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.