Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Trouble with Quotes

I came across a short book review today that made me laugh. It has "made my day," so to speak, which is either a sign of my dedication to the art of poetry or a lamentable commentary on my social life. Maybe both.

Anyhow, as proudly posted on, Publishers Weekly has come out with a blurb on the soon-to-be-released The Best American Poetry 2006:

"From Publishers WeeklyStarred Review. In the 19th installment of this annual series, former poet laureate Collins (The Trouble with Poetry, 2005), one of America's most popular poets ever, has culled the typical handful of big names and some surprising new voices from more than 50 American literary publications. Collins's predilections for accessibility, humor and tidy forms are evident, but there are also surprises. Usual suspects—former Best American editors Ashbery (who surprises with a poem in neatly rhymed couplets), Hass, Simic, Tate and Muldoon, as well as Mary Oliver—meet rising masters like Kay Ryan ("A bird's/ worth of weight/ or one bird-weight/ of Wordsworth"), Vijay Seshadri and Franz Wright. Most interesting, however, is the chance each volume offers to see which up-and-comers make the cut. This year's roster includes edgy poems by Joy Katz, Danielle Pafunda ("my hair cramped with sexy"), Terrance Hayes, and Christian Hawkey ("O my/ beloved shovel-nosed mole"), among others. Collins's surprising and opinionated introduction—in which he admits that, unlike some of series editor David Lehman's previous guest editors, "the designation 'best' doesn't bother me," and offers his definition of a good poem (often one that "starts in the factual" and displays "a tone of playful irreverence")—may cause some controversy. (Sept.) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition."

This anonymous review tickles my funny bone in at least several respects.

First, the reviewer characterizes Billy Collins as "one of America's most popular poets ever," like a kid describes the latest Harry Potter flick or a promoter publicizes the latest heavyweight fight. Putting aside the possibility that poets like Poe and Frost may have had a few admirers of their own, I just find this proclamation a tad amusing.

Second, the reviewer obviously believes potential purchasers of the book will just go ga-ga for "surprises." In this volume, there are "some surprising new voices" (first sentence), "also surprises" (second sentence), and "Ashbery (who surprises with a poem in neatly rhymed couplets)". Now, look, I have some favorite words of my own as well. That's ok. But not only does the review overuse the word "surprises," it doesn't really discuss them much or give us much of a hint. (Ashbery has always had a thing for rhyme; I don't consider his "rhymed couplets" the equivalent of Brad and Jen announcing their breakup.) It makes me wonder whether there are real "surprises" in the anthology. Perhaps there are, which leads to my third and primary point.

The Trouble with Quotes: Third, the reviewer points out that "this year's roster includes edgy poems" and then lists several poets and quotes lines from a couple of these poets' poems. Apparently, Danielle Pafunda has a poem with the line "my hair cramped with sexy," and Christian Hawkey has a poem with the line "O-my/ beloved shovel-nosed mole."

Now my first thought here was that it must be tough when one's hair is "cramped with sexy." Maybe that's the right time to switch to another brand of shampoo. I'm not sure I quite get this line, but it must be like when Justin Timberlake sings "I'm bringing 'sexy' back," and sure, he's not bringing any nouns back, but he's got a cool adjective to accompany him.

And if you think a poem about cramped hair is "edgy," keep your striped socks on for that "beloved shovel-nosed mole." A few thoughts crossed my mind here. First, when one's mole is shovel-nosed, it's best to get that checked. Second, it can't be easy to be a "shovel-nosed mole," especially if all the other moles have sexyback snouts cramped with sexy. Hmmm...perhaps this review is asking us to read the lines from these two different poems together, as in, "O-my/ beloved shovel-nosed mole/ its hair cramped with sexy". Third, deep down, I'm glad that the mole is "beloved" in spite (or because) of being shovel-nosed, what with the national media forcing us to conform to its ideal of beauty these days. Fourth, my apologies, but I haven't encountered enough moles to vividly imagine any mole, let alone one that is shovel-nosed. Finally, am I making a mountain out of a mole with this post?

Anyways...I'm sure that Joy Katz and Terrance Hayes were quite mournful that the review didn't grab isolated, "edgy" lines out of their respective poems. I actually feel a tad sorry for Pafunda, because I have indeed read and enjoyed her poetry. So this blurb makes me think of the dilemmas involved with quoting individual lines from poems in book reviews. Taking lines out-of-context can inhibit the reader's comprehension of the poem and/or unfairly cast an unfavorable light on it. In fact, I think it's possible that I 'd enjoy the poems from which these random, quoted lines have journeyed.

Fourth, the reviewer's listing of four poets, "Hass, Simic, Tate, and Muldoon, as well as Mary Oliver," made me think of the four Beatles and Yoko. Maybe it's because the female poet is randomly singled out for some reason.

Oops, I missed another "surprise" -- the last sentence of the review states that Collins offers a "surprising and opinionated introduction." Apparently, Collins dares to boldly offer the startling proclamation that "the designation 'best' doesn't bother me" as well as his definition of a good poem. Utterly stunning! I just can't believe that Mideast conflicts are still making the front pages of the NY Times as opposed to this amazing piece of news...(I'm just kidding, of course.) Same as every year, I'll still go out and buy this book and promise to act surprised.


Blogger Lyle Daggett said...

Actually could make an interesting haiku, or hiaku-shaped small poem:

"O my beloved
shovel-nosed mole -- its hair
cramped with sexy"

Enjoyed reading this. I will say that I actually appreciate it when reviewers quote from poems when the review poetry books. I think the trouble with the review you're talking about here is that the quotes were selected without much real thought, or at least they seem to me like they were.

It's true also that I'm not a huge fan of Billy Collins, and I'm not sure how likely it would be that any anthology of poems he edited would include many poets or poems I especially like. The only one of the Best American Poetry annual anthologies I've actually bought and read was the one (I forget what year) edited by Robert Bly. I liked that one quite a bit.

Hass, Simic, Tate, Muldoon and Oliver, the New Beatles. Is it a bad sign that I think the idea could have some potential?

6:49 PM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...

And don't forget---Bao Phi has a poem ("Race") in this next issue.

7:21 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Thanks for the haiku, Lyle, and thanks for reminding me about Bao Phi's "Race", Lee.

I think that one of the great values of "Best American Poetry" is that it gets a lot of people reading, thinking, and talking about the same group of poems. I give a lot of credit to series editor David Lehman for having the vision and energy to develop such a successful anthology.

And yes, I'm wondering whether our "beloved shovel-nosed mole" will chat to us in Tagalog.

4:12 PM  

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