At the library recently, I scanned the new release shelf on my way to check out. Two poetry titles caught my eye, and I grabbed them as I passed.
The first was The Best American Poetry 2007. Oh, how I should have known better. Pretentious junk like this is what turns people off to poetry. Admittedly, I didn’t read the whole thing because, after opening to about a dozen works at random, all but one were infuriatingly bad. They were full of pointless images that jumped around for the sole purpose of distracting you from any coherent thought. The only one I liked was a sprite of a little piece that made a few clever puns on the prefix “be-“; it wasn’t brilliant, only mildly amusing. But at least there was one poem that didn’t think it was God’s Ultimate Gift To English.
Remember in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy when a poet recites some Vogon poetry (the third worst in the universe), and his own internal organs crawl up and choke his brain, just to make it stop? OK, the poems in this book are worse than that.
What’s really sad is that there is some wonderful poetry being written out there today that the establishment here seems to ignore. Three examples come to mind:
- Sometimes, The New Yorker will reproduce translations of foreign poets. Their work tends to be much more elemental than the grad school-wannabe meandering that passes for poetry in the U.S.
- A few years ago, reading an issue of a science fiction magazine (Analog or Isaac Asimov’s), I came across a poem that used reduced gravity on an alien planet as a metaphor for escaping the crushing weight of one’s reality with the power of dreams. It might sound silly, but it was genuinely touching. In fact, I’ve found a lot of good poetry in science fiction magazines.
- On my honeymoon five years ago, my bride and I spent some time in the mountains of Virginia. One roadside diner didn’t have a tacky souvenir stand, they had a small library (next to a case of fresh pies, as I recall). I picked up a couple volumes of local folklore and poetry. Those poems–earnest, simple, and still ethereal, drove more power into their words than a hundred MFA candidates at NYU ever will.
The other book I got at the library was the polar opposite–one of those things you find that instantly raises the whole quality of your life. Actor John Lithgow–yes, the crazy alien from Third Rock From The Sun–has edited a collection called The Poet’s Corner: The One-And-Only Poetry Book For The Whole Family.
Lithgow’s introduction–based on his memories of his grandmother–takes us back into another generation where poetry was common, loved, and understood. From there, Lithgow gives us works from fifty English-language greats. They’re all standard textbook anthology stuff, but I’ve never seen them arranged like this, with the kind of loving commentary Lithgow gives: here, Dorothy Parker sits with Walt Whitman, Gwendolyn Brooks with Shakespeare. Sweet.
Lithgow’s love of these classics even prompts him to include lots of Internet references so we can hear the authors themselves reciting when possible. These are teriffic resources.
And then there’s the audio CD. The main poems presented in the book by each of the fifty authors are performed exquisitely by Lithgow’s celebrity friends, and a fine assortment of voice talents they are: Gary Sinise reads work by Ginsberg, Morgan Freeman reads “The Weary Blues,” Jodie Foster recites “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Sam Waterston channels Poe on “Annabel Lee,” and Lithgow himself revels in his oration of Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life.” Frankly, any time you get a chance to hear Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” out loud, you should go for it.
I’ll be getting a copy of this. You should, too. I only wish schools could afford to get a copy for every student (hopefully it comes out in paperback). As it is, you can bet my personal copy will get heavy rotation in my classroom next year.