I have to admit from the start that I've always wanted to be in the Best American Poetry, so there's something delicious to me about being here even though I've never actually been in one of the print volumes! Except as an editor, that is. Ambition is no small thing, but surely it shrinks down in the chastening face of each day's news. Given what goes on in the world, why do we think poems are so important? I mean, the folks I work for get about 90,000 of them every year (for which we are extremely grateful), and I imagine everyone who sends poems out, as I do myself, hopes something will come of their work. Why?
In a pair of essays forthcoming in Poetry, both Adam Kirsch and Robert Archambeau take up the question. Kirsch's chastening view is that "as far back as we can see, the economics of literary fame have been based on scarcity: there is not enough recognition to go around, so every human's being's just claim cannot be met... If the scarcity of recognition is a symptom of the world's fallenness, then literary ambition is a form of complicity with fallenness. In other words, it is a sin." And he adds: "Because there is not enough money in the world, people steal; because there is not enough power, people do violence; because there is not enough recognition, they make art." Archambeau has a more benign and bemused view (and he wrote this before last weeks' stock market roller coaster ride): "the field of poetry is somewhat insulated from market forces, if for no other reason than that the materials rewards are so small," and that poets "tend to define themselves with reference to the cultural, rather than their material capital."
Depressing either way, eh? Still...
This year's BAP has a poem in it that makes me feel a little better about all this, because it's a small miracle. Kathryn Starbuck's "The Shoe" gave me a chill when it first crossed my desk. Her late husband George was really a Best American Poet, and while he was around Kathryn never was herself nor had any ambition to be a poet. But somehow, after he passed away, poems came to her. Poems that were not like his - he was not somehow speaking to her from the great beyond - but purely her own. She had to bone up on what goes on with poems: how they get formed and reformed, what to do with them, and so on. And so she sent the poem off to a magazine. Reading it, I first thought of Lowell's poem about losing his glasses for days in a shoe: George had rather famously been a student of Lowell's. Yet I don't think this is what Kathy had in mind. Instead, her poem begins with an empty shoe that forces her to reckon with the fact that it was George who had been lost: a whole man, a husband and lover (not just a poet). Now here's the miraculous part. Kathy did the thing they tell you not to do in How to Publish Poems 101: she sent her only copy. And having done so, she then forgot all about it! I was at Harvard Review at the time, and when we wrote her with the acceptance, it put her in a bit of a panic. She wasn't even sure she had written the poem, and had no evidence for it other than the copy we had on our hands! Somehow, between us, we had rescued a poem, and somehow that poem rescues some part of George Starbuck. And nobody had any idea the poem would go on to be included in a volume of best American poems, that's for sure. So maybe there's some redemption that goes along with the sin. You can keep something alive that was supposed to have vanished forever. That must be why we do what we do.