Back when I was in college, I sat with three other poets in a pub. The question came up, what’s greatness or genius in poetry? Each of us expounded and each of our definitions were incompatible. A woman sitting with us, leaning back and bored with our posturing, ended the discussion with a nice observation. She said: Each of you is defining genius in your own image.

No, I wanted to say, I really am impartial; but she was right.

It’s a curious thing when full grown editors and publishers, who should know better, dismiss self-published poets and authors as Vanity Publishers. The implication is that editors are impartial judges. Yet every day that they approve a sheaf of poetry, their decision is an unrivaled act of vanity. They might respond that the writer who self-publishes, like the defendant who represents himself, has a fool for an editor, but that hardly exculpates their own vanity.

The Best Poetry in America

One of the most stratospherically presumptuous publications in the world is David Lehman‘s The Best American Poetry Series. There’s no anthology that so glorifies the vanity of Lehman, its editors and poets. The series is more accurately titled, Me and My Favorite American Poets, but one doesn’t have to be a marketing guru to guess why it isn’t.

The title is absurd. I’ve seen enough reactions to the series to know how many readers find the contents tear-inducingly dull and tedious. But don’t disregard Internet Rule 36. It applies to real life too.

No matter what it is, it is somebody’s fetish. No exceptions.

There are always going to be readers who, like the editors, consider the anthology’s poems unassailably great. Don’t be swayed. The editors have no more claim to what’s best than all those editors of dusty and yellowing anthologies from the early 20th century. They’re filled with aging Victorian poets who are strikingly similar to the poets gathered in current anthologies. They epitomize the aesthetics of an era.

The Academy of American Poets Website, for instance, claims that the series “remains one of the most popular and best-selling poetry books published each year”. I love science. Whenever I read claims like this my inner skeptic sharpens his knife to a fare-thee-well. First of all, you know you’re in trouble when you see the phrase “one of”. I tried to confirm this through independent sources, like the Nielsen Bookscan, but no list confirmed their claim.  But here’s what I found at the Poetry Foundation. Apparently, the qualifications are as follows: It is among the best-selling poetry books when sales are broken down into contemporary poetry, children’s poetry, poetry anthologies and small press poetry publications (and only when the anthologies, “published each year”, are considered as a series). In other words, it is among the most popular and best-selling books among A.) poetry books B.) poetry anthologies C.) during the year it is published D.) in America.

A triton among minnows (given that there just aren’t that many anthologies to compete with).

Given this sublist of sublists, for how many weeks, in each year, was The Best American Poetry (BAP) listed as a top seller?  2010:10. 2009:17. 2008:14. 2007:18. 2006:19. This represents 5 different years for five different anthologies (each year a new anthology is released). That means that The Best American Poetry: 2006 anthology doesn’t appear as a top seller after 2006. (That’s the reason for the qualification: “best-selling poetry books published each year“.) Taken singly, and once their year is up, they’re neither best-selling nor popular.

Let’s consider the lists from 2006-2010: 260 weeks.

By 2010,Good Poems for Hard Times, by Garrison Keillor, had appeared in the top ten for 224 weeks. This means that Keillor’s book was 11 times more popular than Best American Poetry’s 2006 anthology (which only appeared in the list for 19 weeks over the same period of time). Thats right, 19 out of 224 weeks. Once the year was up, the anthology vanished from the top ten.

What if we add all the anthologies together?

As a series, The Best American Poetry has appeared 78 times (out of 224 weeks) in the top ten list. That means Keillor’s single anthology is still 3 times more popular than five (5) separate editions of Best American Poetry. The Best Poems of the English Language, by Harold Bloom, is just over 2 times more popular than the entire series over 5 years. Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds, which was only published in November of 2009, was already in the top ten list 57 weeks by the end of 2010. This means that, in one year, Collins’s single book nearly equaled the record of Best American Poetry’s over five years!

I think that helps put things in perspective.

If the Academy of American Poets is going to tout sales records, then Garrison Keillor, Bloom and Collins all know more about good poetry than Lehman or his editors. But all artists, critics and editors define greatness in their own image. When they pick the “best” poetry, they’re creating an anthology in their own image. The Best American Poetry series is itself no more than a very partial exercise in vanity.

The other moral is that if your poems didn’t or don’t appear in Lehman’s anthology, count yourself lucky.

The guy you want to impress is Garrison Keillor.

Your Poem & an Entry Fee

I’ve always been of two minds when it comes to competitions. On the one hand, the individuals and organizations who offer them want to encourage what they value. That’s cool. However, to the extent that they encourage, all competitions have an agenda. There’s no such thing as an award that celebrates what’s “distinguished”. That claim will always come with so many provisos and stipulations as to render it suspect, if not laughable.

Poets win competitions and grants because their aesthetics best appeal to the vanity of the jurists. In a very real sense (and in all competitions) jurists are awarding themselves. They define what’s distinguished and exceptional in their own image. And that’s what bugs me about grants, competitions and awards: not that they do it, but that they assume the mantel of impartiality by using words like these and best of.

There’s no such thing as impartiality.

Don’t ever berate yourself if you don’t win the approval of anthologists or jurists. These platforms aren’t so much about you or your poetry, but the vanity of the editors and jurists who have created them. Maybe your poetry will strike a chord, maybe it won’t.

Are there other poets and editors who have a better sense for good poetry than you? Probably so.

But try to sort out what is, and isn’t, impartial.

10 responses

  1. I get what you’re saying…however, how else do you imagine any editor or anthologist might work? Aren’t editors and award granters, like poets, rightly guided by their own individual experience, judgment, and taste? And shouldn’t their books be reflections of such, even if they’re billed otherwise for sales purposes?

    Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project took a more “audience-chosen” approach, but it’s a very retrospective collection. For more current anthologies, editors can hardly afford to take a broad survey of the general public — it would yield very few new poems, and maybe this is the central problem — nor do I think they should.

    I always see those books as “The Best American Poetry According to…” Lehman even stresses this in his prefaces. I also think they represent, relatively well, what’s published in the major lit mags, online pubs, and new collections. Do the editors miss good work? Sure. But that’s part of the “single editor’s preference” structure, which is stated clearly in every volume I’ve read.

    Are you implying that there’s a hidden cache somewhere of great or even very good poetry, for adults, that is published in venues never visited by the editors? Poetry that has more popular appeal perhaps? I’m not sure — beyond a few of the best children’s or genre poets — if much else exists for ready examination by anthologists.


    • Aren’t editors and award granters, like poets, rightly guided by their own individual experience, judgment, and taste? And shouldn’t their books be reflections of such, even if they’re billed otherwise for sales purposes?

      Lehman, and editors like him, remind me of Republican John Kyl, who out-and-out lied about Planned Parenthood. When called on it, he said that his statements weren’t meant to be factual. Lehman calls his anthologies Best American Poetry then more or less states, in his preface, that the titles aren’t meant to be factual.

      So be it. And I’m going to entitle my next book of poems as being The Greatest Collection of American Poems by the Greatest Poetic Genius in America. (Fine print in preface.)

      As long as these characters want to give their books and anthologies such grandiose titles (for sales purposes) I’m going to have just as much fun mocking them for my own “sales purposes”.

      Are you implying that there’s a hidden cache somewhere of great or even very good poetry, for adults, that is published in venues never visited by the editors?

      I’m saying that Lehman’s claim to anthologizing the best American poetry is laughable hyperbole. It’s not for Lehman or his yearly shift of editors to decide. The wider reading public will, given time, sort out the best poets and the best poems.


  2. I came across this post while looking for the VT Poetry Newsletter – and I was so astounded by its absurdity that I feel compelled to remind you of two facts:

    1) You justed posted pages of ranting about the vanity of editors, publishers, etc.

    2) This was posted on your personal blog, with headings like ‘ME’, ‘MY POETRY, and ‘MY FABLES’

    Do you see my point? I hope so.


    • You justed posted pages of ranting about the vanity of editors, publishers, etc.

      I freely admit that my self-publishing is an act of vanity. That was the point of my first paragraph (see rant above). My argument is with those who fail to see their own.

      Do you see my point?

      No. Personally, I see some amount of vanity as a good thing. I see ambition as a good thing. What I don’t like is when it’s at the expense of others. I don’t like the notion that self-publishing is “less than” because it’s vanity publishing. All publishing is vanity publishing – impartiality doesn’t exist; and, yes, that includes me.


  3. Good article. I agree, there is no such thing as impartiality. Or said another way, everyone is exclusive (you hinted at this, I think, when you said all competitions have an agenda). This truth applies to all areas of life. So much for the doctrines of relativism. Truly, “defining genius in your own image” is at the core of who we are as human beings. As writers, we do well to recognize this and be honest. We are more believable and enjoyable if we do. I would even go so far as to say we should confess our arrogance and turn from it. I think Martin Luther had something like this in mind when he wrote of the values of a life of repentance. Humility may not win us recognition, but it will accomplish a greater good, that is, better, more truthful, thinking and writing. As I read your post, Patrick, I thought, he’s unhappy with dishonesty. Dishonesty is ugly, no matter the form. For writers, it is particularly ugly in editors and publishers. You are right to point it out and make us consider how marketing has been given a greater value than transparency or congruence in our society.


  4. Pingback: Katy Waldman’s irresistibly inept putdown of Yi-Fen Chou « PoemShape

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