap you take it, so.

I won’t quote the whole poem. You get the idea. The poem is embarrassing. “Faintly the martyred peaches crying out your name” is beyond bad. It’s laughable.

Back to Graham’s poem:

The bushes have learned to live with their haunches.
The hydrangea is resigned
to its pale and inconclusive utterances.
Towards the end of the season
it is not bad

to have the body.

The poet isn’t following Ovid any more than John Muir. We never thought of her hydrangea as doing anything in the first place; so when she first mentions the plant as being “resigned,” we simply don’t know what to think and quickly don’t care.

The final assertion that “the dry stalks of daylilies” mark “a stillness we can’t keep” only shows us the poet is at least consistent in never letting up from the poem’s dry observation that there is nothing that matters, whatever the poet might do or say. Her single-minded pursuit of not committing herself to anything recalls a haiku being stretched; a paralysis of purpose becomes the purpose. They also write who only stand and wait.

“The bushes have learned to live with their haunches.” Bushes are described as being, or having, “haunches”—childish, though not as bad as using “orange leather” to describe a basketball; it is the addition of “learned to live with” which self-consciously recalls the vacant theme: Nature’s OK, I’m OK, we’re OK; this is what moves the poem from merely mediocre to pot-smoking horrendous.

These, then, are the two faults good poets make: either they fail to describe something or, they describe nothing, but since a poem demands we say something—the second type of bad poem often becomes like the first, only ten time worse, because the flaws of the first become magnified by the strategies used in the second—to avoid the flaws of the first. Describing something is all a poem finally does, or fails to do—this dilemma, then, is the primal one; its failures are legion.

The more common type of failure—triteness and lack of originality, afflict the bad poet.

These two types of bad poems I have described here are important—because good poets so often indulge in them.


Anne Sexton (Author of The Complete Poems)
Anne Sexton won in 1967 when she was 39.

To judge 100 years of prize-winning poetry is both a challenge and an illumination—the challenge is that in 100 years our idea of poetry has changed.

The landmark year of Modernism, 1922—when The Waste Land and Ulysses were published—saw the first official Pulitzer in Poetry awarded to the Collected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson, a retiring, self-published, versifier who got lucky when a friend showed his book to the president of the United States (Teddy Roosevelt)—Robinson the very opposite of Pound and his manifesto-band of revolutionary opportunists.

Pound and his clique were not just for the “new;” they resented Millay, Frost, Robinson, and poets who rhymed, sold lots of books, and won Pulitzers. Hugh Kenner, author of The Pound Era, had unkind things to say about Millay’s work. It was no secret that American poetry was split in two in the early part of the 20th century—and the two groups did not like each other. Robert Hillyer, a Harvard professor who won the Pulitzer in 1934 and 15 years later objected strenuously to Pound’s Bollingen Prize award, would leave the room if Pound or Eliot came up in conversation.

For years, the Pulitzer poetry award was administered by a committee of three. The chair for years was Wilbur Cross, a literary critic, Yale alum and Connecticut governor in the 1930s. Cross was on the jury until 1947, when Robert Lowell was awarded the prize by Cross, Henry S. Canby, and Louis Untermeyer. The next year Alfred Kreymborg joined the group, and he, Canby, and Untermeyer gave the Pulitzer to Auden.

The Dial magazine Prize (the revived journal lasted only for the decade of the 1920s) was, as any objective person should be able to ascertain, a circle-jerk of poet-comrades awarding each other prizes. Prize winners included Williams, Pound, Eliot, Cummings, and Marianne Moore—who replaced Scofield Thayer (a wealthy prep-school chum of Eliot’s) as Dial editor in 1926. Cummings eloped with Thayer’s wife at this time, with the latter’s approval, as the nephew of Casey At the Bat author, Ernest Thayer, was later hospitalized for mental instability.

No judging committee is going to be perfect, but the early years of the poetry Pulitzer judging seemed to get it right: don’t let poets award the prize; let a certain objective distance prevail—let judges be those who write opera librettos or teach philosophy, not poets seeking the prize itself. By the 1960s, poets (often winners of the prize) became judges. Poet-judging was already a thing in the 1930s, (there seemed to be a group centered around the long-defunct Saturday Review, a clique-ish center of gravity, if you will) but it was rare.

Po-biz has long since been taken over by the poets. Frost served on the jury once, in the 1930s. Leonard Bacon served on the jury for four years (’36—’39), and then won in 1941. Stephen Vincent Benet served on the jury briefly, and then won. If poets are good, one doesn’t resent this so much. No judging apparatus is air-tight. But it seems a no-brainer: let judges be credentialed in arts and letters, not to a circle of prize-desiring poets.

By the middle of the century, the gap between the two poetry camps (populist and modernist) had almost closed—the skirmish around Pound’s Bollingen Prize in 1949 was the last battle. It is difficult to describe the resulting one camp, except that it was vaguely anti-Romantic. I don’t believe it had anything to do with politics, since Pound was celebrated by Marxists; I think it was just a natural consolidation of friendly power. The cool kids (however that’s defined) prevailed—the outsiders were never quite sure what the favored and consolidating “cool” was, which is why they were outsiders, looking on with a mixture of indignation, admiration, jealousy, and puzzlement.

In the 21st century, the white avant-garde began to be replaced by identity politics, but Romanticism was still a thing of the past. A consolidation was happening within a consolidation. Expressive skill continued to take a back seat to the thing expressed.

The challenge of reconciliation still existed in the 1920s—Edwin Arlington Robinson or T.S. Eliot? Edna Millay or WC Williams? We feel a bit lost in the duality—which side do we like? It’s a challenge.

But as one reads the poets of the 1920s, aware of the split, and thinks about the Pulitzer’s 100 year history, there’s also illumination.

We tend to be binary—we cheer for one side over the other—and in our partisanship we exaggerate differences. As one reads E A Robinson, Edna Millay Robert Frost, and Amy Lowell, the Pulitzer winners of the 20s, poets eventually, and pretty much today, left behind during the Long March of Modernism’s revolution, one cannot help but notice in these populists an obsession with the past, with everything old—and this characterizes the Modernist revolutionaries, as well: for all their “modernism,” Pound and Eliot, too, wore hats and cloaks of the bygone.

As Randall Jarrell said: aren’t we all Romantics, really?

Both camps embraced the past seamlessly in their way: the Modernists attempted to write in a classic manner (stiff, humorless), while the early 20th Century school engaged the old in modes playful, fanciful, passionate—knowingly or unknowingly, it didn’t really matter; they did so energetically. The irony is that Modernist “revolutionaries” were rather staid, by comparison, bogged down by bullet-point, manifesto-ist, decrees.

Just to give a brief example—here’s a passage from Amy Lowell’s prize-winning book, What’s O’clock:

Hot with oranges and purples,
In a flowing robe of a marigold colour,
He sweeps over September spaces.
Scheherezade, do you hear him,
And the clang of his scimitar knocking on the gates?
The tawny glitter of his turban,
Is it not dazzling —
With the safron jewel set like a sun-flower in the midst?
The brown of his face!
Aye, the brown like the heart of a sun-flower.

Whatever can be said of this passage, it is colorful, it has swagger, even as we wonder, wouldn’t “flowing robe of marigold” be better than “flowing robe of a marigold color?”

Mundane things, like syntax and grammar, which the avant-garde dismisses as shallow, inhibiting, or old, will contribute to the quality of poetry forever—whether our meta-theoretical brains like it or not.

(T.S. Eliot, the best of the Modernists, plain knew how to write. He had Harvard. He had grammar—though you don’t necessarily need the Harvard for the grammar. Harvard, most importantly, quickly became the social meeting spot for the anti-Romantic “new,” whether you were Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, or Wallace Stevens.)

Obviously, the following colorful poem is not better than Amy Lowell, but the tone is different—there is nothing “revolutionary” here; the fancy and the expansive have simply been set aside for a boiled-down, self-conscious, lecture:

“So much depends on the red wheel barrow…the white chickens…”

The Modernist poets wanted to ‘get things right’ in a narrower, more serious manner—and this is why they kept manifestos. The Populists (Millay sold 10,000 books for every one by Pound or Williams) were actually more experimental, more imaginative, and took more risks. Which means, yes, some of them did write poems which today make us wince. The Populists were more apt to be zany, to be ridiculous, to be odd, to take a subject and look at it in a bizarre way. They were out to please, without feeling they had to obey some revolutionary decree.

In one of Robert Frost’s four Pulitzer-winning volumes, there is a poem about a girl named “Maple”—those who went to school with the girl insisted it was “Mable.” No, Frost assures us, it was “Maple.” And Frost elaborates in one of his “story” poems.

Maple vs. Mable. This is unusual, bizarre, crazy—crazier than the Modernists, who actually took themselves far more seriously—and took fewer risks and in fact had less fun.

Poetry, the Modernists thought, needed to be serious and tweedy, not a fanciful romp—and this, as it turned out, in a crazy historical twist of fate, worked better in the university—and this is where the revolutionary Modernists finally won—in the ivory tower; they got into textbooks, initially published by the New Critics, anti-Romantics, who brilliantly played the game of Traditionalists who got themselves (the Modernists) in.

The Populists were more apt to write (why not?) like a 17th century bard and occasionally hit one out of the park (think of Millay’s “What Lips These Lips Have Kissed”). Robert Frost, Edna Millay, and Amy Lowell sometimes rhymed and sometimes did not (and come to think of it, T.S. Eliot, the best Modernist, did this as well). Edwin Arlington Robinson made a humorous retort when asked why he didn’t write free verse: “I’m bad enough as it is.” There is something rather puritan, it seems to me, about the narrow ones, frowning in the corner, who never rhyme. You can do all kinds of wonderful things in poetry—and rhyme, as well. But if, on principle, you don’t rhyme—is this really broadening, novel, imaginative, or revolutionary? And how did it become to be thought of as so?

The answer has already been alluded to—rhyme sold books, especially when a writer like Millay (who also had a sexy, rock-star persona) could rhyme almost as skillfully as Shakespeare—could, on occasion at least, pull it off. But the gold mine of getting onto a university syllabus required mining of a special sort:

First, we can’t keep just teaching Shakespeare (and writers like Millay writing sonnets like Shakespeare) forever, can we?

Second, since the establishment pushes for scholarly historical phases of art, it is only natural that we begin to teach those “of their time period,” i.e., the “Modernists.”

Third, is a sexy best-seller by the terribly loose Millay the best thing for serious study in the university? The Populists in the 20s featured lots of rhyming women. The prominent female in the Modernist club was the dour, buttoned-up, anti-Romantic, Miss Marianne Moore. Ironically, free verse was associated with free love. Neither side was necessarily staid. But the Modernists, led by the melancholy T.S. Eliot, seemed more fit for the university.

The generally neo-classical stiffness of the Moderns appealed to educators and deans, at last. The Populists sold books, but when did a “best-seller” ever appeal to a scholarly mind?

I’m going to assign four phases to the poetry Pulitzer history.

The first phase might be called the Wilbur Cross phase, when a Yale scholar and Democrat Governor of Connecticut who gave his name to the Wilbur Cross Parkway led the jury until 1946—when winners were poets like Edna Millay, Amy Lowell, Leonora Speyer (very good, utterly forgotten), George Dillon, Archibald MacLeish, and Audrey Wurdemann (another good poet and now ignored).

The second phase should be called the Alfred Kreymborg phase, a modernist-cooling-into conservatism judge who ruled the jury from 1947 (a young Robert Lowell won) to 1959—when Stanley Kunitz won.

Richard Wilbur (1957) and Kunitz comprised the two-man jury which chose Louis Simpson in 1963 and by now we are in the third phase, which could be called the Stanley Kunitz phase—prize-winning, establishment poets choosing prize-winning, establishment poets. As poetry sold less, it became necessary for poets to breathe “establishment” air. Kreymborg was on the jury one more time—in 1961, when he chose (along with Louis Untermeyer) the now forgotten Phyllis McGinley. The 1967 judges who picked Anne Sexton were Pulitzer prize poets, too: Richard Eberhart, Phyllis McGinley, and Louis Simpson.

The fourth phase begins with Vijay Seshadri winning in 2014—this might be called the Marilyn Chin phase (the latest Jury Chair).

The third phase is a long one, the consolidation of the Modernist hegemony, taking us through Ashbery winning in 1976, Charles Simic in 1990, C.K. Williams in 2000, to Sharon Olds’ win in 2013. We might also call the Kunitz phase the Wright phase: James Wright (1972), Charles Wright (1998), and Franz Wright (2004).

The fourth phase winners are: Seshadri, Greg Pardlo, Peter Balakian, Tyehimba Jess, Frank Bidart, Forrest Gander, Jericho Brown, and Natalie Diaz. Is the fourth phase really just an extension of the third phase? Perhaps.

Vijay Seshadri has a poem which ends with Al Green singing a Bee Gees song. If the music of the Bee Gees or Al Green appeal to you at all, you should find yourself pulled out of the poem (“Bright Copper Kettles”) because let’s face it, prose poets, who work in that familiar prose-poem-template-of-no-particular voice-or-personality—and are neither comics nor composers, and who are not Edna St. Vincent Millay—cannot possibly compete with popular culture (which is probably why, as modern poetry gradually turned into prose, which it mostly is now, poets felt the overwhelming need to professionally bond together in the MFA, award-giving hive, to protect each other from anything which might possibly resemble mass culture—ostentatious rhyme, ostentatious music, ostentatious comedy, sweeping themes, memorable speech.

The monotony of the prose-poem template is perhaps the longest cloud in the history of rapid-fire modernism, and lours over us—despite the wide and varied experience of the poet, or their advanced vocabulary—and it is the very fact of their immense experience and vocabulary which is partly to blame, since a host of sights and sounds observed with loving intelligence is a nullity—when it comes to poetry. The sights and sounds have to be the poem’s. There are limits to what words can describe. If the poet has twelve brothers, if the poet drinks in a bar, if the poet observes the wind’s behavior on a windy day, the translation of these events into words by an observant and intelligent person has absolutely nothing to do with poetry—if that person is not writing as a skilled writer of—poetry. He can reference all the pop songs and dances and memories of dad and world events he wants.

Enough editorializing on truism. The list, please.

(A note: Some won the award more than once, some won for a first book, some for a Collected—all are ranked as poets, but the work that actually won is taken into account, as well.)

The Pulitzer Prize Winning Poets, Ranked, From Best to Worst:

One Robert Hillyer 1934 He vigorously protested Pound’s post-treason Bollingen. Are you shocked he is number one? This owes mostly to the hearsay of poetic reputation. A Harvard prof who wrote like Shelley. Here’s 3 stanzas to give you an idea, from the poem, “Arabesque” published in Poetry magazine, August, 1924:

Rejected by a heliotrope,
The drunken butterfly has sworn
To hang himself with cobweb rope
From the black hawthorn.

The ocean floor is not more still—
That moonstone half suffused with green;
The sunlight pours forth from hill to hill,
Shadow between.


Death, not yet.
The fountain has not sung enough.
One other afternoon,
A few more hours.
Then, when the sun has set,
A few more hours of moon
In other gardens, other flowers.

Two Edna Millay 1923 She threw herself into song—and became a rock star. Her sonnets are some of the best of all time. She took song-risks. Failed a lot, but who cares? She doesn’t need to quote the Bee Gees in her poems. She is the Bee Gees.

Three Robert Frost 1924, 1931, 1937, 1943 He was a chatter-box. Sometimes didn’t know when to shut up. He actually did what Wordsworth recommended—blended poetry and speech. As if this means anything. Does it?

Four Edward Arlington Robinson 1922, 1925, 1928 Not since Poe and Longfellow dominated the 1840s were there two poets like Robinson and Millay who owned the 1920s. The public will be pleased by the effusions of whatever strikes its fancy without learned encouragement. The profound which manages to please the public is in danger of being underestimated. Robinson is the real deal. He avoids the fruitless amateur descriptions of trees and such—his poetry speaks.

Five James Tate 1992 Of all the free verse poets, who wrote poems in paragraphs, making no pretense to form whatsoever, he is the one who is probably the most amusing and thoughtful. His Selected Poems won.

Six Howard Nemerov 1978 The oil crisis, disco, the collapse of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. But here came Nemerov’s sane, polished, witty, Collected Poems to save us. Humorous/profound in a folksy manner such as we get from this WW II poet makes the rebellious/avant-garde uncomfortable. When you are funny, no one takes your cynicism seriously—and then no one takes you seriously at all. This is what happens to poets, like Nemerov, with range. He also had the audacity to have a good formalist ear. We prefer the tragic poets who have no range at all. In another hundred years, this choice will perhaps make more sense.

Seven Archibald MacLeish 1933, 1953 Won the Pulitzer the second time for his Collected. A poet’s poet. Not as funny as Nemerov—he took himself a bit too seriously, but he was of that time.

Eight Richard Wilbur 1957, 1989 This formalist dynamo did not always match his skills with great subjects—his most famous poem is about laundry (comparing it to angels) but he has a great poem about a fountain. One is always listening for a wrong step—so delicately precise he is—and so you hold your breath when you read him, making your way delicately through the formal delights.

Nine James Merrill 1977 The first part of his Ouija Board epic won the prize—how to tell the elegant Merrill from the scholarly Richard Howard? Merrill is a bit more metrically precise, a bit easier to read. Howard has more philosophical heft.

Ten Leonard Bacon 1941 Writes like Byron. His work is hard to find. Get it. It will be worth something one day.

Just to give you an idea, a few excerpts from his previous work (damn if I can find the book that won):

In short he was the very symbol of
The second nature of free verse—free love.

Still polyphonic prose is simply—prose.
Free verse is but the shadow of a song,
Though sham sham sham and pose repose on pose,
Though Greenwich Village pillage still in gutters,
Though Arensburg believe what Kreymborg utters.

She beat her bosom, which appeared to be
Flat as the level of democracy.

Eleven W.H. Auden 1948 Major formalist poet who was born in England. came to America in 1940 and won the U.S. award with an unrhymed tetrameter narrative poem about barflies in New York called The Age of Anxiety. Not his best but still Auden.

Twelve Donald Justice 1980 Observant, emotionally intelligent, knew how to write the lyric poem.

Thirteen Sylvia Plath 1982 Her life and work are so intertwined, one might say the critic has an impossible task. The New Critics would say, “delete the life!” But as we examine the flaky parts of the poem, all the competing ironies and resonances, we find “the life” in the poem, its energetic source; we cannot delete the poet’s life—its energies, its content, from the poem. Not the famed life, the life.

Fourteen Theodore Roethke 1954 He was very much like a mad, 19th century, English, poet. He ranks high because 19th century England wrote better poetry than 20th century America.

Fifteen Elizabeth Bishop 1956 Her reputation continued to grow as the century progressed and now I imagine it’s as high as it can go. If you got tired of Moore, you could read Bishop (Millay was not modern enough, Parker too dramatic, Teasdale too sad.) I imagine she took a secret delight in being able to write a better “Robert Lowell poem” than her friend Robert Lowell—a poem that was finally updated Wordsworth.

Sixteen John Berryman 1954 Won for Dream Songs—they were certainly uneven and well, crazy. I wonder if we’ll look back some day at 20th century American poetry and see its lunacy? Not as in: good art-crazy, but as in: “oh my God that was crazy.”

Seventeen Leonora Speyer 1927 We choose the best by one thing: their best poems, don’t we? And that makes nearly everyone who is not an epic poet famous (if they are lucky) for a handful of poems, sometimes one. Here’s one of hers I like—though I can’t tell if she’s being sarcastic—called “Ascent:”

Mountains take too much time.
Start at the top and climb.

Eighteen Stephen Dunn 2001 If you’re going to write free verse and you’re not an Imagist, it doesn’t hurt to be gossipy and poignant—a bartender Socrates.

Nineteen Mark Van Doren. 1940 He wrote lovely, slightly mystical lyrics. Also taught Allen Ginsberg at Columbia.

Twenty Richard Howard 1970 Very much a student of poetry—so absorbed in it, he wrote it almost as if it belonged to a different medium.

Twenty One Wallace Stevens 1955 Overrated, in my opinion. He seems quite consciously to be pulling our leg. I don’t care what Helen Vendler says. Does anyone else think of him as rather a joke? He did have range—though most of what he tried I didn’t like. But he’s still #21. He ought to be happy.

Twenty Two Amy Lowell 1926 Won an Imagist pissing contest with Pound—he was a mere scholar; she was a Sappho. See: “The Letter,” “Venus Transiens,” “The Garden by Moonlight,” “The Taxi,” and her famous “Patterns.” The pity is that she was the one who died early (1925)—rather than him.

Twenty Three William Rose Benet 1942 The Benets (the two brothers who won the prize—Stephen for a Civil War epic, William for an epic on his life of four marriages, including one with the Populist, Anne Sexton-lite poet, Eleanore Wylie). What do you say about the Benets? William’s verse had more energy.

Twenty Four Sharon Olds 2013 finally joined the Pulitzer club with her break-up book, Stag’s Leap—not at all her best work. She made a name for herself by being racy (though she was always more than that) and the Pulitzer for a very long time imagined itself to be rather classy: Robert Penn Warren, not Charles Bukowski. Stripped of her sex-partner, she gained a prize.

Twenty Five Galway Kinnnell 1983 He won for his Selected, before he wrote, “When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone.” More patience, Pulitzer, more patience.

Twenty Six Audrey Wurdermann 1935 Brief bios tell she was the great-great-grandaughter of Shelley. I would love to hear the story—none of Shelley’s known heirs grew to adulthood. She was only 24 when she won for her lyric songs. What do you think of this one:


When she first came there, Pluto wept,
Streaking cinders down his face,
While she competently slept
In her alloted place.
She catalogued her little hells,
Cupboarded the fires,
And placed in tabulated wells
Old lost desires.
She made his Lordship stoop to gather
Ashes from the floor;
She regulated stormy weather,
And polished Hades’ door.
The Devil was unhappy in
Such cleanliness and space.
She said it was a mortal sin,
The way he’d kept the place!
Now, after several million years,
(For time can reconcile),
He tip-toes with quite human fears
About their domicile.

Twenty Seven Carl Dennis 2002 Nimble rhetorician. His work has a wondering-out loud, Billy Collins feel—but a little more respectable. Don’t know if that’s good or bad.

Twenty Eight Anne Sexton 1967 She won for Live or Die, poems from the early 60s, a housewife Robert Lowell—but with bursts of Dionsyian frenzy. She ought to be ranked higher, but the pain is too great. She out-Plaths Plath. Remember this from her?

from “Consorting With Angels”

I was tired of being a woman,
tired of the spoons and the pots

O daughters of Jerusalem,
the king has brought me into his chamber.
I am black and I am beautiful.
I’ve been opened and undressed.
I have no arms or legs.
I’m all one skin like a fish.
I’m no more a woman
than Christ was a man.

Twenty Nine Richard Eberhart 1966 The groundhog poem. He lived to be very, very, old.

Thirty Robert Penn Warren 1958, 1979 A prize machine, he belonged to the Fugitives, the Southern Agrarians, and co-wrote Understanding Poetry, the New Critics textbook, a tome of many editions mid-century which made it official: WC Williams yea, Poe nay.

Thirty One John Ashbery 1976 Anyone can rhyme, and now, thanks to Ashbery, anyone can write poetry.

Thirty Two Anthony Hecht 1968 “The Dover Bitch” wins the Pulitzer Prize!

Thirty Three Stanley Kunitz 1959 His poems stake out a sentimental pitch and then retreat, ashamed for doing so. I love him and can’t stand him.

Thirty Four Robert Lowell 1947, 1974 There’s something show-offy about him. Always seemed too prog-rock, not rock enough for my taste. I’ll admit I thought the Lowell name opened doors, and found it strange that he left Harvard for New Critic-dom in Tennessee. A Fugitive poet was the family psychiatrist. The first Big Star Writing Program prof (Iowa, Boston U.), his early promise, the idea of his greatness, didn’t come to fruition.

Thirty Five W.S. Merwin 1971, 2009 Has that lack of punctuation poignancy which floats off to somewhere else, allowing nothing very important to be finally said, and if this is what poetry finally is, damn he’s good.

Thirty Six Robert Hass 2008 He perfected that middle period free verse ability to ironically lecture while invoking the sensual.

Thirty Seven Natasha Tretheway 2007 Her poetry snaps and zings as good poetry should. She’s underrated. Her lyricism has force.

Thirty Eight Louis Simpson 1964 O the contemplative wisdom in the darkness! His work seems a little plainer and duller now than I remembered it. Some poetry has a way of impressing us more in our youth when professors-as-human hold more sway.

Thirty Nine Louise Gluck 1993 I must admit she completely bored me at first. She seemed emotionally distant in her poems and I read her that way, and so I fell asleep to what she was doing.

Forty Gwendolyn Brooks 1950 “We die soon.”

Forty One Carl Sandburg 1951 He really did write a lot of bad poems. Maybe folk-singers do that.

Forty Two George Dillon 1932 One of Millay’s boyfriends. Poetry magazine editor—while serving in WW II. Here’s his “Beauty Intolerable:”

Finding her body woven
As if of flame and snow,
I thought: however often
My pulses cease to go,
Whipped by whatever pain
Age or disease appoint,
I shall not be again
So jarred in every joint,
So mute, amazed and taut,
And winded of my breath,

Beauty being at my throat
More savagely than death.

Forty Three Stephen Vincent Benet 1929, 1944 The Civil War epic! He received his second award posthumously. He was also a well-known fiction writer.

Forty Four Phyllis McGinley 1961 A formalist housewife poet. Made the cover of Time in 1965.

Forty Five Natalie Diaz 2021 The latest winner. She played professional basketball before earning her MFA. “It Was the Animals” is a brilliant poem.

Forty Six Peter Viereck 1949 He dared to invoke old, swooning themes in rhyme. My God, it was 1949! I guess the free verse revolution hadn’t happened yet. His poem, “Again, Again!” sounds like a pop song. Here’s how it begins and ends:

Who here’s afraid to gawk at lilacs?
Who won’t stand up and praise the moon?
Who doubts that skies still ache for skylarks
And waves are lace upon the dune?


I’ll see. I’ll say. I’ll find the word.
All earth must lilt, then, willy-nilly
And vibrate one rich triple-chord
Of August, wine, and waterlily.

Billy Collins sounds bad ass compared to this. I still like it, though. I’m not afraid to praise the moon. It’s difficult to understand that when poetry rejects—in principle—whatever Viereck is doing here: 1649, 1949, 2021, it doesn’t matter, options don’t increase; they diminish.

Forty Seven Alan Dugan 1962 Who are these poets who feel so damn sorry for themselves, writing spare little poems in diners and used clothing shops? Hey don’t knock it. Sylvia Plath was dying and he was winning a Pulitzer prize.

Forty Eight Charles Wright 1998 Almost won in 1982 but was beaten by Plath’s posthumous Collected. His winning volume has that resigned, bird-watching, lawn-sprinkler, reality which is perfectly good even as it bores us to tears. “If there’s nothing going on,/there’s no reason to make it up.” Yeah, I guess.

Forty Nine Kay Ryan 2011 Brevity is the soul of wit, not poetry. She has an Emily Dickinson quality, but much drier. The idea of her greatness, but in fact, not. Occasionally good.

Fifty Paul Muldoon 2003 Seamus Heaney-lite, or maybe closer to Ted Hughes-lite. Whimsical, with an edge.

Fifty One Tyehimba Jess 2017 Born in Detroit, a Slam poet who received his MFA at NYU. “a woman birthed him/back whole again.” He knows how to end poems. Many good poets don’t know how to do that.

Fifty Two W.D. Snodgrass 1960 Confessional Poetry. What was “confessional,” anyway? What did it confess? Snodgrass went through a divorce as he earned his MFA at Iowa.

Fifty Three Yusef Komunyakaa 1994 One of America’s great tragic poets.

Fifty Four Rita Dove 1987 Her winning book is about her maternal grandparents. She responded with great dignity when her anthology of 20th century poetry was attacked from respectable academic and avant-garde quarters for filling it with certain types of poets. Her poetry celebrates affection.

Fifty Five Marianne Moore 1952 She was not only didactic at times, but she explicitly warned us away from beauty in the old high sense. Sorry, no.

Fifty Six James Schuyler 1981 You cannot totally hate poetry when at least a friendly, observant, personality shows through.

Fifty Seven Gregory Pardlo 2015 You can say a lot of things in prose poetry. I love this: “She makes a jewelry of herself and garlands/the ground with shadows.”

Fifty Eight Philip Levine 1995 Won for his book The Simple Truth. Run-on prose lines; breathless sameness to his poetry. A Hemingway plain-speaking tone imprisoned in pseudo-lyric form.

Fifty Nine Jericho Brown 2020 Influenced by Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes.. He’s director of the Creative Writing program at Emory.

Sixty Philip Schultz 2008 Shared his win with Hass. Confessional—the Stanley Kunitz school.

Sixty One Jorie Graham 1996 She won for later work that was pedantic—poison to her mystical flair. Early Graham was better.

Sixty Two Marya Zaturenska 1938 Her verses are below the quality of what I expect to see from that time; somewhat heavy-handed, but they certainly have their moments.

Sixty Three Mary Oliver. 1984 The first member of the ‘Feel-Good School.’ It certainly has worth (and may even win the day for some) even if hers is the shadow of poetry, the shadow of what might be called nature poetry (which is impossible anyway—“I think I will never see…”).

Sixty Four Robert Coffin 1936 Has some OK ballads. He was the poetry editor of Yankee magazine.

Sixty Five Conrad Aiken 1930 A friend of Eliot’s, he and John Gould Fletcher (in 1939) were the first of the “hostile camp” Modernists to slip in and win a Pulitzer—Aiken’s lyrics were not terribly good but had an Eastern feel. Everyone in America—Populist or Modernist—loved Eastern art and poetry: from the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War to Pearl Harbor.

Sixty Six Vijay Seshadri 2014 And why not put Al Green singing a Bee Gees song in your poem?

Sixty Seven Peter Balakian 2016 I don’t know. His poetry has that scholarly, thoughtful sheen.

Sixty Eight George Oppen 1969 Fashionably minimalist.

Sixty Nine Tracy K. Smith. 2012 She was young when she won the award. I saw her read around that time, and she seemed apologetic around her fellow readers. She’s a much better poet now.

Seventy Mona Van Duyn 1991 Witty, formalist, didactic. A pleasant poet from Iowa who could rise to a mighty rhetoric from which one felt she pretty quickly needed to get down.

Seventy One Charles Simic 1990 Like so many free verse poets, whatever at-the-time-magic hovered around their utterances previously, is now fled. I found The World Doesn’t End haunting when it came out. It didn’t bother to do anything except describe (briefly and plainly) what was odd and the reader would fill in the rest. Was it this novelty itself which charmed? It haunts no more.

Seventy Two William Carlos Williams 1963 He won at the end of his life for a book of poems on Bruegel. I guess if you want you can try to use words to compete with…Bruegel. Well, advertisers can make us taste beer, can’t they?

Seventy Three Rae Armantrout 2010 By the time she won, Ron Silliman’s avant-garde was getting desperate. It would try anything. Do you want to hear a few jokes?

Seventy Four Ted Kooser 2004 He nearly destroyed the Poetry Pulitzer’s reputation by winning. It was between the old avant-garde running out of steam and the complete triumph of Identity Politics. Remember that window? Kooser slipped in.

Seventy Five William Meredith 1988 Nice. And the dull, which tends to rust the nice, has done so.

Seventy Six Frank Bidart 2019 Highly interesting, but I had to rank him here because he borrows explicitly to such an extent. “Ellen West” enthralls me.

Seventy Seven James Wright. 1972 Just awfully sentimental. He was writing during a time when the sentimental had almost been demolished by High Modernism’s brutalist take-over—and I suppose there was a backlash.

Seventy Eight Caroline Kizer 1985 She has a Marianne Moore vibe.

Seventy Nine C.K Williams 2000 Long lines of exuberant tastelessness.

Eighty Gary Snyder 1975 In his poems we glimpse the real good life.

Eighty One Forrest Gander 2018 A highly self-conscious effort at stylishness is what jumps out at me from this winning book. Self-conscious stylishness (or at least what feels self-conscious) is what bothers me about Robert Lowell (he won during a hybrid era when warring Imagism and Romanticism had died in the 1920s, socialist ballads had died after the Hitler/Stalin pact, and post-WW II, ‘good and the stylish, vaguely blending old and new’ was what everyone was expecting) but Robert Lowell could at least versify somewhat.

Eighty Two Franz Wright 2004 An honest and tempestuous man, his poetic legacy now seems largely one of self-pity—with the occasional lyric of shining light.

Eighty Three Claudia Emerson 2006 Prosaic—as if the poem doesn’t know what she’s talking about—though we do.

Eighty Four Lisel Mueller 1997 Free verse without personality is like reading a dictionary or an encyclopedia. Some nice thoughts, but presented in such a way that the air doesn’t move. The sailboat doesn’t go.

Eighty Five Maxine Kumin 1973 She operates poetry’s ranger station.

Eighty Six Karl Shapiro 1945 Childish, description, poetry. Poetry which feels like an exercise. “The Fly,” for instance, is pure horror, and I don’t mean in a good way.

Eighty Seven Henry S. Taylor 1986 Perfected the Modernist, Iowa Workshop, mundane life-plain voice template.

Eighty Eight John Gould Fletcher 1939 He was the one, more than anyone else, who belonged, hesitantly, not intentionally, armed with money, to all the groupings of High Modernism—Amy Lowell’s, Pound’s, the Fugitives, disappointing them all, apparently, by not being loyal enough, or by not spending his money enough. He reminds me of that hapless friend of Iago’s who was advised, “sell all your lands!” He wrote perhaps the worst poem of all time in which he grieves for a “black rock,” sticking out of the ocean, over and over again, in the same way, over multiple stanzas.

Eighty Nine Mark Strand 1998 He represents the nadir of establishment 20th century American free verse. Once a highly acclaimed poet of zen-like poems of profound emptiness which now seem merely empty—the title poem of his winning book, “Blizzard of One,” is really about a single snow flake that floats into a man’s home and sits on his chair and “That’s all/There was to it.”

Here’s an earlier poem by Mark Strand from the late 70s. This was once considered good. I think I probably liked it at one time. Now it just seems embarrassing.

Eating Poetry

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

So there we have it—the best and the worst of the first hundred years of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

Through WW II, nearly half the prizes (10) were given to Frost, EA Robinson, and the Benet brothers.

There has been only one repeat winner since 1989 (W.S. Merwin in 2009).

Depending on your taste, you may want to flip this ranking on its head.

But I’m sticking to this order.

For now.


Image result for poet with a mask

AMANDA GORMAN is an “American poet and activist,” according to Wikipedia.
CATE MARVIN “THE REPUBLICAN PARTY IS EVIL. Straight up evil. It’s just beyond.” –Facebook
3 LOUISE GLUCK 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature
4 JOY HARJO In her third term as Poet Laureate.
5 DON MEE CHOI DMZ Colony, Wave Books, wins 2020 National Book Award.
6 JERICHO BROWN The Tradition, Copper Canyon Press, wins 2020 Pulitzer Prize
NOOR HINDI Poem “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying” in Dec 2020 Poetry.
8 NAOMI SHIHAB NYE Her poem “kindness” read online by Emma Thompson has 2.3 million Instagram views
9 WAYNE MILLER “When Talking About Poetry Online Goes Very Wrong” 2/8/21 essay in Lithub.
10 WILLIAM LOGAN “she speaks in the voice of a documentary narrator, approaching scenes in a hazmat suit.”
11 VICTORIA CHANG Obit Copper Canyon Press, longlist for 2020 National Book Award; also, in BAP.
12 ALAN CORDLE founder of Foetry, “most despised..most feared man in American poetry” —LA Times 2005
13 RUPI KAUR Has sold 3 million books
14 DON SHARE Resigned as Poetry editor August of 2020.
15 MARY RUEFLE Dunce, Wave Books, finalist for 2020 Pulitzer Prize
16 ANTHONY CODY Borderland Apocrypha, longlist for 2020 National Book Award
17 LILLIAN-YVONNE BERTRAM Travesty Generator, longlist for 2020 National Book Award
18 EDUARDO C. CORRAL Guillotine, longlist for 2020 National Book Award
19 PAISLEY REKDAL Poet Laureate of Utah, Guest editor for the 2020 Best American Poetry
20 DORIANNE LAUX Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems, Norton, finalist for 2020 Pulitzer Prize
21 DANEZ SMITH Latest book of poems, Homie, published in 2020.
22 ILYA KAMINSKY LA Times Book Prize in 2020 for Deaf Republic.
23 RON SILLIMAN in Jan. 2021 Poetry “It merely needs to brush against the hem of your gown.”
24 FORREST GANDER Be With, New Directions, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize
25 RITA DOVE Her Penguin Twentieth-Century of American Poetry Anthology is 10 years old. Collected Poems, 2016.
26 NATALIE DIAZ Postcolonial Love Poem, longlist for 2020 National Book Award
27 TERRANCE HAYES “I love how your blackness leaves them in the dark.”
28 TIMOTHY DONNELLY The Problem of the Many, Wave Books, 2019
30 FRANK BIDART Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 (FSG) winner, 2018 Pulitzer
31 OCEAN VUONG “this is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning into a tongue”
32 MATTHEW ZAPRUDER Disputed Ocean Vuong’s Instagram reflections on metaphor.
33 SHARON OLDS Stag’s Leap won 2013 Pulitzer; she’s in 2020 BAP
34 HONOREE FANONNE JEFFERS The Age of Phillis, longlist for 2020 National Book Award.
35 CLAUDIA RANKINE Citizen came out in 2014.
36 HENRI COLE Blizzard, FSG, is his tenth book of poems.
37 TRACY K. SMITH In the New Yorker 10/5
38 DIANE SEUSS In the New Yorker 9/14
39 SUSHMITA GUPTA “She missed her room, her pillow, her side of the bed, her tiny bedside lamp.”
40 ANNE CARSON has translated Sappho and Euripides.
41 AL FILREIS Leads “Poem Talk” with guests on Poetry’s website
42 MARY ANGELA DOUGLAS “the larks cry out and not with music”
43 STEPHEN COLE “…the everlasting living and the longtime dead feast on the same severed, talking head.”
44 MARILYN CHIN Her New and Selected was published in 2018 (Norton).
45 KEVIN GALLAGHER Editor, poet, economist, historian has re-discovered the poet John Boyle O’Reilly.
46 DAVID LEHMAN Series Editor for Best American Poetry—founded in 1988.
47 JIM BEHRLE A thorn in the side of BAP.
48 ROBIN RICHARDSON The Canadian poet wrote recently, “I have removed myself completely from Canadian literature.”
49 PAOLA FERRANTE New editor of Minola Reivew.
50 A.E. STALLINGS Like, FSG, finalist for 2019 Pulitzer
51 TAYLOR JOHNSON Poetry Blog: “felt presence of the black crowd as we study our amongness together.”
52 PATRICA SMITH Incendiary Art, TriQuarterly/Northwestern U, finalist for 2018 Pulitzer
53 TYLER MILLS in Jan. 2021 Poetry “Gatsby is not drinking a gin rickey. Dracula not puncturing a vein.”
54 SEUNGJA CHOI in Jan. 2021 Poetry “Dog autumn attacks. Syphilis autumn.”
55 ATTICUS “It was her chaos that made her beautiful.”
56 JAMES LONGENBACH Essay in Jan. 2021 Poetry, wonders: would Galileo have been jailed were his claims in verse?
57 DAN SOCIU Hit 3 home runs for the Paris Goths in Scarriet’s 2020 World Baseball League.
58 PHILIP NIKOLAYEV Editor of Fulcrum and “14 International Younger Poets” issue from Art and Letters.
59 SUSMIT PANDA “Time walked barefoot; the clock gave it heels.”
60 BRIAN RIHLMANN Poet of working-class honesty.
61 TYREE DAYE in the New Yorker 1/18/21
62 JANE WONG in Dec. 2020 Poetry “My grandmother said it was going to be long—“
63 ALAN SHAPIRO Reel to Reel, University of Chicago Press, finalist for 2015 Pulitzer
64 PIPPA LITTLE in Dec. 2020 Poetry “I knew the names of stones at the river mouth”
65 PATRICK STEWART Read Shakespeare’s Sonnets online to millions of views.
66 STEVEN CRAMER sixth book of poems, Listen, published in 2020.
68 BEN MAZER New book on Harry Crosby. New book of poems. Unearthing poems by Delmore Schwartz for FSG.
69 KEVIN YOUNG Poetry editor of the New Yorker
70 BILLY COLLINS Poet Laureate of the U.S. 2001 to 2003
72 VALERIE MACON fired as North Carolina poet laureate—when it was found she lacked publishing credentials.
73 ANDERS CARLSON-WEE Nation magazine published, then apologized, for his poem, “How-To,” in 2018.
74 DANA GIOIA 99 Poems: New and Selected published in 2016. His famous Can Poetry Matter? came out in 1992.
76 MARJORIE PERLOFF published Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire in 2016.
77 HELEN VENDLER her The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry came out in 2015.
78 MEI-MEI BERSSENBRUGGE A Treatise On Stars, longlist for 2020 National Book Award—her 13th book.
79 GEORGE BILGERE  Belongs to the Billy Collins school. Lives in Cleveland.
80 CAROLYN FORCHE 2020 saw the publication of her book In the Lateness of the World: Poems from Penguin.
81 BOB DYLAN “Shall I leave them by your gate? Or sad-eyed lady, should I wait?”
82 RICHARD HOWARD  has translated Baudelaire, de Beauvoir, Breton, Foucault, Camus and Gide.
83 GLYN MAXWELL The playwright/poet’s mother acted in the original Under Milk Wood on Broadway in 1956.
84 KAVEH AKBAR published in Best New Poets
85 D.A. POWELL The poet has received a Paul Engle Fellowship.
86 JOHN YAU In 2020 BAP
87 DAIPAYAN NAIR “Hold me tight. Bones are my immortality…”
88 ANDREEA IULIA SCRIDON in 14 International Younger Poets from Art and Letters.
89 LORI GOMEZ Sassy and sensual internet poet—Romantic who uses F-bombs.
91 SIMON ARMITAGE In the New Yorker 9/28
92 TOMMYE BLOUNT Fantasia for the Man in Blue, longlist for 2020 National Book Award.
93 TYLER KNOTT GREGSON on Twitter: “let us sign/our names/ in the/emptiness”
94 STEPHANIE BURT Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry published in 2009
95 WILLIE LEE KINARD III in Jan. 2021 Poetry “The lesbians that lived in the apartment to the left…”
96 MICHAEL DICKMAN His poem about his grandmother in 2020 July/August Poetry was controversial.
97 FATIMAH ASGHAR published in Best New Poets
98 RICK BAROT The Galleons, Milkweed Editions, on longlist for 2020 National Book Award and excerpted in BAP 2020
99 DERRICK MICHAEL HUDSON had his 15 minutes of fame in Best American Poetry 2015.
100 JEAN VALENTINE (d. 12/30/20) in New Yorker 1/18/21



Mary Angela Douglas? She is what used to be called a fugitive poet, the word, “fugitive” hinting, with a shudder of mysterious delight, a poet of amateur genius, unrecognized to all but a few fellow travelers. They move past clouds of shrubbery with quiet, solemn, discernment and delight, through wooded paths, towards those broad future plains where celebrants dance in unrestrained ecstasy.

We met Mary on Scarriet, when she responded positively and enthusiastically to Scarriet’s defense of embattled North Carolina poet laureate Valerie Macon.

Mary Angela Douglas permits us to see the adventures taking place in her “eternal child” soul—there is no need for her to research a piece of poetry, to fidget and stare into dust-mote space while she thinks of “a word.” Starlight brings her words, and poetry-light beams up from her like a fountain.

Louise Glück, meanwhile, comes adorned with recognitions and medals, but no less a poet for that, since her poetry shows at times it is wiser than prizes. The muses’ shadows cover the brightest fish in the stream (that brightness is just a dream); all are equal where the green water falls with a chuckle on the green rock.

Mary Angela Douglas has nothing to fear.

This is Scarriet, where the excellence of poetry lives in the veins that sing quietly in hands.

As the first seed, Louise Glück is accorded the honor of going first. She speaks.

The night so eager to accommodate strange perceptions.

The darknesses of this line are thrilling; we see a million shapes between our midnight and our brains. This line has muscle, like an eel waiting patiently in a cave beneath the sea.

Mary Angela Douglas approaches the podium with a flutter; her excitement is palpable. The stately Glück left profundity in her wake. Douglas stirs in the mossy stream. We see the reflection of a wren. The boughs hover.

With utterance of raindrop wings, Douglas:

The larks cry out and not with music.

This contest, between these two women—it has some strange import, we feel.

Poetry seems forever changed.

The ghost of Shelley comes to the edge of the wood.




Scarriet: You know the rules, don’t you?

Marla Muse: Rules?

Scarriet: The March Madness rules.

Marla: Of course!  A sudden death playoff within four brackets. The winner of each bracket makes it to the Final Four, and then a champ is crowned!

Scarriet: We have 64 living poets, represented by their best lines of poetry—and these lines will compete for the top prize.

Marla: Exciting! To be sad, to be happy, or intrigued, or fall into a reverie—from a single line!  Only the best poets can do that to you!  Are all of these exceptional poets?

Scarriet: Of course they are.  The New Wave of Calcutta poetry is represented; poets who have won prizes recently; poets published in the latest BAP; some fugitive poets; and we’ve included a few older lines from well-known poets to populate the top seeds, for a little historical perspective.

Marla: A famous line of poetry!  It seems impossible to do these days.

Scarriet: There are more poets today. And no one is really famous. Some say there are too many poets.

Marla: Marjorie Perloff!

Scarriet: Maybe she’s right.

Marla: Enough of this. Let’s see the brackets!  The poets!  The lines!

Scarriet: Here they are:



Donald Hall–To grow old is to lose everything.

Jorie Graham–A rooster crows all day from mist outside the walls.

Mary Oliver–You do not have to be good.

Anne Carsondon’t keep saying you don’t hear it too.

Robert Haas–So the first dignity, it turns out, is to get the spelling right.

Maura Stanton–Who made me feel by feeling nothing.

Sean O’Brien–‘People’ tell us nowadays these views are terribly unfair, but these forgiving ‘people’ aren’t the ‘people’ who were there.

Warsan Shire–I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes—on my face they are still together.

Ben Mazer–All is urgent, just because it gives, and in the mirror, life to life life gives.

Melissa Green–They’ve mown the summer meadow.

Peter Gizzi–No it isn’t amazing, no none of that.

Traci Brimhall–I broke a shell to keep it from crying out for the sea.

Molly Brodak–boundlessness secretly exists, I hear.

Charles Hayes–Her sweaty driver knows his load is fair.

Jeet Thayil–There are no accidents. There is only God.

Jennifer Moxley–How lovely it is not to go. To suddenly take ill.



Louise Gluck–The night so eager to accommodate strange perceptions.

A.E. Stallings–The woes were words, and the only thing left was quiet.

Patricia Lockwood–How will Over Niagara Falls In A Barrel marry Across Niagara Falls On A Tightrope?

Kevin Young–I want to be doused in cheese and fried.

Ross Gay–One never knows does one how one comes to be.

Andrew Kozma–What lies we tell. I love the living, and you, the dead.

Denise Duhamel–it’s easy to feel unbeautiful when you have unmet desires

Sarah Howe–the razory arms of a juniper rattling crazily at the edge of that endless reddening haze.

Emily Kendal Frey–How can you love people without them feeling accused?

Cristina Sánchez López–Have you heard strings? They seem like hearts that don’t want to forget themselves.

Natalie Scenters-Zapico–apartments that feel like they are by the sea, but out the window there is only freeway

Donna Masini–Even sex is no exit. Ah, you exist.

Meredith Haseman–The female cuckoo bird does not settle down with a mate. Now we make her come out of a clock.

Candace G. Wiley–My dear black Barbie, maybe you needed a grandma to tell you things are better than they used to be.

Ada Limón–just clouds—disorderly, and marvelous and ours.

Mary Angela Douglas–The larks cry out and not with music.



Marilyn Hacker–You happened to me.

Charles Simic–I could have run into the streets naked, confident anyone I met would understand.

Laura Kasischke–but this time I was beside you…I was there.

Michael Tyrell–how much beauty comes from never saying no?

Susan Terris–Cut corners   fit in   marry someone.

Chana Bloch–the potter may have broken the cup just so he could mend it.

Raphael Rubinstein–Every poet thinks about every line being read by someone else.

Willie Perdomo–I go up in smoke and come down in a nod.

Tim Seibles–That instant when eyes meet and slide away—even love blinks, looks off like a stranger.

Lori Desrosiers–I wish you were just you in my dreams.

Philip Nikolayev–I wept like a whale. You had changed my chemical composition forever.

Stephen Sturgeon–City buses are crashing and I can’t hear Murray Perahia.

Joie Bose–Isn’t that love even if it answers not to the heart or heat but to the moment, to make it complete?

Kushal Poddar–Your fingers are alight. Their blazing forest burns towards me.

Marilyn Chin–It’s not that you are rare, nor are you extraordinary, O lone wren sobbing on the bodhi tree.

Stephen Cole–Where every thing hangs on the possibility of understanding and time, thin as shadows, arrives before your coming.




W.S. Merwin–you know there was never a name for that color

Richard Wilbur–not vague, not lonely, not governed by me only

Terrance Hayes–Let us imagine the servant ordered down on all fours.

Claudia Rankine–How difficult is it for one body to see injustice wheeled at another?

Richard Blanco–One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes tired from work.

Brenda Hillman–Talking flames get rid of hell.

Les Murray–Everything except language knows the meaning of existence.

Susan Wood–The simple fact is very plain. They want the bitterness to remain.

Lawrence Raab–nothing truly seen until later.

Joe Green–I’m tired. Don’t even ask me about the gods.

Lynn Hejinian–You spill the sugar when you lift the spoon.

Connie Voisine–The oleanders are blooming and heavy with hummingbirds

Rowan Ricardo Phillips–It does not not get you quite wrong.

Chumki Sharma–After every rain I leave the place for something called home.

Nalini Priyadarshni–Denial won’t redeem you or make you less vulnerable. My unwavering love just may.

Julie Carr–Either I loved myself or I loved you.








Image result for yone noguchi

Yone Noguchi and Joaquin Miller: How curiously they would gaze on us today!

This latest Hot 100 List is mostly comprised of very brief quotes from poems in BAP 2015—now the most collectible volume in David Lehman’s “best” anthology series, due to its Yi-Fen Chou controversy.

The “molecular” display presents fragmentary glimpses of “hot,” and we must say it is an interesting way to see the poets—can we know them by a few of their poetry molecules?

We may be living, without knowing it, in the Age of the Fragment.  The best prose-poems often produce dull fragments. That’s the bad news. The good news is that fragments from dull prose-poems may intimate genius; if future ages can only read the fragments we produce today, some lucky poets, who wrote mediocre prose poems, may be hailed as geniuses. Since the lyric of unified metrical accomplishment is really not our strength today, the Fragment may be our era’s ticket to lasting fame.

Is it the goal of the fragment to be fragmentary?  Is it ever the goal of the poem to be fragmentary?  Are there different types of fragments?  Is there not a rush to completion by every poem itself that makes even a fragment seem complete, beyond even the knowledge of the poet?

Getting to know David Lehman on Facebook…he loves rhyme, especially the rollicking sort, and we believe those sorts of poems in BAP are his selections.  Lehman is also a ‘free-speech-er;’ he sanctions the racy; the BAP poems often strive to be popular in the attention-getting sense, which I suppose is admirable—or not.

The non-poem exceptions in the Scarriet list are recent remarks by the hot Alexie, Lehman, Perloff, and Mary Karr. We are proud to include the quotation from Perloff—who chose to break her silence on the “racist Avant-garde” controversy by addressing Scarriet—on Facebook!—as she admitted her book Unoriginal Genius and its final chapter on Goldsmith’s Traffic may have had a part in bringing on the racist label. Are we not interested in my discussion of Yoko Tawada in Unoriginal Genius, Perloff asked, because she’s Asian-German, rather than Asian-American? “What xenophobia!”

The question we asked Perloff was, “Is the non-creative nearly racist by default?” The question was not meant to put Perloff on the spot; it was as much about the current race-conscious atmosphere as it was about Perloff, or the avant-garde. Were an avant-garde poet to tweet “red wheel barrow beside the white chickens” enough times, just think what might happen. And speaking of Williams (and Pound) and their Imagiste schtick: Scarriet, in its five year assault on Avant-Garde Modernism as a reactionary clique of white men, should get some credit for opening up this whole discussion.

Scarriet has written of Yone Noguchi (1875-1947) in the context of Imagism ripping off haiku, the importance of the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese war, and Noguchi’s important contacts: Yeats, Hardy, Symons, and John Gould Fletcher—the Arkansas poet who, along with Ford Maddox Ford, was the connecting link between Pound’s circle and the equally reactionary and highly influential circle of New Critics—the group of men who brought us the Writing Program Era—and its “difficult” Modernist flavor.

Scarriet, which trailblazes often, found the secret to the Red Wheel Barrow poem: WC Williams had a brother, Edgar, who married the woman he loved, Charlotte (Bill married her sister). “So much depended on” this: and Ed can be found in “red,” Charlotte in “chickens” and “white” symbolizes the bride.

But here we go. Controversy and hot go together; let’s get to the hot list. No mention of awards this time. Enjoy the list—and the poetry.

1. Yi-Fen Chou –“Adam should’ve said no to Eve.”

2. Derrick Michael Hudson –“Am I supposed to say something, add a soundtrack and voiceover?”

3. Sherman Alexie –“I am no expert on Chinese names…I’d assumed the name was Chinese.”

4. David Lehman –“Isn’t giving offense, provoking discussion…part of the deal?”

5. Terrance Hayes –“Let us imagine the servant ordered down on all fours”

6. Marjorie Perloff — “Scarriet poses the question…I have so far refrained from answering this and related questions but perhaps it is time to remind Scarriet and its readership…”

7. Amy Gerstler –“…live on there forever if heaven’s bereft of smell?”

8. Jane Hirshfield — “A common cold, we say—common, though it is infinite”

9. Mary Karr — “[John Ashbery is] the most celebrated unclothed emperor…an invention of academic critics…the most poisonous influence in American poetry”

10. Mary Oliver — “June, July, August. Every day, we hear their laughter.”

11. Rowan Ricardo Phillips — “It does not not get you quite wrong.”

12. Lawrence Raab — “nothing truly seen until later.”

13. Patrick Phillips — “Touched by your goodness, I am like that grand piano we found one night”

14. Dan Chiasson — “The only god is the sun, our mind, master of all crickets and clocks.”

15. Willie Perdomo — I go up in smoke and come down in a nod”

16. Katha Pollitt — “Truth had no past. It was wordless as water, a fall of shadow on stone.”

17. Tim Seibles — “That instant when eyes meet and slide away—even love blinks, looks off like a stranger”

18. Marilyn Hacker — “You happened to me.”

19. Charles Simic — “I could have run into the street naked, confident anyone I met would understand”

20. Louise Glück — “…the night so eager to accommodate strange perceptions.”

21. Laura Kasischke — “but this time I was beside you. …I was there.”

22. Michael Tyrell — “how much beauty comes from never saying no?”

23. Susan Terris — “cut corners    fit in     marry someone”

24. Cody Walker — “Holly round the house for a Muhammad Ali roundhouse.”

25. A.E. Stallings — “the woes were words,     and the only thing left was quiet.”

26. Valerie Macon — “coats fat over lean with a bright brush”

27. Jennifer Keith — “…bound to break: One the fiction, one the soul, the fact.”

28. Ed Skoog — “Its characters are historians at the Eisenhower Library.”

29. Terence Winch — “I’m in the emergency room at Holy Cross hoping all is not lost.”

30. Chana Bloch — “the potter may have broken the cup just so he could mend it.”

31. Natalie Diaz — “Today my brother brought over a piece of the ark”

32. LaWanda Walters — “And we—we white girls—knew nothing.”

33. Raphael Rubinstein — “Every poet thinks about every line being read by someone else”

34. R.S. Gwynn — “How it shows, shows, shows. (How it shows!)”

35. Robin Coste Lewis — “how civic the slick to satisfied from man.”

36. Andrew Kozma — “What lies we tell. I love the living, and you, the dead.”

37. Melissa Barrett — “—lines from Craiglist personal ads

38. Mark Bibbins — “He’s Serbian or something, whole family wiped out”

39. Chen Chen — “i pledge allegiance to the already fallen snow”

40. Patricia Lockwood — “How will Over Niagara Falls in a Barrel marry Across…on a Tightrope?”

41. Ron Padgett — “Old feller, young feller, who cares?”

42. Bethany Schultz Hurst — “Then things got confusing for superheroes.”

43. Natalie Scenters-Zapico — “…apartments that feel like they are by the sea, but out the window there is only freeway.”

44. Sandra Simonds — “Her little girl threw fake bills into the air.”

45. Donna Masini — “Even sex is no exit.  Ah, you exist.”

46. Dora Malech — “paper mane fluttering in the breeze of a near miss, belly ballasted with…kisses”

47. David Kirby — “Pets are silly, but the only world worth living in is one that doesn’t think so.”

48. Ross Gay —  “One never knows does one how one comes to be”

49. Meredith Hasemann — “The female cuckoo bird does not settle down with a mate. Now we make her come out of a clock.”

50. Madelyn Garner — “working her garden…which is happiness—even as petal and pistil we fall.”

51. Wendy Videlock — “like a lagoon, like a canoe, like you”

52. Erica Dawson — “I knocked out Sleeping Beauty, fucking cocked her on the jaw.”

53. Hailey Leithauser — “Eager spills eel-skin, python, seal-leather, platinum and plate, all cabbage, all cheddar.”

54. Monica Youn –“the dead-eyed Christ in Pietro’s Resurrection will march right over the sleeping soldiers”

55. Tanya Olson — “Assless Pants Prince High-Heels Boots Prince Purple Rain Prince”

56. Jericho Brown — “But nobody named Security ever believes me.”

57. Danielle DeTiberus — “In a black tank top, I can watch him talk about beams, joists…for hours”

58. Rebecca Hazelton — “My husband bearded, my husband shaved, the way my husband taps out the razor”

59. Dana Levin — “I watched them right after I shot them: thirty seconds of smashed sea while the real sea thrashed and heaved—”

60. Evie Shockley — “fern wept, let her eyes wet her tresses, her cheeks, her feet. the cheerlessness rendered her blessed”

61. Alan Michael Parker — “Rabbi, try the candied mint: it’s heaven.”

62. Aimee Nezhukumatahil — “I wonder if scientists could classify us a binary star—”

63. D. Nurske — “Neils Bohr recites in his soft rapt voice: I divide myself into two persons”

64. Afaa Michael Weaver — “inside oneness that appears when the prison frees me to know I am not it and it is not me.”

65. Marilyn Chin — “She was neither black nor white, neither cherished nor vanquished, just another squatter in her own bamboo grove”

66. Candace G. Wiley — ” My dear black Barbie, maybe you needed a grandma to tell you things are better than they used to be.”

67. Joanna Valente — “Sometimes, at night, I wish for someone to break into me—”

68. Jeet Thayil — “There are no accidents.  There is only God.”

69. Kate Tempest — “It gets into your bones.”

70. Alice Notley — “To take part in you is to die is why one dies Have I said this before?”

71. Eileen Myles — “Well I’ll be a poet. What could be more foolish and obscure.”

72. Major Jackson — “When you have forgotten the meaningful bop”

73. Dawn Lundy Martin — “And Olivia, the mouth of his children from the mouth of my vagina.”

74. Kiki Petrosino — “We sense them shining in our net of nerves.”

75. Jennifer Moxley — “How lovely it is not to go. To suddenly take ill.”

76. Juliana Spahr — “There is space between the hands.”

77. Ada Limón — “just clouds—disorderly, and marvelous, and ours.”

78. Kevin Young — “I want to be doused in cheese and fried.”

79. Dodie Bellamy — “what is it have I seen it before will it hurt me or help me”

80. Juan Felipe Herrera — “Could this be yours? Could this item belong to you? Could this ticket be what you ordered, could it?”

81. Joy Harjo — “The woman inside the woman who was to dance naked in the bar of misfits blew deer magic.”

82. Saeed Jones — “In the dark, my mind’s night, I go back”

83. Sarah Arvio — “The new news is I love you my nudist”

84. Desiree Bailey — “how will I swim to you when the day is done?”

85. Rachael Briggs — “Jenny, sunny Jenny, beige-honey Jenny”

86. Rafael Campo — “We lie and hide from what the stethoscope will try to say”

87. Emily Kendal Frey — “How can you love people without them feeling accused?”

88. James Galvin — “Where is your grandmother’s wedding dress? What, gone?”

89. Douglas Kearney — “people in their house on TV are ghosts haunting a house haunting houses.”

90. Jamaal May — “how ruined the lovely children must be in your birdless city”

91. Claudia Rankine — “What did he just say? Did she really just say that?”

92. Donald Platt — “Someone jerks his strings. He can’t stop punching.”

93. Denise Duhamel — “it’s easy to feel unbeautiful when you have unmet desires”

94. Jane Wong — “A planet fell out of my mouth”

95. Derrick Austin — “Will you find me without the pink and blue hydrangeas?”

96. Dexter L. Booth — “The head goes down in defeat, but lower in prayer”

97. Catherine Bowman — “From two pieces of string and oil-fattened feathers he made a father.”

98. Jessamyn Birrer — “Abracadabra: The anus. The star at the base of the human balloon.”

99. Julie Carr– “Can you smell her from here?”

100. Mary Angela Douglas — “music remains in the sifted ruins”



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


There Were Only Dandelions

Relevant Details

The Chickasaw Trees

A fourteen-line poem on sex

A Scatology


Prayer at 3 a.m.

Cedars of Lebanon



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


in the hall of the ruby-throated warbler

A Retrograde


Body & Kentucky Bourbon

Dear Black Barbie

City of Eternal Spring


Upon Hearing the News You Buried Our Dog

Candying Mint


Watching the Sea Go

My Husband

In a Black Tank Top


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



Is Spot in Heaven?

Party Games


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


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


Trades I Would Make

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


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.






1. Vanessa Place —The High Creator does not create.

2. Kenneth Goldsmith —Death to the “creative” once and for all.

3. Simon Armitage —Best known for 9/11 poem, wins Oxford Poetry Professorship

4. A.E. Stallings —Lost the Oxford. World is still waiting for a good New Formalist poet.

5. John Ashbery —Doesn’t need to be good. Unlike New Formalists, his content and form agree.

6. Marjorie Perloff —Must confront this question: is the “non-creative” nearly racist by default?

7. Ron Silliman —Keeps tabs on the dying. Burned by the Avant Racism scandal.

8. Stephen Burt —Stephanie goes to Harvard.

9. Rita Dove —We asked her about Perloff; she laughed. No intellectual pretense.

10. Claudia Rankine —Social confrontation as life and death.

11. Juan Felipe Herrera —New U.S. Poet Laureate. MFA from Iowa. Farm workers’ son.

12. William Logan —“Shakespeare, Pope, Milton by fifth grade.” In the Times. He’s trying.

13. Patricia Lockwood —“Rape Joke” went Awl viral.

14. Lawrence Ferlinghetti —At 96, last living Beat.

15. Richard Wilbur —At 94, last living Old Formalist.

16. Don Share —Fuddy-duddy or cutting edge? It’s impossible to tell with Poetry.

17. Valerie Macon —Good poet. Hounded from NC Laureate job for lacking creds.

18. Helen Vendler —New book of essays a New Critical tour de force. Besotted with Ashbery and Graham.

19. Cathy Park Hong —Fighting the racist Avant Garde.

20. David Lehman —As the splintering continues, his BAP seems less and less important.

21. Billy Collins —His gentle historical satire is rhetoric nicely fitted to free verse.

22. David Orr —Common sense critic at the Times.

23. Frank Bidart —Student of Lowell and Bishop, worked with James Franco. Drama. Confessionalism.

24. Kevin Coval —Co-editor of Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop.

25. Philip Nikolayev —Globe-trotting translator, editor, poet.

26. Ben Mazer —Neo-Romantic. Has advanced past Hart Crane.

27. Amy KingHates mansplaining. 

28. Sharon Olds —Best living female poet?

29. Louise Gluck —Her stock is quietly rising.

30. Jorie Graham —Her Collected has landed.

31. George Bilgere —If you like Billy Collins…and what’s wrong with that?

32. Garrison Keillor —Is he retiring?

33. Kent Johnson —Is his Prize List so quickly forgotten?

34. David Biespiel —One of the villagers trying to chase Conceptualism out of town.

35. Carol Ann Duffy —The “real” Poet Laureate—she’s Brih-ish.

36. Cate Marvin —Poet who leads the VIDA hordes.

37. Lyn Hejinian —The best Language Poet?

38. Dan ChiassonNew Yorker house critic.

39. Michael Robbins —As with Logan, we vastly prefer the criticism to the poetry.

40. Joe Green —His Selected, The Loneliest Ranger, has been recently published.

41. Harold Bloom —The canonizer.

42. Dana Gioia —The best of New Formalism.

43. Seth Abramson —Meta-Modernism. That dog won’t hunt.

44. Henry Gould —Better at responding than asserting; reflecting the present state of Criticism today.

45. W.S. Merwin —Knew Robert Graves—who recommended mushroom eating (yea, that kind of mushroom) as Oxford Poetry Professor in the 60s.

46. Marilyn Chin —Passionate lyricist of “How I Got That Name.”

47. Anne Carson —“The Glass Essay” is a confessional heartbreak.

48. Terrence Hayes —Already a BAP editor.

49. Timothy Steele —Another New Formalist excellent in theorizing—but too fastidious as a poet.

50. Natasha Trethewey —Was recently U.S. Poet Laureate for two terms.

51. Tony Hoagland —Hasn’t been heard from too much since his tennis poem controversy.

52. Camille Paglia —Aesthetically, she’s too close to Harold Bloom and the New Critics.

53. William Kulik —Kind of the Baudelaire plus Hemingway of American poetry. Interesting, huh?

54. Mary Oliver —Always makes this list, and we always mumble something about “Nature.”

55. Robert Pinsky —He mentored VIDA’s Erin Belieu.

56. Alan Cordle —We will never forget how Foetry.com changed the game.

57. Cole Swensen –A difficult poet’s difficult poet.

58. Charles Bernstein —One day Language Poetry will be seen for what it is: just another clique joking around.

59. Charles Wright —Pulitzer in ’98, Poet Laureate in ’14.

60. Paul Muldoon New Yorker Nights

61. Geoffrey Hill —The very, very difficult school.

62. Derek Walcott —Our time’s Homer?

63. Janet Holmes —Program Era exemplar.

64. Matthew Dickman —The youth get old. Turning 40.

65. Kay Ryan —Are her titles—“A Ball Rolls On A Point”—better than her poems?

66. Laura Kasischke —The aesthetic equivalent of Robert Penn Warren?

67. Nikki Finney —NAACP Image Award

68. Louis Jenkins —His book of poems, Nice Fish, is a play at the American Repertory Theater this winter.

69. Kevin Young —A Stenger Fellow who studied with Brock-Broido and Heaney at Harvard

70. Timothy Donnelly —His Cloud Corporation made a big splash.

71. Heather McHugh —Her 2007 BAP guest editor volume is one of the best.

72. D.A. Powell —Stephen Burt claims he is original and accessible to an extraordinary degree.

73. Eileen Myles —We met her on the now-defunct Blog Harriet Public Form.

74. Richard Howard —Pulitzer-winning essayist, critic, translator and poet

75. Robert Hass —U.S. Poet Laureate in the 90s, a translator of haiku and Milosz.

76. Rae Armantrout —Emily Dickinson of the Avant Garde?

77. Peter Gizzi —His Selected, In Defense of Nothing, came out last year.

78. Fanny Howe —Is it wrong to think everything is sacred? An avant-garde Catholic.

79. Robert Archambeau —His blog is Samizdat. Rhymes with Scarriet.

80. X.J. Kennedy —Keeping the spirit of Frost alive.

81. Robert PolitoPoetry man.

82. David Ferry —Classical poetry translator.

83. Mark Doty —A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

84. Al Filreis  —Co-founder of PennSound

85. Frederick Seidel —Has been known to rhyme malevolence with benevolence.

86. Sherman Alexie —Is taught in high school. We wonder how many on this list are?

87. Marie Howe —Margaret Atwood selected her first book for a prize.

88. Carol Muske-Dukes —In recent Paris Review interview decried cutting and pasting of “Unoriginal Genius.”

89. Martha Ronk —In the American Hybrid anthology from Norton.

90. Juliana Spahr —Has a PhD from SUNY Buffalo. Hates “capitalism.”

91. Patricia Smith —Four-time winner of the National Poetry Slam.

92. Dean Young —His New & Selected, Bender, was published in 2012.

93. Jennifer Knox —Colloquial and brash.

94. Alicia Ostriker —“When I write a poem, I am crawling into the dark.”

95. Yusef Komunyakaa —Known for his Vietnam poems.

96. Stephen Dunn —His latest work is Lines of Defense: Poems.

97. Thomas Sayer Ellis —Poet and photographer.

98. Carolyn Forche —Lannan Chair in Poetry at Georgetown University.

99. Margaret Atwood —Poet, novelist, and environmental activist.

100. Forrest Gander —The Trace is his latest.







Anis Shivani might be a bitter guy, but as a literary critic at the Huffington Post  he exemplifies the sort of high-brow hating which pleases like a good nerdy fuck.

Let’s say this much of criticism which pummels its subjects: it will always be closer to the truth. 

Think about your own life.  Really knowing your friends, your lovers, your spouses, your places of unemployment, are you not palpably aware of numerous flaws, faults, stupidities, culpabilities and insanities, and isn’t your intimate experience the reason for this—not because you happen to be mean?

Criticism is—criticism.  Why shouldn’t we expect criticism to provide the insights of the inevitable flaws?  Sure, there are perfect poems here and there, perhaps a flawless short story, but when reviewing the corpus of a fashionable writer, life being what it is, there’s got to be let-downs, just as we are disappointed by our friends, our lovers, our jobs.

Social decorum should keep us from attacking our personal relationships—but why shouldn’t we be honest regarding a book that wants out time and money? 

Anis Shivani is correct—both in his criticism and by what his criticism symbolizes: In Literary Criticism, the bland and cheery is always bad, always a lie.

Anis Shivani is correct—even as we disagree with him; disagreeing with him (he over-values High Modernism, for instance) is not the point, for Shivani’s whole impulse his correct, and his audience responds—people deeply want honest criticism, and despite what the status quo sometimes says, they shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting it.

We disagree with Shivani when he writes of Billy Collins’ work: “escapist denial of death is pervasive.”  Has Shivani read Collins’ poem, “Passengers?” And we are only mildly miffed that Shivani stole our idea—debuted on Scarriet several years ago—that Collins’ poetry is “stand-up comedy.”  We forgive Shivani, for this nice observation alone: “[Collins]poems have lately become mostly about writing poems–in his pajamas, with a cup of coffee in hand.”

We also like that Shivani is well-acquainted with all genres; there’s nothing we hate more than ghetto-izing and niche-ing.   In his recent The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers, 7 are fiction writers, 6 are poets, and 2 are critics.

Shivani opens with a moral, common sense overview:

Are the writers receiving the major awards and official recognition really the best writers today? Or are they overrated mediocrities with little claim to recognition by posterity? The question is harder than ever to answer today, yet it is a worthwhile exercise to attempt (along with identifying underrated writers not favored by bureaucracy).

It’s difficult to know today because we no longer have major critics with wide reach who take vocal stands. There are no Malcolm Cowleys, Edmund Wilsons, and Alfred Kazins to separate the gold from the sand. Since the onset of poststructuralist theory, humanist critics have been put to pasture. The academy is ruled by “theorists” who consider their work superior to the literature they deconstruct, and moreover they have no interest in contemporary literature. As for the reviewing establishment, it is no more than the blurbing arm for conglomerate publishing, offering unanalytical “reviews” announcing that the emperor is wearing clothes (hence my inclusion of Michiko Kakutani).

The ascent of creative writing programs means that few with critical ability have any incentive to rock the boat–awards and jobs may be held back in retaliation. The writing programs embody a philosophy of neutered multiculturalism/political correctness; as long as writers play by the rules (no threatening history or politics), there’s no incentive to call them out. (A politically fecund multiculturalism–very desirable in this time of xenophobia–is the farthest thing from the minds of the official arbiters: such writing would be deemed “dangerous,” and never have a chance against the mediocrities.)

The MFA writing system, with its mechanisms of circulating popularity and fashionableness, leans heavily on the easily imitable. Cloying writers like Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Aimee Bender, and Charles D’Ambrosio are held up as models of good writing, because they’re easy enough to copy. And copied they are, in tens of thousands of stories manufactured in workshops. Others hide behind a smokescreen of unreadable inimitability–Marilynne Robinson, for example–to maintain a necessary barrier between the masses and the overlords. Since grants, awards, and residencies are controlled by the same inbreeding group, it’s difficult to see how the designated heavies can be displaced.

As for conglomerate publishing, the decision-makers wouldn’t know great literature if it hit them in the face. Their new alliance with the MFA writing system is bringing at least a minimum of readership for mediocre books, and they’re happy with that. And the mainstream reviewing establishment (which is crumbling by the minute) validates their choices with fatuous accolades, recruiting mediocre writers to blurb (review) them.

If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded. They are the unreadable Booth Tarkingtons, Joseph Hergesheimers, and John Herseys of our time, earnestly bringing up the rear.

It’s hard to argue with his general points, and we like his pedagogical earnestness, too: “If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing.”

Here are the summary observations on the 15, and Shivani is definitely a critic of the twitter age, as he packs each line with left-wing, moral outrage:

Ashbery: When reality = language (as his carping cousins the language poets, have it) politics becomes vacuous, and any usurper can, and will step in.

Collins: Pioneered the poet as the stand-up comedian…

Cunningham: Proves the point that to be successful as a fiction writer today, all you have to do is create facile pastiche assemblages.

Diaz: Replaces plot in stories and novels with pumped-up “voice.”

Foer: Always quick to jump on the bandwagon of the moment.

Gluck: Her flatness of tone (mistaken as equanimity by infatuated critics) suggests paralysis after emotional death.

Graham: Started off modestly, but with increasing official recognition, her abstractions, pseudo-philosophizing, self-importance, and centerless long lines have spun out of control.

Kakutani: Simply the worst book critic on the planet.

Lahiri: Utterly unwilling to write about any thing other than privileged Bengali immigrants with PhDs living in Cambridge’s Central and Inman Squares and making easy adjustments to top of American meritocratic pyramid.

Nelson: Workshop writing, dysfunctionality is thy name, and there is no better writer to learn family dysfunction from…

Oliver: A “nature poet” whose poems all seem to follow the same pattern: time, animal, setting, observation, epiphany.

Olds: Infantilization packaged in pseudo-confession…

Tan: Empowered other immigrant writers to make mountains out of molehills of their minor adjustment struggles.

Vendler: Zero poetic feeling…has never uttered one original insight…

Vollmann: Encapsulates ethical vacuity of American fiction after the collapse of 1970s postmodernism.

It does not matter, for instance, that we feel Sharon Olds has written some moving poems: Anis Shivani is entitled to his opinion of Olds’ poetry—and if that’s how he feels about it, he should be allowed to utter it, and everyone should be encouraged to be that opinionated—if only to combat the reverse condition: the true literary nightmare of know-nothing politeness.


1. Natasha Trethewey   Beautiful! Black! Poet Laureate!
2. Billy Collins  Still sells…
3. David Lehman  Best American Poetry Series chugs along…
4. Stephen Burt  Harvard Cross-dresser takes Vendler’s mantle?
5. William Logan  Most entertaining poetry critic
6. Christian Wiman  He’s the “Poetry” man, he makes me feel alright…
7. Sharon Olds  Sock-in-the-gut, sexy frankness…
8. Tracy K. Smith Young Pulitzer winner
9. David Orr  The New York Times Poetry Critic…
10. Harold Bloom  Not sure on Naomi Wolfe; we know he abused Poe….
11. Matthew Dickman  OMG!  Is he really no. 11?
12. Anne Carson  Professor of Classics born in Toronto…
13. Dana Gioia  Famous essay still resonates & not a bad formalist poet…
14. Jorie Graham Judge not…
15. Rita Dove The Penguin Anthology really wasn’t that good…
16. Helen Vendler Almost 80!
17. John Ashbery Has he ever written a poem for no. 16?  Where’s the love?
18. David Ferry This translator is almost 90!
19. Kevin Young We hear he’s a leading poet of his generation…
20. Robert Pinsky The smartest man in the universe…
21. Cole Swenson  The Hybrid Queen, newly installed at Brown…
22. Marjorie Perloff  “Poetry on the Brink” praises cut-and-paste…
23. John Barr Financial leader of Poetry Foundation and poet worth reading?
24. Seamus Heaney  The inscrutable Irish mountain…
25. Geoffrey Hill  A mountain who is really a hill?
26. Robert Hass  West-coast cheerleader.
27. Stephen Dunn  Athlete, philosopher, poet
28. Laura Kassichke  Championed by Burt.
29. Mary Oliver  The John Clare of today…
30. Kay Ryan  Come on, she’s actually good…
31. Don Share  Riding “Poetry” gravy train…
32. W.S. Merwin  Noble, ecological, bull?
33. Dana Levin Do you know the way to Santa Fe?
34. Susan Wheeler Elliptical Poet.  At Princeton.
35. Tony Hoagland Has the racial controversy faded?
36. Mark Doty Sharon Olds’ little brother…
37. Frank Bidart The Poet as Greek Tragedian
38. Simon Armitage Tilda Swinton narrates his global warming doc
39. D.A. Powell He likes the weather in San Francisco…
40. Philip Levine Second generation Program Era poet
41. Ron Silliman Experimental to the bone, his blog is video central…
42. Mark Strand Plain-talking surrealist, studied painting with Josef Albers…
43. Dan Chiasson Influential poetry reviewer…
44. Al Filreis  On-line professor teaches modern poetry to thousands at once!
45. Paul Muldoon If you want your poem in the New Yorker, this is the guy…
46. Charles Bernstein Difficult, Inc.
47. Rae Armantrout  If John Cage wrote haiku?
48. Louise Gluck Bollingen Prize winner…
49. Ben Mazer 2012 Scarriet March Madness Champ, studied with Heaney, Ricks…
50. Carol Muske-Dukes California Laureate
51. Peter Riley His critical essay crushes the hybrid movement…
52. Lyn Hejinian California Language Poet…
53. Peter Gizzi 12 issues of O.blek made his name…
54. Franz Wright Cantankerous but blessed…
55. Nikky Finney 2011 National Book Award winner 
56. Garrison Keillor Good poems!
57. Camille Paglia  She’s baaaack!
58. Christian Bok Author of Canada’s best-selling poetry book
59. X.J. Kennedy Classy defender of rhyme…
60. Frederick Seidel Wears nice suits…
61. Henri Cole Poems “cannily wrought” –New Yorker
62. Thom Donovan Poetry is Jorie-Graham-like…
63. Marie Howe State Poet of New York

64. Michael Dickman The other twin…
65. Alice Oswald Withdrew from T.S. Eliot prize shortlist…
66. Sherman Alexie Poet/novelist/filmmaker…
67. J.D. McClatchy Anthologist and editor of Yale Review…
68. David Wagoner Edited Poetry Northwest until it went under…
69. Richard Wilbur A versifier’s dream…
70. Stephen Cramer His fifth book is called “Clangings.”
71. Galway Kinnell We scolded him on his poem in the New Yorker critical of Shelley…
72. Jim Behrle Gadfly of the BAP
73. Haruki Murakami The Weird Movement…
74. Tim Seibles Finalist for National Book Award in Poetry
75. Brenda Shaughnessy  Editor at Tin House…
76. Maurice Manning  The new Robert Penn Warren?
77. Eileen Myles We met her on the now-dead Comments feature of Blog Harriet
78. Heather McHugh Studied with Robert Lowell; translator.
79. Juliana Spahr Poetry and sit-ins
80. Alicia Ostriker Poetry makes feminist things happen…
81. William Childress His ‘Is Free Verse Killing Poetry?’ caused a stir…
82. Patricia Smith Legendary Slam Poet…
83. James Tate The Heart-felt Zany Iowa School…
84. Barrett Watten Language Poet Theorist.
85. Elizabeth Alexander Obama’s inaugural poet.
86. Alan Cordle Foetry changed poetry forever.
87. Dean Young Heart transplanted, we wish him the best…
88. Amy Beeder “You’ll never feel full”
89. Valzhyna Mort Franz Wright translated her from the Belarusian…
90. Mary Jo Salter Studied with Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard…
91. Seth Abramson Lawyer/poet who researches MFA programs and writes cheery reviews…
92. Amy Catanzano “My aim is to become incomprehensible to the machines.”
93. Cate Marvin  VIDA co-founder and co-director
94. Jay Wright First African-American to win the Bollingen Prize (2005)
95. Albert Jack His “Dreadful Demise Of Edgar Allan Poe” builds on Scarriet’s research: Poe’s cousin may be guilty…
96. Mary Ruefle “I remember, I remember”
97. John Gallaher Selfless poet/songwriter/teacher/blogger
98. Philip Nikolayev From Fulcrum to Battersea…
99. Marcus Bales Democratic Activist and Verse Poet
100. Joe Green And Hilarity Ensued…


Stephen Dunn belongs to the Billy Collins school.  They should go on a poetry-reading tour together.

The public needs to know: this is modern poetry which is being written for you—and here are the poets who write this kind of poetry.

It’s not just Collins and Dunn.  One thinks of Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, James Tate, Matthew Dickman, and maybe Louise Gluck, who—without a poem in the Rita Dove Penguin anthology—is one win away from the Final Four.   The public really does need to know who these poets are, the poets who, in every poem, more than anything, want to please the public. 

It’s a given that the public is 1) hard to please, and 2) they need to be led by the nose.  We shouldn’t mourn this fact.  We should just accept it.  But po-biz will not.

Once the public discovered Billy Collins wrote to them and loved them, and he was a safe bet in this regard, Billy Collins and his poetry did alright.

Collins fell short of being a national phenomenon, but can you imagine if he were young and good-looking?   Who knows?  Poetry might be big again.

I asked a young writer friend of mine recently why he thought people read novels instead of poetry and what he said was: when you’re on the train and you finish a poem (which invariably makes you realize that everyone else not sharing in the beauty and wisdom of the poem you are reading is an asshole) you look up and see all the assholes on the train, but with a novel, you get to keep reading and you never have to look up at all the assholes.

If only poems could last at least as long as a train commute.

First the Louise Gluck poem, and then Stephen Dunn’s:


I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.
She thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth she’s unusually competent.
Brave too, able to face unpleasantness.

We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it.
I’m always moved by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality
But timid also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
According to nature. For my sake she intervened
Brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down
Across the road.

My friend says I shut my eyes to God, that nothing else explains
My aversion to reality. She says I’m like the child who
Buries her head in the pillow
So as not to see, the child who tells herself
That light causes sadness-
My friend is like the mother. Patient, urging me
To wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person-

In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
On the same road, except it’s winter now;
She’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
Look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
Like brides leaping to a great height-
Then I’m afraid for her; I see her
Caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth-

In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;
From time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.
It’s this moment we’re trying to explain, the fact
That we’re at ease with death, with solitude.
My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar doesn’t move.
She’s always trying to make something whole, something beautiful, an image
Capable of life apart from her.
We’re very quiet. It’s peaceful sitting here, not speaking, The composition
Fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air
Going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering-
It’s this stillness we both love.
The love of form is a love of endings.


Relax. This won’t last long.
Or if it does, or if the lines
make you sleepy or bored,
give in to sleep, turn on
the T.V., deal the cards.
This poem is built to withstand
such things. Its feelings
cannot be hurt. They exist
somewhere in the poet,
and I am far away.
Pick it up anytime. Start it
in the middle if you wish.
It is as approachable as melodrama,
and can offer you violence
if it is violence you like. Look,
there’s a man on a sidewalk;
the way his leg is quivering
he’ll never be the same again.
This is your poem
and I know you’re busy at the office
or the kids are into your last nerve.
Maybe it’s sex you’ve always wanted.
Well, they lie together
like the party’s unbuttoned coats,
slumped on the bed
waiting for drunken arms to move them.
I don’t think you want me to go on;
everyone has his expectations, but this
is a poem for the entire family.
Right now, Budweiser
is dripping from a waterfall,
deodorants are hissing into armpits
of people you resemble,
and the two lovers are dressing now,
saying farewell.
I don’t know what music this poem
can come up with, but clearly
it’s needed. For it’s apparent
they will never see each other again
and we need music for this
because there was never music when he or she
left you standing on the corner.
You see, I want this poem to be nicer
than life. I want you to look at it
when anxiety zigzags your stomach
and the last tranquilizer is gone
and you need someone to tell you
I’ll be here when you want me
like the sound inside a shell.
The poem is saying that to you now.
But don’t give anything for this poem.
It doesn’t expect much. It will never say more
than listening can explain.
Just keep it in your attache case
or in your house. And if you’re not asleep
by now, or bored beyond sense,
the poem wants you to laugh. Laugh at
yourself, laugh at this poem, at all poetry.
Come on:

Good. Now here’s what poetry can do.

Imagine yourself a caterpillar.
There’s an awful shrug and, suddenly,
You’re beautiful for as long as you live.

Dunn woos the reader, outrageously.  The last line is not true—but in poetryland it is.  But the line is true, perhaps, because Dunn began by saying, “Imagine.”  Dunn is out there on a limb, like a coach, telling the reader what to do.  He has set up the relationship between writer and reader—in full confidence.

Louise Gluck never woos the reader: she talks plainly and half-hopes the reader overhears.  Which is what most poets do.  Otherwise, you risk being a jerk. The last line of her poem, “The love of form is a love of endings,” is not meant to be outrageous—and only true in poetryland—but actually true.  Therefore, she takes a much greater risk than Dunn.  We accept Dunn’s line immediately, perhaps on account that we know right away that it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.  We have to think about Gluck’s last line: Is the love of form really a love of endings?   One understands conceptually what Gluck is saying, and one may even appreciate that “endings” ends her poem—with the two silent, contemplative friends sitting together as night falls.  But in baseball terminology, Dunn hits his pitch perfectly on a line out of the park for a homerun, while Gluck hits a tremendous fly ball that’s a towering pop up, taking forever to come down, for an out.  The jerk wins.

Dunn 99 Gluck 93

Congratulations, Stephen Dunn!   You are in the Final Four!


Here is the game.  The contest.  We present the two poems: first Wilbur’s, then Gluck’s:


In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.


What does the horse give you
That I cannot give you?

I watch you when you are alone,
When you ride into the field behind the dairy,
Your hands buried in the mare’s
Dark mane.

Then I know what lies behind your silence:
Scorn, hatred of me, of marriage. Still,
You want me to touch you; you cry out
As brides cry, but when I look at you I see
There are no children in your body.
Then what is there?

Nothing, I think. Only haste
To die before I die.

In a dream, I watched you ride the horse
Over the dry fields and then
Dismount: you two walked together;
In the dark, you had no shadows.
But I felt them coming toward me
Since at night they go anywhere,
They are their own masters.

Look at me. You think I don’t understand?
What is the animal
If not passage out of this life?

Wilbur (his poem is from Dove’s anthology) is logical and playful—that combination of which formal properties in the verse usually result.  It is a man anxious to be reasonable and understood.  Wilbur responds to the world in visions of happy quantity: the house is a ship. The bird sails through the window.  My daughter is at the typewriter now.

Gluck (not in the Dove) is neither logical nor playful.  She is mystical and serious.  She speaks as people speak when you overhear them; when they are not speaking to you, when they are not trying to explain anything to you, because you are merely evesdropping. 

Wilbur’s poem is earnest and polite; Gluck’s is a cry in the night.

Gluck 69 Wilbur 68

Louise Gluck has upset the master!


sweet 16

Before we formally congratulate the Scarriet Sweet 16 poets of 2012, who, pound for pound, are probably the most entertaining poets alive today, the poets least likely to bore you, the poets who simply have a high batting average of poems sure to interest, amuse, or move the common reader—before we congratulate them, we should address the burning issue which always seems to loom over this enterprise: we refer to the poets and readers of poetry who balk at the idea of poetry used as fodder for competition.

First, we would say the competition is the fodder, not the poetry.  The ancient Greeks, who had drama competitions in front of crowds, understood this.

The poetry contest, of which distinguished U.S. poets have so long been a part, is competitive—but since the process of picking winners is shrouded in secrecy, the process does not offend.

But there is absolutely no difference between what Scarriet does with March Madness and what the more distinguished elements of po-biz do with their contests and prizes.

The reason competition offends probably has to do with sex. Sex is all about ‘who is hotter,’ whereas love entails ‘being loved forever for who I am.’   The former creates anxiety, the latter comfort. Love rules morals. All literature has a moral basis.  These unspoken laws are surely the underpinning to the disquiet and protest which greets Scarriet’s attempt to toss poems onto a horse track.

Judgment, or the Critical Faculty, ride the horses, however.  “Judge not” is a moral injunction, not a literary one.  To write is to get on a horse.

Love cannot be escaped when we make moral judgments—but poems are not moral in the same way people are.  We hope the morals of the people are in the poems.  Morals, however, do not make us love poems as poems—which exist apart from human moral issues, simply because they are poems, not people.  This does not mean that poems are not moral, or that poems camot create a moral universe; what it means is that poems themselves are immune to moral concerns.  The decree against poems competing arises from the mistaken idea that poems are morally attached to their authors—they are not; and if they are good poems, this is especially true.  The moral person makes the moral poem, but something happens when the moral travels from the person to the poem—it transforms into something which is no longer moral, even though morals was the impetus.  The objection to poems competing assumes poems are continually creating the moral worlds of their authors in such a manner that they cannot be interrupted from that task, ever.  Which is pure folly.  Those who are really moral persons do not rely heavily on moral attachments between poem and person.  This is my poem, do not touch it! is the sentiment of the moralist who will never write a good poem in the first place.

There are many people who cannot reconcile the fact that morals are both oppressive and good.  But here’s the happy thing about poems.  The good should be present in the person writing the poem, even to an oppressive degree, but once the poem comes into existence, this moral creation, because it is a poem, escapes the oppressive  aspect of morals entirely while still being moral—that is, written by a moral person.  Art is the means by which the moral escapes its oppressive character.

Judging art is not a moral act, but an entirely free act;  judging cannot escape competition; judging cannot escape the horse race, for comparison is always at the heart of the knowing that is judging.  Comparison cannot escape competition. The horses cannot stand still while we judge.

Here they are, most from the Dove anthology, and all living:

EAST: Ben Mazer, Billy Collins, Franz Wright, Mary Oliver,

MIDWEST/SOUTH: Rita Dove, Derek Walcott, W.S. Merwin, Patricia Smith 

NORTH: Phil Levine, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Dunn, Louise Gluck

WEST: Sharon Olds, Matthew Dickman, Heather McHugh, Marilyn Chin 

Congratulations to the winners!


Dana Gioia: not Dove material

Neither Gluck nor Gioia are represented by Dove in her 20th century poetry anthology.

Looking over Dove’s book, one is struck how prevalent rhyme is in the first 25% of the book (Masters b. 1868 through Roethke b. 1908 ), and then how it dwindles (Bishop b. 1911 through Sexton b. 1928) over the next 25%, and finally disappears altogether over the last half (Rich b. 1929 to Terrance Hayes b. 1971), as if no one rhymed in the second half of the 20th century to the present.

All the more interesting is the fact that all the poems known by the public, from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to “Emperor of Ice Cream” to “Prufrock” to “Waste Land” to “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” to “We Real Cool” to “Her Kind” rhyme.  Has a famous American poem been written in the last 50 years?  All those Workshop poems—and nothing has caught on.  All those poems not tied down by meter and rhyme—and not one has caught on.

The public no longer exists which simply takes pleasure from poems and celebrates that fact; today publishers are the last ones who can make a poem famous—and the publishers haven’t a clue, since rhyme makes them uncomfortable for reasons  too numerous to mention.

Here is New Formalist Dana Gioia’s poem, languishing on his website, but brought out here to fight for Sweet 16 in the Scarriet 2012 Tournament:


I am the Angel with the Broken Wing,
The one large statue in this quiet room.
The staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut
Faith’s ardor in this air-conditioned tomb.

The docents praise my elegant design
Above the chatter of the gallery.
Perhaps I am a masterpiece of sorts—
The perfect emblem of futility.

Mendoza carved me for a country church.
(His name’s forgotten now except by me.)
I stood beside a gilded altar where
The hopeless offered God their misery.

I heard their women whispering at my feet—
Prayers for the lost, the dying, and the dead.
Their candles stretched my shadows up the wall,
And I became the hunger that they fed.

I broke my left wing in the Revolution
(Even a saint can savor irony)
When troops were sent to vandalize the chapel.
They hit me once—almost apologetically.

For even the godless feel something in a church,
A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?
A trembling unaccounted by their laws,
An ancient memory they can’t dismiss.

There are so many things I must tell God!
The howling of the dammed can’t reach so high.
But I stand like a dead thing nailed to a perch,
A crippled saint against a painted sky.

Louise Gluck, Yale Younger Judge 2003-2010, did not make it into Dove’s book, for whatever reason—we might point out that none of her Yale choices have made an impact (think of Auden picking Rich, Merwin, Ashbery, James Wright, Hollander, and Dickey). Here’s her poem:


I’ll tell you something: every day
people are dying. And that’s just the beginning.
Every day, in funeral homes, new widows are born,
new orphans. They sit with their hands folded,
trying to decide about this new life.

Then they’re in the cemetery, some of them
for the first time. They’re frightened of crying,
sometimes of not crying. Someone leans over,
tells them what to do next, which might mean
saying a few words, sometimes
throwing dirt in the open grave.

And after that, everyone goes back to the house,
which is suddenly full of visitors.
The widow sits on the couch, very stately,
so people line up to approach her,
sometimes take her hand, sometimes embrace her.
She finds something to say to everbody,
thanks them, thanks them for coming.

In her heart, she wants them to go away.
She wants to be back in the cemetery,
back in the sickroom, the hospital. She knows
it isn’t possible. But it’s her only hope,
the wish to move backward. And just a little,
not so far as the marriage, the first kiss.

Both of these poems are better than the majority of poems by living poets in Dove’s anthology.  Helen Vendler tried to make Dove’s shortcomings all about Wallace Stevens, but the real issue is editors lacking the courage to forget everything else and choose the best poems.  Gluck’s poem has a formal quality: there’s a lot of empty talk about how content is form, but here’s a real example: the poignant traveling backward of the widow.

We admire the Gioia more, but the Gluck gives us an emotional jolt: the heartbreaking “Just a little, not so far back as the marriage, the first kiss.”  Bravo, Ms. Gluck.

Gluck 72 Gioia 70


Enrique Simonet’s “Judgement of Paris”

They fought, they battled, they elbowed, they rebounded, they shot, they sweated, they passed, they jumped, they fell into seats trying to save a ball going out-of-bounds.  You know what they did.   Here’s the winners and their margins of victory:


Ben Mazer (d. Ashbery 102-101, 3 OT)
Seamus Heaney (d. Carolyn Forche 65-61)
Franz Wright (d. Geoffrey Hill 58-42)
Billy Collins (d. Carol Ann Duffy 90-77)
Marie Howe (d. Jorie Graham 63-60)
Robert Pinsky (d. Charles Bernstein 80-47)
Mary Oliver (d. Charles Simic 67-53)
James Tate (d. Paul Muldoon 71-51)

Summary:  The beasts are in the East: Collins, Heaney, Pinsky, Oliver, Tate, Franz Wright, plus the upstart Ben Mazer, who has an aura of invincibility after knocking off Ashbery in triple overtime—but only one can survive to enter the Final Four!


Yusef Komunyakaa (d. A.E. Stallings 81-75)
Derek Walcott (d. C.D. Wright 91-47)
Patricia Smith (d. Mark Doty 80-69)
Rita Dove (d. Sandra Cisneros 64-60)
W.S. Merwin (d. Kevin Young 78-72)
Elizabeth Alexander (d. Carl Phillips 79-76)
Natasha Trethewey (d. Andrew Hudgins 69-68)
Terrance Hayes (d. Charles Wright 67-54)

Summary: the veteran Merwin is the only white poet to move on in this brackett.  Walcott is the Nobel Prize Winner, Patricia Smith, the Slam wild card, and Rita Dove, the Anthology editor.


Philip Levine (d. Joanna Klink 88-67)
Richard Wilbur (d. Anne Waldman 101-70)
Dana Gioia (d. Brenda Shaughnessy 78-66)
Margaret Atwood (d. Bin Ramke 70-68)
Stephen Dunn (d. Glyn Maxwell 89-83)
Louise Gluck (d. Peter Gizzi 67-62)
Alice Oswald (d. Frank Bidart 55-54)
Cornelius Eady (d. Mark Strand 65-59)

Summary: Old school Richard Wilbur has to be the one to watch, after his dismantling of Waldman; also favored, the highly accessible Atwood, plus the imposing Dunn and Levine.


Robert Hass (d. Cathy Song 67-63)
Sharon Olds (d. Li-Young Lee 79-77)
Gary Snyder (d. Sherman Alexie 80-72)
Heather McHugh (d. Rae Armantrout 66-54)
Kay Ryan (d. Cole Swensen 90-59)
Gary Soto (d. Ron Silliman 81-60)
Marilyn Chin (d. Michael Dickman 90-78)
Matthew Dickman (d. Joy Harjo 88-67)

Summary: Kay Ryan and Sharon Olds are strong women in this brackett; Gary Snyder has the savvy and experience to go all the way, and don’t count out young Dickman.

The raw numbers: 44% of the 32 poets still in the hunt are white males, and  41% are women.

The third annual Scarriet March Madness Tournament is using a different rule this year: winning poets bring a new poem with them into the next round.

Previously, Lehman’s  Best American Poetry, and Stephen Berg’s American Poetry Review were Scarriet sources; this year it is Dove’s 20th Century Poetry anthology (Penguin), with some exceptions (mostly British), and all living poets.


Peter Gizzi: The baleful stare of the lyric genius?

Neither Gizzi nor Gluck are in Dove’s anthology, but both are in the 2012 March Madness Dance.

Gluck recently retired from her role as Yale Younger Judge, so she might feel a bit lonely these days.  (Carl Phillips, the current judge, is in Dove’s anthology.)

Here is Gluck’s poem that hopes to advance:


When Hades decided he loved this girl
he built for her a duplicate of earth,
everything the same, down to the meadow,
but with a bed added.

Everything the same, including sunlight,
because it would be hard on a young girl
to go so quickly from bright light to utter darkness

Gradually, he thought, he’d introduce the night,
first as the shadows of fluttering leaves.
Then moon, then stars. Then no moon, no stars.
Let Persephone get used to it slowly.
In the end, he thought, she’d find it comforting.

A replica of earth
except there was love here.
Doesn’t everyone want love?

He waited many years,
building a world, watching
Persephone in the meadow.
Persephone, a smeller, a taster.
If you have one appetite, he thought,
you have them all.

Doesn’t everyone want to feel in the night
the beloved body, compass, polestar,
to hear the quiet breathing that says
I am alive, that means also
you are alive, because you hear me,
you are here with me. And when one turns,
the other turns—

That’s what he felt, the lord of darkness,
looking at the world he had
constructed for Persephone. It never crossed his mind
that there’d be no more smelling here,
certainly no more eating.

Guilt? Terror? The fear of love?
These things he couldn’t imagine;
no lover ever imagines them.

He dreams, he wonders what to call this place.
First he thinks: The New Hell. Then: The Garden.
In the end, he decides to name it
Persephone’s Girlhood.

A soft light rising above the level meadow,
behind the bed. He takes her in his arms.
He wants to say I love you, nothing can hurt you

but he thinks
this is a lie, so he says in the end
you’re dead, nothing can hurt you
which seems to him
a more promising beginning, more true.

Leave it to a modern interpretation of a popular myth to drain all the excitement and adventure and heroism and humanity out of it.

Gluck’s Persephone is victimized in the most horrific way; she’s strangely absent, and yet, occupies the whole poem—she’s the mere object of Hades grim calculation: “duplicate of earth…with bed added” could not be more terrible.  But the final: not “I love you,” but “you’re dead” is perhaps even worse.   Hades is the entire soul of the poem.

We might congratulate Ms. Gluck on her portrayal of Hades.  Or—not.

Peter Gizzi is a lyricist of the odd.  He writes odd poems, like this:


If love if then if now if the flowers of if the conditional
if of arrows the condition of if
if to say light to inhabit light if to speak if to live, so
if to say it is you if love is if your form is if your waist that
pictures the fluted stem if lavender
if in this field
if I were to say hummingbird it might behave as an
adjective here
if not if the heart’s a flutter if nerves map a city if a city
on fire
if I say myself am I saying myself (if in this instant) as if
the object of your gaze if in a sentence about love you might
write if one day if you would, so
if to say myself if in this instance if to speak as
if only to render if in time and accept if to live now as if
disembodied from the actual handwritten letters m-y-s-e-l-f
if a creature if what you say if only to embroider—a
city that overtakes the city I write.

This poem doesn’t make any sense.

It is difficult to read.

If one were to listen to this poem in a relaxed setting, one might possibly believe it were the most wonderful poem in the world.

It is difficult to reconcile these three statements—which may be the reason why modern poetry is such a puzzle to so many.

Gluck 67 Gizzi 62


All ye need to know?

1. Rita Dove—Penguin editor reviewed by Helen Vendler in the NYRB
2. Terrance Hayes—In Dove’s best-selling anthology, and young
3. Kevin Young—In Dove’s anthology, and young
4. Amiri Baraka—In Dove’s anthology
5. Billy Collins—in the anthology
6. John Ashbery—a long poem in the anthology
7. Dean Young—not in the anthology
8. Helen Vendler—hated the anthology
9. Alan CordleTime’s masked Person-of-the-Year = Foetry.com’s once-anonymous Occupy Poetry protestor?
10. Harold Bloom—you can bet he hates the anthology
11. Mary Oliver—in the anthology
12. William Logan—meanest and the funniest critic (a lesson here?)
13. Kay Ryan—our day’s e.e. cummings
14. John Barr—the Poetry Man and “the Man.”
15. Kent Johnson—O’Hara and Koch will never be the same?
16. Cole Swensen—welcome to Brown!
17. Tony Hoagland—tennis fan
18. David Lehman—fun lovin’ BAP gate-keeper
19. David Orr—the deft New York Times critic
20. Rae Armantrout—not in the anthology
21. Seamus Heaney—When Harvard eyes are smilin’
22. Dan Chiasson—new reviewer on the block
23. James Tate—guaranteed to amuse
24. Matthew Dickman—one of those bratty twins
25. Stephen Burt—the Crimson Lantern
26. Matthew Zapruder—aww, everybody loves Matthew!
27. Paul MuldoonNew Yorker Brit of goofy complexity
28. Sharon Olds—Our Lady of Slightly Uncomfortable Poetry
29. Derek Walcott—in the anthology, latest T.S. Eliot prize winner
30. Kenneth Goldsmith—recited traffic reports in the White House
31. Jorie Graham—more teaching, less judging?
32. Alice Oswald—I don’t need no stinkin’ T.S. Eliot Prize
33. Joy Harjo—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
34. Sandra Cisneros—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
35. Nikki Giovanni—for colored girls when po-biz is enuf
36. William Kulik—not in the anthology
37. Ron Silliman—no more comments on his blog, but in the anthology
38. Daisy Fried—setting the Poetry Foundation on fire
39. Eliot Weinberger—poetry, foetry, and politics
40. Carol Ann Duffy—has Tennyson’s job
41. Camille Dungy—runs in the Poetry Foundation forest…
42. Peter Gizzi—sensitive lyric poet of the hour…
43. Abigail Deutsch—stole from a Scarriet post and we’ll always love her for it…
44. Robert Archambeau—his Samizdat is one of the more visible blogs…
45. Michael Robbins—the next William Logan?
46. Carl Phillips—in the anthology
47. Charles NorthWhat It Is Like, New & Selected chosen as best of 2011 by David Orr
48. Marilyn Chin—went to Iowa, in the anthology
49. Marie Howe—a tougher version of Brock-Broido…
50. Dan Beachy-Quick—gotta love that name…
51. Marcus Bales—he’s got the Penguin blues.
52. Dana Gioia—he wants you to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, so what r u waiting 4?
53. Garrison Keillor—the boil on the neck of August Kleinzahler
54. Alice Notley—Penguin’s Culture of One by this Paris-based author made a lot of 2011 lists
55. Mark McGurl—won Truman Capote Award for 2011’s The Program Era: Rise of Creative Writing
56. Daniel Nester—wrap your blog around my skin, yea-uh.
57. Yusef Komunyakaa—in the anthology
58. Adrienne Rich—in the anthology
59. Jeremy Bass— reviewed the anthology in the Nation
60. Anselm Berrigan—somebody’s kid
61. Travis Nichols—kicked us off Blog Harriet
62. Seth Abramson—poet and lawyer
63. Stephen Dunn—one of the best poets in the Iowa style
64. Philip Levine—Current laureate, poem recently in the New Yorker  Movin’ up!
65. Ben Mazer—Does anyone remember Landis Everson?
66. Reb Livingston—Her No Tells blog rocks the contemporary scene
67. Marjorie Perloff—strutting avant academic
68. John Gallaher—Kent Johnson can’t get enough punishment on Gallaher’s blog
69. Fred Viebahn—poet married to the Penguin anthologist
70. James Fenton—said after Penguin review hit, Dove should have “shut up”
71. Rodney Jones—BAP poem selected by Dove riffs on William Carlos Williams’ peccadilloes
72. Mark Doty—no. 28’s brother
73. Cate Marvin—VIDA and so much more
74. Richard Wilbur—still hasn’t run out of rhyme
75. W.S. Merwin—no punctuation, but no punk
76. Jim Behrle—the Adam Sandler of po-biz
77. Bin Ramke—still stinging from the Foetry hit
78. Thomas Sayer Ellis—not in the anthology
79. Henri Cole—poetry editor of the New Republic
80. Meghan O’Rourke—Behrle admires her work
81. Anne Waldman—the female Ginsberg?
82. Anis Shivani—get serious, poets! it’s time to change the world!
83. Robert Hass—Occupy story in Times op-ed
84. Lyn Hejinian—stuck inside a baby grand piano
85. Les Murray—greatest Australian poet ever?
86. Sherman Alexie—is this one of the 175 poets to remember?
87. Geoffrey Hill—great respect doesn’t always mean good
88. Elizabeth Alexander—Frost got Kennedy, she got Obama
89. A.E. Stallings—A rhymer wins MacArthur!
90. Frank Bidart—in the anthology
91. Robert Pinsky—in the anthology
92. Carolyn Forche—in the anthology
93. Louise Gluck—not in the anthology
94. Keith Waldrop—his Hopwood Award paid her fare from Germany
95. Rosmarie Waldrop—her Hopwood helpled launch Burning Deck
96. C.D. Wright—born in the Ozark mountains
97. Forrest Gander—married to no. 96
98. Mark Strand—translator, surrealist
99. Margaret Atwood—the best Canadian poet of all time?
100. Gary B. Fitzgerald—the poet most likely to be remembered a million years from now


Just when we thought the state of poetry could not be less visible, Adam Plunkett digs its hole even deeper.  “Why Critics Praise Bad Poetry,” he titles his Sept 15 Bookforum piece, and begins by surmising, “False advertising” is “probably why a lot of people don’t pay attention to the poetry world.”

Plunkett offers only one reason for “why critics praise bad poetry:”

Uncertain of an obscure poem’s meaning, critics worry they will “miss something” and “look like fools.”


Not only are the poets bad, according to Plunkett, but the critics are stupid.

Plunkett then goes on to prove there may be some truth to his idea—by praising bad poetry himself.

First, he shows himself astute enough not to praise (Michael Dickman’s) bad poetry:

“His super-outfit is made from handfuls of oil and garbage blood and pinned together by stars.” Unless I’m missing something, that’s vaguely whimsical but impossible to visualize at all. Blood, toil, sweat, and tears are also ethereal, I get it, but the words are tossed together like a collage I can’t actually imagine—is there oil and bloody garbage floating near the Milky Way, in which case how can the poet see it? How does it look to him like a superhero’s outfit? How is the line not sappy, trite, and nonsensical?

Yes, “His super-outfit is made from handfuls of oil and garbage blood and pinned together by stars” is bad poetry, very bad poetry.  Congratulations, Mr. Plunkett; you are not completely stupid.

Now Plunkett goes on to review Michael Dickman’s new book, Flies, a book Plunkett calls a “case study in failed difficulty.”

Is there a successful difficulty?  The whole notion that a poem “ought to be difficult” has tripped up many a critic and helped to destroy poetry since T.S. Eliot made the unfortunate choice to advance such an illogical monstrosity, one that is not even counter-intuitively interesting—but merely asinine—almost a hundred years ago.   A sonnet by Shakespeare can be highly complex, in terms of ideas and grammatical structure, but not because Shakespeare intended his poem to be “difficult.”  A writer should never intentionally make things difficult for a reader.  Difficulty is a by-product of sloppy writing, not a standard to be sought.  If a reader does not ‘get’ something, the reasons—if the writing is clever—are always more profound (even if superficially) than from the reason of mere “difficulty.”

Plunkett quotes more of Michael Dickman’s bad poetry:

they shine like
the blind
But the beak is real
A real beak
instead of a mouth

And then, to prove he isn’t just a dick, Plunkett thinks of something good to say:

A welcome contrast is Katherine Larson’s lucid incoherence, which invites reflection as it escapes paraphrase:

The Milky Way sways its back
across all of wind-eaten America
like a dusty saddle tossed
over your sable, lunatic horse.

There’s no simple literal sense to the simile (The Milky Way is to America as a saddle is to a mad-horse), but the visceral descriptions draw the objects together (“back,” “saddle,” “dusty,” “wind-eaten,” “lunatic”) with an associative certainty the final rhyme secures (“tossed” / “horse” is a Yeats rhyme, imperfect but accruing). Her image of the Milky Way is a perfect point of comparison with Dickman’s, which is literally incoherent but frustratingly rather than breathtakingly so. Hers is so charged with a depth of sensuous associations that it feels raw and unconscious, dreamlike and primeval, exciting precisely because you can pleasantly think it over endlessly without ever making sense of it or having it lose its mystery. Dickman’s image aims for this, fails to please the reader, and just looks silly, a failure absent from Larson’s stunning first book.

After having proven to everyone’s satisfaction (most of all his) that he is not a stupid critic, Plunkett thrusts out his chest and praises this absolute horror:  “The Milky Way sways its back/across all of wind-eaten America/like a dusty saddle tossed/over your sable, lunatic horse.”  This sounds like bad Jim Morrison poetry.  Bad poets over-use metaphor, and in this case the Milky Way is compared to a dusty saddle.  Mr. Plunkett, please remove your Critic’s badge.  Now.  Adam Plunkett, stuck in a nightmare from which he is unable to awake, attempting to establish his critical acumen to all the world, kills every critical cred he could possibly have, in a suicidal gesture of incomprehensible dumb.  The Milky Way sways its back across all of wind-eaten America like a dusty saddle over your sable, lunatic horse.  And according to Plunkett, “horse” and “tossed” is a “Yeats rhyme.” Magnificent.

Benjamin continues his self-murder, making sure that we know all about the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, as he inflicts himself, orgasmically, with

The book, Radial Symmetry, earned Larson the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, which since it started in 1919 has honored promising young poets for their first books, poets such as John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich and Robert Hass, titans whom Larson can stand with. She is that good, and her style captures and expands on some of the most significant stylistic achievements of contemporary American verse. Larson, a molecular biologist, has Hass’s exquisite descriptions of nature (a squid has “no blood / only textures of gills folded like satin, / suction cups like planets in rows”), with a measured sensuousness whose sounds trace our reactions, enticing “satin,” strange “suction,” mysterious “planets.” Larson’s poems say little about herself but manage the felt intimacy of the best Confessional verse (Anne Sexton’s, Robert Lowell’s):

Last night I threw my lab coat in the fire
and drove all night through the Arizona desert
with a thermos full of silver Tequila.

Larson retells Greek myths with the longing, rage, and beautiful brutality of a young Louise Glück (although Larson contains her anger more than Glück, the Yale Series’s judge):

…And the windows lit
with displays of red corals
from just off the coast
said to be the blood that streamed
from Medusa’s severed neck
when Perseus laid her head beside the sea.

Larson has Jorie Graham’s mastery of rhythm and pacing, her looping, involuted meters:

Here are the goblets filled with wine.
The smell of sunlight
fading from the stones.

We must take it on Plunkett’s word that Larson’s “stunning” book partakes of Jorie Graham’s “mastery” and Louise Gluck’s “beautiful brutality.”  Plunkett can pick on Dickman, but Jorie Graham and Louise Gluck and Robert Hass and Adrienne Rich and  John Ashbery—and now Katherine Larson: hands off!  These are “titans!”

The “goblets filled with wine” passage is nice; I admit the possibility of liking “the smell of sunlight fading from the stones,” but Plunkett’s admiration only proves even a blind squirrel will occasionally find a nut.

Why such a inept critic would tackle a thesis on ‘why we praise bad poetry’ is simply hilarious.

Thanks, Plunkett.



Can Carol Muske-Dukes make it three out of four women in Scarriet’s 2011 March Madness APR Final Four?  Does she have what it takes to beat Stephen Dunn?  Both of their poems concern kisses, and maybe this is typical, maybe not—the man’s is a wild desire for one, the woman’s an actual dull one.

Women poets have done extremely well in the Scarriet March Madness Tournament, despite the pool being typically under-represented by women in the APR anthology, The Body Electric.  The split in the APR anthology is about 70/30 in favor of the men—yet 10 women poets reached the Scarriet Sweet Sixteen.

Vida has made headlines in American Letters recently by simply publishing some inescapable statistics: the percentages of women writers published in major literary magazines and anthologies—and the numbers are not good for women, especially in essays, criticism and poetry: women trail men in the Fine Arts of Letters—poetry and essays—by two to one.

We’re not talking about construction jobs, or all-time sports heroes, or U.S. presidents, or 19th century composers, or Italian homemakers. We’re talking about U.S. poetry and criticism in 2011: two to one in favor of men.  These numbers are staggering, and should be a wake up call to women everywhere.

The overall author split is 60/40 in favor of men, not too horrible, but in terms of reviewing (or criticism) the ratio is 4/1 in favor of men, and as Vida showed, the ratio of reviewing in The New York Review of Books is 5/1 in favor of men.  As we get more high-brow, as we get more intellectual, as we get more opinionated, as we get more philosophical, the women flounder, in terms of representation.

For every Harold Bloom, there’s a Helen Vendler or a Camille Paglia, for every Billy Collins, there’s a Mary Oliver or a Louise Gluck, for every John Ashbery, there’s a Jorie Graham or a Kay Ryan , for every Seamus Heaney, there’s a Sharon Olds or a Margaret Atwood. 

Generally, women have had great success in writing, and, in numbers of readers, women are surely equal, or very close to men, just in terms of literacy.  Women are well-placed in the readership and marketplace of Fine Letters; there is no craven, muscle-bound machismo element keeping them down.

Why, then, are the women so woeful and backwards in these key areas of poetry and essays and reviewing and criticism?

So, girls, what the fuck is wrong with you?

Criticism is the Head of Letters.  If you’re not reviewing consistently, or writing philosophical essays, or making your opinions known about writers and writing, then what do you expect?

We know you have opinions about nearly everything—why not writing?   You are nearly 50/50 in fiction, and fiction is great, but we all know most fiction is either thinly disguised diary and memoir or vampires having sex with each other. If Criticism is the Head, Fiction is the Rear.  And, in terms of opinions about writing, we don’t mean sweet, supportive blurbs for the sisters—we mean real criticism.

And here’s the thing: if you won’t write essays or reviews or philosophy or criticism, you’ll never change these numbers.

Vida, your numbers are shocking, but what do they really mean?  And how are we going to make those numbers better?

Any ideas, girls?

I recently found myself having an email dialogue, quite by chance, with one of the founders of Vida, whose stated mission is “to explore cultural and critical perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.”

The conversation came about because she, the Vida founder, wanted clarification from me concerning gossip linking her to a powerful male poet mentor.  But such talk does not belong in public.  It has that smell which consigns it to the garbage pail. Robert B__ eloping with EB is glorious. Put it on the front page. Professor B__ helping to market EB’s poems?  Eh, not so glorious.

But every consideration, glorious or not, involving men, women and Letters has an impact every day on the cold facts of Vida’s statistics.  Somewhere, between the numbers, and the sorry state of things which those numbers point to, are actual stories involving actual men and women. Do we dare speak these stories and these names? Or do we traffic forever in statistics and polite reactions to them?

We can’t run from theses numbers, but we can run from the truth—of its smelly and corrupt windings—which those numbers signify.

Or, we can follow Ariadne’s thread; we can do the patient, historical work of patiently examining the lives of actual literary men and women, and what it finally means, philosophically.

Here’s an example: Elizabeth Barrett was an extraordinary poet, and better known than the male poet who eventually eclipsed her, Robert Browning.  When Mr. Browning came courting in 1845, Elizabeth was the famous poet, not Robert, and she had already published, to much acclaim, the type of dramatic poem Robert Browning would later glory in.  This is not to diminish the remarkable Mr. Browning, but only to point out how Miss Barrett fell under Browning’s shadow.  Barrett was depicted in the modern era as a rescued recluse known for one poem penned—to Browning, which fit right into the Victorian stereotype.  Who perpetuates such stereotypes?  The critics.  And the critics are men. Elizabeth Barrett Browning fades away, and takes with her a more accurate picture of the Victorian period, a richer selection of poetry, and a powerful example of a powerful woman poet.  All the male critics had to do was refute the Victorian era.  Women are larger-than-life figures—unless they are reduced by abstract critical thinking which rejects, in the name of “modern progress,” the actual life of women in the past.  The “progressives” are then insidiously reactionary.  All ahistoricism is reactionary.  Let us have improvements, but please let’s not pre-suppose that means chucking history.

A second example: Edna Millay, who wrote sonnets as good as any in the history of literature, was abused in the press by Ezra Pound’s clique: Hugh Kenner and Horace Gregory, to name two. We all know how one well-placed review can harry and destroy. This is the sort of ugly side of Letters which might be characterized as gossip, but we demean Letters by being squemish—so that we brush the ugly side of Letters under the rug. Unfortunately, thugs and bullies exist in “polite literature.”  But the bigger problem is, that because Pound and his group was associated with a certain avant-garde progressivism, “make it new” and all that, critics are not always objective in writing literary history or making critical judgments.  Because there is this excitable and revolutionary assumption that the avant-garde is always liberal and forward-thinking, we are blind to when the opposite is true.

It’s not too late to undo these mistakes, since literature always has a past, and is always being made anew within the context of that past.  But if women are on avant train they think is going in the right direction, but is not, those Vida numbers could get even worse.

One more example: Elinor Wylie (1885-1928) is a marvelous poet, an amazing, crazy, lyrical, predecessor to Plath and Sexton, but like MillayWylie fell off the Parade Float of Modernism.  The better-known American women poets, who were quietly conservative, such as Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, were close to Pound’s clique or Robert Lowell; actually, Moore was Bishop’s mentor, and Robert Lowell fell in quickly with Pound’s group via Tate and Ransom, so it’s all pretty cozy.  Wylie is a strong, but neglected, poet who would appeal to the same audience inspired by Sexton, and it certainly does not diminish a poet like Sexton to comprehend the significance of Wylie as her influence.  (Another neglected poet if we go back futher: Ellen Wheeler Wilcox.) Women in Letters will be hurt if women don’t celebrate good women poets right under their nose, or they only celebrate women poets annointed by men.  When it comes to literature, networking in the present can only go so far. Knowing history is invaluable.

So here’s the advice, so far.  1. Be critical, not timid and polite. 2. Be historical, intensely so; follow historical threads back to motivations, and groups who act clandestinely and corruptly.  These historical phenomena tend to be the rule, not the exception.  If the women say, “Leave the conspiracies to the men,” the women will only suffer accordingly, and the Vida numbers will get worse.

As far as The New York Review of Books, which we now know is 80% male, thanks to Vida, women, I think, would make an important statement if they boycotted that magazine, rather than pleading to be let in. The New York Review stats should not be read as an indication of failure by women, but rather as a failure by the New York Review, a scholarly failure, since the editors are infatuated with the very Modernism school that joyfully throws poets like Barrett, Millay and Wylie under the bus, and they review the same handful of canonized figures over and over again.  The researchers at Vida should analyze a few issues of the New York Review, and discover for everyone not just the numbers, but the faulty philosophy, history and scholarship.  Remember: Criticism, ladies, criticism!  Get in the face of the New York Review!  And enjoy doing it!  Letting the 5/1 ratio just sit there without comment, after the initial gasps, implies that women lack the talent to write for the New York Review and women better get cracking and improve themselves!  Is this the impression Vida wants to give?  No!  Go on the offense!

And speaking of offense, Carol Muske-Dukes, in her poem, “A Former Love, a Lover of Form,” is not particularly nice, which is not necessarily a bad thing:

When they kiss,
she feels a certain revulsion,
and as they continue to kiss

She’s trapped by a dull kiss.  She’s a victim.

The following sounds too much like all that bad confessional poetry composed in the 1970s:

Her glasses fall forward on her nose,
her mouth opens: all around
are objects that desire, suddenly, her.

Not just clothes, but open doorways,
love seats, Mother’s bright red
espadrilles kicked off in the damp grass.

The poem ends with more puzzlement and complaining:

 Is she seducer or seduced?

And which is worse,
a dull lover’s kiss or the embrace
of his terrible laundry?

She’d rather have the book
he wrote than him.

The Stephen Dunn poem features a narrator questioned by a crowd, and gender is completely hidden.  It also features a mysterious, yearning self-sacrificing love.

What They Wanted

They wanted me to tell the truth,
so I said I’d lived among them,
for years, a spy,
but all that I wanted was love.
They said they couldn’t love a spy.
Couldn’t I tell them other truths?
I said I was emotionally bankrupt,
would turn any of them in for a kiss.
I told them how a kiss feels
when it’s especially undeserved;
I thought they’d understand.
They wanted me to say I was sorry,
so I told them I was sorry.
They didn’t like it that I laughed.
They asked what I’d seen them do,
and what I do with what I know.
I told them: find out who you are
before you die.
Tell us, they insisted, what you saw.
I saw the hawk kill a smaller bird.
I said life is one long leavetaking.
They wanted me to speak
like a journalist. I’ll try, I said.
I told them I could depict the end
of the world, and my hand wouldn’t tremble.
I said nothing’s serious except destruction.
They wanted to help me then.
They wanted me to share with them,
that was the word they used, share.
I said it’s bad taste
to want to agree with many people.
I told them I’ve tried to give
as often as I’ve betrayed.
They wanted to know my superiors,
to whom did I report?
I told them I accounted to no one,
that each of us is his own punishment.
If I love you, one of them cried out,
what would you give up?
There were others before you,
I wanted to say, and you’d be the one
before someone else. Everything, I said.

Stephen Dunn wins!  Stephen Dunn is in the Final Four!


Elimination.  It has to happen.  All grass cannot grow.  All things cannot live.  All chimneys cannot puff.  The poet who plays his pipe may play his pipe in vain.

The APR anthology, The Body Electric, features 180 poets published in the APR in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Only 64 of those poets are chosen for the tournament, and each one of those 64 rumble to the top with their best poem, chosen by Scarriet, with help, of course, from the ancient, but still lovely, Marla Muse.

The cuts do not reflect the talent of the esteemed poet, but rather the worth of the particular poems selected by the APR editors.  The editors were guilty, occasionally, as we all are, of being dazzled by names.  Famous poets at the bitter end of their careers tossed scraps at the magazine, and this is just one obvious instance of the sorts of errors in judgment which the Scarriet March Madness process will judiciously correct.

Marla Muse will read one of her own compositions before we announce the first of the cuts.

Take it away, Marla:

“Thank you, Thomas.   Ahem…first I just want to say that elimination is not a bad thing.  Death is not always bad.  We get rid of things.  We push away the worst and make room for the better.  And don’t be sad, poets, if you get eliminated.  You can always come back, next time.   This is only death for this time.

Death Is Love

Death is love’s friend.
Death is the one thing we cannot pretend;
All fools go on, except this end.

Death helps love live,
For nothing can withstand the long hours that give
Beauty wrinkles, and youth something even more primitive.

I once felt beautiful pain
Thinking of my own love’s dear name
On a stone, swept by leaves—but in vain…

My love, instead, fell gradually old with stumbling grace;
Death did not leave the memory of a beautiful face,
But took love slowly down to a different place.”

Beautiful, Marla!   Speaking of death, here are the first cuts:

John Berryman: Little pitiful-drunk rants
Jorie Graham: Early lyric promise crashes and burns
Louis Simpson: Surprisingly banal
Louise Gluck: Dully abstract
Anne Sexton:  Booze Muse
C.K. Williams: Can’t finish a poem.
Richard Wilbur: Rhyme buries sense.
Michael Ryan: Bitter confessing: adolescent.
Gerald Stern: Come on! Love me! Please!
Charles Simic: Two-cent Symbolism.
Kenneth Rexroth: Robot Zen.
Stanley Plumly: Chance of poetry, turning to prose.
John Hollander: Grade A Bombast
Kenneth Koch: Encyclopedic insincerity
Fred Seidel: I’m more connected and dangerous than you.
James Dickey: White spaces? You?
Richard Eberhart: Eh?
Charles Bernstein: He started a joke and started the whole world crying.

There are many more poets who have to go.  And we’ll let you know who the other losers are, and publish the 2011 March Madness brackets soon!

(cue drum, flute, lyre)


John Berryman

You are 54.  It’s the dead of winter.  You’re at a dinner, drunk, you are trembling with desire, you self-consciously intone Shakespeare to yourself in the restroom, hoping no one enters, then glance at yourself, glasses, beard, and stop.  Wash your hands, under the fingernails.

Robert Creeley

You are 21.  It’s early spring, ice still on the walks.  You are scratching the tiny beard of your perfect heart-shaped face, precise nose, you are proud of your chiseled face, you are making a decision to caress it everywhere.

Robert Hass

You are 38.  It’s late spring, and blooming.  You just had sex with a woman and you’re thinking of geese flying over the San Fernando Valley and how rain comes to us from a million miles and then you reach for a newspaper and say to the poem working itself out in your head, ‘hold on.’

Louise Gluck

You are 46.  It’s winter, roughly.    You just took a shower.  You are sitting on a white couch in a beautiful apartment with a tall plant, and muted reds on the walls; with a nice pen you strike the personal, allowing philosophy to inform a dare you wish you had made.

A.R. Ammons

You’re 40.  It’s hot, glorious summer.  You are tramping through underbrush, the burrs are sticking to your trousers, your torn Mr. Rogers sweater, your glorious brown shoes…

Donald Justice

You’re 30.   It’s September.  You’re sitting around on a long afternoon, drinking Buds and playing poker with friends: three musicians and a rocket scientist.  You’re very relaxed, having a good time, when suddenly, a melancholy fit descends.


Good literature, good music, beauty of form and good rhythm all depend on goodness of character—not lack of awareness of the world which we politely call ‘goodness,’ but a mind and character well-formed.  Are not these the things which our youth must pursue?  The graphic arts are full of the same qualities and so are the related crafts, weaving and embroidery, architecture, and the manufacture of furniture, and the same for living things, animals and plants.  For in all of them we find beauty and ugliness.  And ugliness of form and bad rhythm and disharmony are akin to poor quality of expression and character, and their opposites, good character and discipline.  –book three, The Republic

What’s the one thing which terrifies the avant-garde?

Colleges won’t touch it.

Intellectuals are afraid of it.

Artists feel dread at the mere mention of its name.

It’s far more horrifying, divisive and forbidden than violence, sex, politics or religion.

In a discussion with Christopher Woodman on the Louise Gluck thread, I put it honestly on the table:  Gluck’s lost beauty.   Gluck was not insincere when she said she “didn’t want to be a Longfellow,” because Professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s fame was, by its very nature, a “flaw;” yet Gluck’s grumble betrays a petulant crankiness, which, on closer examination, reveals a psychological reversal: it isn’t that she doesn’t want Longfellow’s acclaim; Gluck is resigned to the fact that she’ll never have it.  Gluck’s grumble is honest, because she believes that at one time she could have had fame—otherwise her grumbly complaint, which only makes her look like a crank, would never have been made.   It was made, however.  Why?  Louise Gluck is a distinguished (if not a wildly acclaimed) poet, and not known for personal outbursts or gaffes.  Why would she make such a grumble in public?   Regret.  What does she regret?  She would never have made the by now famous “Longfellow- acclaim-grumble” had she lacked confidence in her importance above and beyond acclaim; yet why should the ‘above and beyond’ ever fall to crankiness?  If it’s really ‘above and beyond,’ it shouldn’t.   Gluck had a cranky moment, in our opinion, for a very simple, human reason: she regrets her youthful beauty is gone and that it can no longer participate in any acclaim.

This is Gluck’s unspoken truth.  Unspoken, for her once ravishing beauty lies at the center of her complaint, and it must lie in silence, for the Modernists knocked beauty and harmony and discipline off the throne, and placed the vanity of intellectual obfuscation and difficulty there, instead.

Some will assume it then follows that there’s no such thing as inner beauty.

Of course there is.  There is inner beauty, or beauty of the mind, which is, at least according to Socrates, what we should chiefly adore.

But we love and respond to a person’s inner loveliness only when that person is honest about their desire for beauty which they do not possess.

This is what does not get taught in schools; it’s dangerous (and impolite to all the ugly people) to worship beauty as it truly exists.

But all great artists must ‘go through’ this first (honest) step to get to the next one: inner beauty which desires to be beautiful.

Beauty is attractive, and thus, it will always have a certain amount of acclaim.  This is natural, and to reject acclaim is to embrace the ugly.

The Modernist response to this problem is the sour-grapes approach; Modernist aesthetics placates the non-beautiful by renouncing beauty altogether, saying beauty is nothing but a hindrance, an obsolete illusion of an ignorant people.  This is what has become the academic, postmosternist ideal:  The heckling of beauty, the worship of non-beauty.

It’s a classic case of repression: for what is the morose, ugly intellectualism of modernism/post-modernism, if not the vengeful ghost of Platonism entering secretly through the back door?

Socrates is explicit on this point: art that moves us too well is for that very reason forbidden from his utopian republic.

The reasonable and beautiful search for harmony and good by Socrates has been chopped up and stored under the floorboards by modern intellectualism, which considers itself free of that Socratic quest for harmony and good.  Today we are embarrassed by those dialogues of Plato; and yet, what is this elite, sour, and free-ranging intellectualism which we call modernism/post-modernism, but that which has banned art from the republic, not by banning it, but by making it harsh and ugly, so that a vast majority of the republic’s citizens are unmoved by art, such that outright banning isn’t necessary?  What is modernism and postmodernism but a harsh and hidden Platonism asserting itself in an unconscious and repressed manner in the unconsciously-agreeable, avant-garde mind?

The ‘found’ poem or ‘found’ art, for instance, produces smirks among the clever avant garde artistes, and only a quizzical shrug in the populace—and the latter reaction gives the clever artistes a certain superior satisfaction; however, the clever artistes don’t realize that they (the clever artistes) are the willing slaves of plato’s ideas—for the good of that art-hating, hard-working populace.

Louise Gluck—belonging, with her colleagues and defenders, to the modernist/post-modernist/university writing program tradition, which self-consciously defines itself, explicitly, in complete opposition to artists like Longfellow, why should the once-young and beautiful Louise Gluck admit that she wants to be admired by the hard-working, art-hating masses of plato’s real and modern republic?  This would be like Gluck saying she wants to be young, again, and pretty, and invited to the ball, where Socrates—look! he’s young and handsome, too! waits, trembling with excitement, to dance with her.



This excerpt of an interview with Louise Gluck was brought to our attention by a friend yesterday, and we found Ms. Gluck’s feelings expressed appalling, and so feel impelled to share it with our readers.  Hello, Franz Wright!  Hello, Ron Silliman!  Hello, Christopher Woodman!  We mean nothing in the way of censure or personal reproach towards Ms. Gluck, who is one of our leading poets.  Those who truly know us, and love us, know that Scarriet’s forays are always pedagogical; the force of our rhetoric derives from this, and perhaps, from a sense of fun.  The good will excuse us; the bad and the weak-minded, well we don’t care what they think, anyway.

DL:  Did you ever hope for or imagine the large readership and current acclaim that your work enjoys? When you look back on the trajectory of your public career, what do you think or feel?

LG: I have no perception of large readership and acclaim.

DL: I can testify: it’s out there.

LG: When I go to a reading, when I give a reading – first of all, you’re standing in the front of the room, you see the empty seats. And you see only the empty seats. It’s because you were raised by a mother who said, ‘Why did you get 98? Why didn’t you get 100?’

DL: I had that mother too!

LG: Yes, I know you did. So you see the empty seats, and people leave during the course of the reading and you see them leave, and you think: they are simply the more blunt representations of the feeling of the whole room. That everybody wants to leave, but only a few daring ones do. So that’s how that feels. And acclaim? I’ve had as many terrible, condescending reviews or those that damn with faint praise: ‘Well, if you like this sort of thing, then here’s more of it.’

So I have no feeling of acclaim. When I’m told I have a large readership, I think, ‘Oh great, I’m going to turn out to be Longfellow:’ somebody easy to understand, easy to like, the kind of diluted experience available to many. And I don’t want to be Longfellow. Sorry, Henry, but I don’t. To the degree that I apprehend acclaim, I think: Ah, it’s a flaw in the work.

DL: As if: if they knew better, they wouldn’t read you at all?

LG: When they know better, they won’t read me at all.


The sentiment from Ms. Gluck of ‘sour grapes’ trying to disguise itself as something else is palpable. 

“I don’t want to be another Longfellow.”    

Don’t worry, darling, you will never be Mr. Longfellow, or even another Mr. Longfellow.

Poe started something called the Longfellow War.  I wonder if Louise Gluck is trying to start another?

“Oh great, I’m going to turn out to be Longfellow.”  

I hate to break it to you, sweetheart, but there’s no chance of that.

And it’s interesting that the relatively obscure Ms. Gluck seems to think that the whole essence of Longfellow, Professor of Languages at Harvard and one of the most renowned poets who ever lived, is that he is “easy to understand.”  And furthermore, Ms. Gluck somehow feels this quality of comprehensibility is, by its very nature, and without argument, a flaw.  I wonder if Ms. Gluck, and all the other obscure poets who pride themselves on their obscurity, have ever thought this idea of theirs through philosophically.  That would be one stunning revelation, I’m sure.

Louise Gluck was a starting pitcher for the New York Moores this season.  Moore gave her the ball quite often, and Gluck, to her credit, logged a lot of innings.  Gluck’s record was 6-17 with a 5.26 ERA.   Her most memorable start, perhaps, was a 3-2 victory over the Hartford Stevens, a complete game victory, in which she out-dueled Debussy.

The delighted crowd easily understood that.

I’ll close with a quote from my friend:

“Yeah, that shows a great disdain for the past.  Will a pop singer like Neil Diamond ever pen a song called “Gluck Serenade”? Doubt it.  Wasn’t sure of her point with regard to popular success – it would be a sign of her going astray?  Of the mob’s going astray?  Anyway, she’s fully subsidized, must get nice X-Acto knife royalties too….”

%d bloggers like this: