The Best American Poetry 2008 : Series Editor David Lehman, Guest Editor Charles Wright
The Best American Poetry series is a beloved mainstay of American poetry. This year's edition was edited by one of the most admired and acclaimed poets of his generation, Charles Wright. Known for his meditative and beautiful observations of landscape, change, and time,Wright brings his particular sensibility to this year's anthology, which contains an ecumenical slant that is unprecedented for the series. He has gathered an astonishing selection of work that includes new poems by Carolyn Forch�, Jorie Graham, Louise Gl�ck, Frank Bidart, Frederick Seidel, Patti Smith, and Kevin Young and showcases a dazzling array of rising stars like Joshua Beckman, Erica Dawson, and Alex Lemon.
With captivating and revelatory notes from the poets on their works and sage and erudite introductory essays by Wright and series editor David Lehman, The Best American Poetry 2008 will be read, discussed, debated, and prized for years to come.
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September 15, 2008
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Excerpt from The Best American Poetry 2008 by David Lehman
In a wonderful essay in The Dyer's Hand (1962) -- an essay written far in advance of the ubiquitous writing workshop -- W. H. Auden prescribed the curriculum of his "daydream College for Bards." Matriculated students in the "daydream college" must learn at least one ancient and two modern languages. They have to memorize thousands of lines of verse. Forbidden from reading criticism, they must exercise their critical faculties by writing parodies. They need to take courses in prosody, rhetoric, and comparative philology. Most unconventionally, they are required to study three subjects from a varied group, including "archaeology, mythology, liturgics, cooking," and they are expected also to take up gardening or to adopt a four-legged pet.
While the proposed banning of literary criticism from the college library may go too far, I think Auden is right about a lot of things. The value of knowing a poem by heart lies not in the public recitation but in the inward recollection of the lines when one is in a vacant or a pensive mood; there is simply no better way to possess a poem than to memorize it. A good parody is an act of practical criticism, as instructive and more amusing than most. Among the most efficacious exercises are those that involve writing in set forms and handling various metrical and stanzaic patterns. I agree, too, on the value of such nonliterary activities as cooking and gardening, which in their creative processes and structures bear more than a passing resemblance to the act of writing. Given the sheer number of graduate writing programs in the country today -- urban or pastoral, low or high residency, fancy or no frills, traditional or innovative -- it's a wonder, in a way, that none has given Auden's curriculum a try.
Auden begins "The Poet & the City" with the observation that a great many young people of limited talent, "when asked what they want to do in life," answer neither sensibly ("I want to be a lawyer, an innkeeper, a farmer") nor romantically ("I want to be an explorer, a racing motorist, a missionary, President of the United States"). Instead they want to become writers, "creative" writers. The phenomenon had long astonished and vexed the author. In "The Prolific and the Devourer," written in 1939, the year Auden first took up residence in America, he asserts that the secret meaning of "I want to write" is "I don't want to work." Art as a form of play, he adds, "is the least dependent on the good-will of others and looks the easiest." For the shirkers, Auden's message is that you must work very hard not only at becoming a poet but at earning a living. He goes on to recommend learning a craft or taking up a trade that does not "involve the manipulation of words," a very Audenesque piece of advice that his own industrious practice as an essayist and anthologist belies. Perhaps, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing to do with good advice is pass it on and assume that it doesn't apply to you. Richard Howard, the guest editor of the 1995 volume in this series, recollects the time that "Wystan [Auden's first name] scolded me for translating books from the French. He thought manual labor was a much more suitable idea." On another occasion, Auden voiced his opinion that "poets should dress like businessmen," while he wore, in James Schuyler's words, "an incredible peach / -colored nylon shirt."
Such inconsistencies are amusing but do not affect the central point, and we may thank Auden for raising the whole question of what job options there are for, in his phrase, "the average poet." Many young writers today can see their lives unfold in a seamless transition from one side of the classroom to the other without an intervening period of living in the place that professors sometimes call the "quote-unquote real world." The importance of going out into the world and encountering its complexity and range of possibility is surely one thing we might stress in our latter-day College for Bards.
The proliferation of graduate, degree-granting writing programs in the thirty-five years since Auden's death may not have surprised one so suspicious of the vanity of young writers. Yet even a critic of the workshop structure, centering as it does on the student rather than on canonical texts, might welcome the news that MFA programs continue to flourish -- if only because writing requires reading and because we may owe to these programs the perpetuation of the art that we practice and the "influences" we honor and sometimes contend with like uncles and aunts and grandparents. The Association of Writing Programs (AWP) held its annual conference in New York City in 2008, and the sold-out event, attracting more participants and book exhibits than any in the organization's history, was nothing if not a sign of a profession in vigorous health