Why Is “Best” in Scare Quotes?

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Why Is “Best” in Scare Quotes?: Stephen Burt’s The Poem Is You and the “Best” Poets

I recently posted a list-in-progress of the “best” books of poetry during the first two decades of this century. Since I am working on a list that will eventually cover a half-century (1970-2020), there are, of course, poets whose work I admire very much who are not in what amounts to the final 40 percent of this period. Garrett Hongo’s books, for instance, will appear in the first half of this list.

For the moment, though, my main question goes like this: why is “Best” in scare quotes?

Is it a sardonic gesture on my part, an immediate way to problematize the legitimacy of my assessment? After all, I have never served as the editor of a volume of “Best Poems of the Year,” nor has my own poetry ever won any kind of award or prize. Am I a distinguished professor at a major R-1 university? No, again. To put it even more bluntly, am I the equal of those whose work I have sorted through? Shouldn’t only those who are at the level of the field they judge have their assessment taken seriously? Perhaps, therefore, the scare quotes should be redoubled.

I have been reading poetry for a half-century, though, with a fair degree of commitment and curiosity; and for over a decade and a half, I worked (if one can call largely unpaid labor “work”) rather assiduously as an editor and publisher of a West Coast independent press. On the whole, I doubt poets who read my list will really care about my qualifications. What it will boil down to is this distinction: if you’re on my list, you will regard my opinion as sound and thoughtful; if your book is not listed, then I am a narrow-minded, semi-literate jerk.

I would hope, however, that you would give my list as much respectful attention as I have given Stephen Burt’s The Poem Is You, which by sheer coincidence I picked up at the college library and began to peruse as I was putting the finishing touches on yet another iteration. Let me start by praising Burt’s writing itself. His sentences and paragraphs are a pleasure to read, regardless of the poet he is writing about. The quality of Burt’s prose is very much the factor that keeps me reading, in fact, for I am not particularly interested in the majority of the poets he has selected as examples of compelling poetry.

One of the things that almost stunned me about The Poem Is You was how little correlation there was between his “list” and mine. If his table of content and my list were to be arranged as a Venn diagram, one would only see a sliver of shaded-in commonality. One might attribute this to the variety that oscillates, wobbles and cavorts through the proliferating scenes that make up contemporary poetry in this country, but I don’t think that’s the case. Our divergence in emphasis comes out of a fundamental disagreement about the actual evolution of contemporary poetry.

Nevertheless, there are a dozen or so featured poets in The Poem Is You whose work I am mutually intrigued by, and I have to give Professor Burt considerable credit for surprising me in a few instances. I never expected him to include Robert Grenier and Carla Harryman as poets worth discussion. In addition, his writing has gotten me interested in a few poets (such as Robyn Schiff and dg nanouk okpik) whose work I was not familiar with at all. Finally, it should be noted that even when there is overlap between our lists, an extended discussion would reveal my substantial reservations about the work of poets such as Albert Goldbarth, whose poems generate a surface dazzle, but rarely achieve the transmission of wisdom that would qualify them as worthy of translation. In other words, I want to emphasize again that a poet’s appearance in my list is not an unqualified endorsement.

The kind of book that Burt has produced is gaining in popularity. Both Edward Hirsch and Camille Paglia have produced similar surveys and commentaries, and I hope the success of these volumes encourages other such efforts.

Here, for the record, is Burt’s list of poets most deserving of attention now:

Tato Laviera
Lucille Clifton
Carla Harryman
John Hollander
Carl Dennis
Liam Rector
Czeslaw Milosz
Robert Grenier
Rita Dove
A.R. Ammons
Yusef Komunyakaa
Diane Glancy
Lucie Brock-Broido
Killarney Clary
John Yau
Robert Creeley
Charles Wright
Allen Grossman
Adrienne Rich
Louise Gluck
James Merrill
Linda Gregerson
Kay Ryan
Albert Goldbarth
Harryette Mullen
Stanley Kunitz
Michael Palmer
Robert Hass
C.D. Wright
Juan Felipe Herrera
Carter Revard
Allan Peterson
Rae Armantrout
Elizabeth Alexander
Liz Waldner
kari edwards
Agha Shahid Ali
D.A. Powell
Angie Estes
W.S. Merwin
Bernadette Mayer
Donald Revell
Terrance Hayes
Jorie Graham
Laura Kasischke
Frank Bidart
Robyn Schiff
Mary Jo Bang
Lucia Perillo
Melissa Range
Joseph Massey
dg nanouk okpik
Rosa Alcala
Gabby Bess
Brenda Shaughnessy
Claudia Rankin
Brandon Som
Ross Gay