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Poetry selection's focus is blurry at best

Credit David Lehman for piloting what has become, since 1988, an annual fest of American poetry, though neither you nor the poets included should be misled by this being the best there is. Each year, a prominent poet, with Mr. Lehman's assistance, navigates the rocky waters of literary magazines (not books) to choose, from thousands of poems, 75 for enshrinement. In addition, there are some 40 to 50 pages of biographies and comments by poets on their poems (pages that could have been better put to printing poems) and introductions by both the editor and Mr. Lehman. This year's editor, A. R. Ammons, has been preceded by John Ashberry, Donald Hall, Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Charles Simic and Louise Gluck.

It should come as no surprise that these poet-editors and a number of other well-known poets (e.g., John Hollander, Richard Howard, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin) appear in most every volume -- if you were cynical you might think name recognition more influential than the poem itself or you might accept, as I do mostly, what Louise Gluck wrote last year. "Inevitably we read best . . . the work of those poets whose oeuvres we know thoroughly. . . . Also, perhaps hearteningly, poets of great reputation turn out, with some frequency, to produce remarkable poems."

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In previous volumes, the poet-editors have written of how they went about making their selections. Not so A. R. Ammons -- he has nothing to say in this regard. His introduction, for some unaccountable reason, is mostly a screed against postmodernist critics, deconstructionists I assume, who think their texts more important than the poems they are deconstructing.

Saying all of this, what will you get here, reader? No so much Mr. Ammons' individual taste but, as in past volumes, a collection that is mostly democratic. Though he doesn't say so, I assume Mr. Ammons is more or less following a prescription for inclusiveness that Donald Hall set for himself in 1989 -- Mr. Hall wrote that he "chose his final poems on ecumenical principles. I wanted to include schools, areas, genres, and approaches. I wanted narrative, meter, California, formalism, politics, deconstruction, deep image, and Deep South."

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Years ago, William Carlos Williams wrote in "Paterson," his attempt at a nativist epic, that "American poetry is a very easy subject to discuss for the simple reason that it does not exist." (He was quoting the English poet George Barker.) What does exist, Williams didn't go on to say, are American poetries. And poetries are what we have here, a variety of them. Mr. Ammons has selected some terrific poems, poems that will catch you off guard and could well excite you. For me they include Thomas Disch's blank verse "The Cardinal Detoxes: A Play in One Act," which pits an alcoholic Cardinal against the powers of the Church; Janet Holmes' "The Love of the Flesh," which uses a three-line stanza and attentive punctuation to give lift to its meditativeness; and James McManus' long-lined, raucous "Spike Logic," its unlikely subject, diabetes.

Certainly there are good poems here, but there are many others out there in magazines, and five or 10 editors could have elected 75 different ones each. What makes Mr. Ammons' selection special? I cannot say. This is not a poet-editor's shaping vision, a book that helps you experience current American poetry through the sensibility of a major poet. Nor did I feel that in previous volumes.

In 1968, I went to one of the first little magazine conferences sponsored by the then-Coordinating Committee of Literary Magazines -- those of us there were excoriated by George Hitchcock, editor of Kayak, one of the original poetry magazines of the '60s and '70s. "The work in most of your magazines sounds the same," Mr. Hitchcock hollered at us. "Get a point of view. Let's see who you are," he thundered. Well, Kayak was opinionated -- Mr. Hitchcock published a good deal of surrealist poetry as well as work that didn't fit the surrealist mold but that he liked. What Mr. Hitchcock had was a point of view -- it was passionate and it was evident. When Kayak arrived in the mail, you couldn't wait to get at it. The poems could be outrageous or dumb. You don't feel that kind of urgency or excitement or challenge in this anthology. It is nice, it is tame -- it has the feel of an embalming.

If you want to read American poetries, go to the magazines -- there are many. Subscribe, for example, to the American Poetry Review -- a subscription is half the price of this book, and you'll get a lot more. With the money you save, you can buy some of the journals that this anthology has chosen from and some that it hasn't. You'll be supporting the magazines -- they need support -- and you may even find poems that excite and astonish you.

Mr. Leffler was a co-founder of Dryad magazine and Dryad Press.

Title: "Best American Poetry 1994"

Editors: A. R. Ammons, editor; David Lehman, series editor

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

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Length, price: 275 pages, $26 hardcover, $13 softcover


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