Dark Visions

A New Volume Of 'Best American Poetry' Celebrates Both The Significant And The Schadenfreude.

By James DiGiovanna

Best American Poetry 1997, edited by James Tate; series editor David Lehman (Scribner). Paper, $13.

EACH YEAR, BEST American Poetry is edited by a different American poet, in keeping with the title, one supposes. This year, perhaps in an effort to keep the requisite James Tate poem out of the volume, Tate himself has been chosen to oversee the selection.

Books As one might expect from Tate, the poems in this year's edition are rich in inventive language, but surprisingly Tate is not adverse to including several fairly straightforward, emotional poems, including the first piece in the book, by Ai. Written in the voice of a returning Viet Nam vet, this narrative poem provides an eerie opening to the volume, and is followed by another evocative and naturalistic poem, Sherman Alexie's "The Exaggeration Of Despair." Alexie's piece is as far from Tate's style as poetry gets, eschewing poetic figures in all but its opening and closing lines, which frame a series of two-line descriptions of the specific humiliations and degradations suffered by Alexie's Native American friends and acquaintances.

One expects to find such usual suspects as Alexie, Ai, Ammons and Ashberry in all of these volumes, and there are plenty of poetry mainstays here, including some very strong work by Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, and a piece by Pulitzer-winner Charles Simic which seems to have been included largely because Simic and Tate are pals.

While those looking for work by the likes of Donald Hall, Robert Creeley and Charles Wright won't be disappointed, the fun of volumes like this is in finding new voices. Tate has done a good job here, even if there was a bit of nepotism at work, as two of the lesser-known poets are currently students of Tate.

The strongest new entry is from Jennifer L. Knox, who lists work as a "road crew flag girl" in lieu of the prizes and publications that she does not yet have. Her poem, "Bright Lights of Responsibility," has a sense of humor and use of figures reminiscent of the best of Tate's own work, but with a much clearer narrative and more direct message. It's the tale of two friends, one suggesting irresponsible fun, the other playing the moral party pooper:

..."Let's go down to the river.

Bosses from all over the state are having sex with their young secretaries

in a wild group fucking kind of office thing with prosthetics and electricity.

They're misusing whipped cream can chargers and animal sedatives.

The press is invited and nobody's going to get in trouble"

I told her, "No I won't go. It's not right .

Even if these big fat men get interviewed on Entertainment Tonight...."

The use of rhyme here is part of the much-discussed "return of rhyme" in contemporary poetry. Tate showcases this trend, and not only with poems that make sparing use of the occasional end rhyme. Joseph Brodsky's "Love Song" is entirely in rhyme and meter, and manages to be successfully modern in spite of these restrictions:

If you were a bird, I'd cut a record

and listen all night long to your high-pitched trill.

If I were a sergeant, you'd be my recruit,

and boy I can assure you you'd love the drill.

Perhaps the most amusing part of these volumes is not seeing the old-timers, tracing the trends, or looking for new voices, but the schadenfreude of figuring out who was excluded. Last year's Adrienne Rich-edited volume was one of the few not to include a poem by Tate; Tate returns the favor by omitting Rich's oeuvre from this year's selections. Stephen Dobyns is out this year while he undergoes sensitivity training for assaulting an undergraduate; and Thomas Lux is somewhat mysteriously excluded, as his recent collection was extremely well-received. Harry Mathews, who was a mainstay in these Best of's for their first five years (the series started in 1988 with an excellent selection edited by John Ashberry), seems to have gone on "permanent hiatus"; but James Dickey, in spite of being dead, manages to get one last poem in.

While there are always some oddities and misses in a book such as this, Tate's flavor is well represented, even if he is a bit too enamored of humorous poems. This is one of the better collections in the series, a welcome surprise after last year's lackluster edition. It's certainly kind of the editors to wade through the knee-high mound of mediocrity that winds up in poetry journals and pluck out the gems, producing a real rarity: an entire book of poems that don't suck. TW

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