“I am easily satisfied with the very best.”
Oh Mr. Churchill, you were clearly not American, being so comfortable with the idea of a “best.” I should re-state: plain old normal Americans seem to love “best of” lists, which may explain the fact that they’re appearing in greater numbers than ever, particularly at year’s end. But American writers? Ehhhhh, we don’t like it so much when someone publishes a “best of” list. How much of the distaste for “best ofs” is due to notions of big D democracy (aptly expressed in a variation of Keillor’s Lake Wobegone slogan: “where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the poems are above average”) and how much is due to a collective artistic hubris, I’m not sure. But it seems like a waste of energy to me.
A recent case in point is the New Yorker’s “Ten Great Poetry Collections of 2010,” posted by their poetry editor, the poet Paul Muldoon. Frankly, I think Muldoon’s work is so good that if he’d included his own collection, Maggot (published by FSG in August, 2010) I wouldn’t have argued. But he didn’t do that. Nor did he call his list a “best of.” Still, he’s given us much to complain about. There’s only one book from a small literary press (and six from FSG!) Only two on the list were written by women, none by poets of color. Speaking of the poets, most if not all are over the age of fifty. And one’s long dead.
Where is the diversity? Muldoon seems to have misplaced the “staff of representativeness” (to coin a term) widely demanded of literary editors these days. Instead, he gives us a list of books he considers to be great poetry, based on his opinion of the work rather than the color, gender, politics, geographic location or height of the poets. Why should this be shocking? I’m willing to bet the New Yorker was the recipient of a slew of letters to the editor by at least one group of writers disappointed that they weren’t properly represented. I’m willing to go so far as to say it wasn’t the dead writers.
What if, when next we see a “Hundred Greatest Books of the Century” or a “Ten Top Narrative Poems Written Last April” list, even the “Best American Poetry of 2011,” we read through, thinking the listmaker is saying “I enjoyed the following and suggest you read them too”? Rather than seeing them as definitive pronouncements, why not see them as suggestions—with the intention of getting us reading and thinking? I’d be satisfied with that.