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This review is taken from PN Review 116, Volume 23 Number 6, July - August 1997.

THAT'S RICH ADRIENNE RICH and DAVID LEHMAN, The Best American Poetry, 1996 (Scribner)

The title, The Best American Poetry, 1996, contains two signals of the now nine-year-old annual's intentions. First, despite the date, the poems selected appeared in journals and magazines in 1995. Titling the volume by its publication date shifts the emphasis from the poem itself to its retrospective ordering into a gathering of somehow representative poetry. And it's not best poems but best poetry. This distinction allows series editor David Lehman and his annual guest editor of a prominent poet - this year it's Adrienne Rich - to avoid making invidious distinctions about quality while putting their own stamp on the state of American poetry. This is how careers prosper and canons get made. Yet a year is insufficiently distant to offer any real perspective while it privileges the editors as arbiters. Consciously or not, the shift to 'poetry' from 'poems' pushes the editors away from internal questions of style and composition to external issues of cultural politics. Of course, there's no reason why an editor couldn't decide, 'Right! 199X: Language Poetry Rules!' or even, 'These are absolutely, no argument -shut up over there! - the best 75 poems of the year!' In practice none has. Instead the Best American Poetry volumes illustrate how strongly America's poetic culture is still shaped if not bedevilled by Auden's: 'Poetry makes nothing happen.'

By and large, since Americans are devout believers in usefulness, the successive editors of Best American Poetry take the opposite position to Auden's. They generally have conceived their ...


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