Q&A with Robert Pinsky on ‘Best of the Best American Poetry’

In 1988, poet David Lehman began an annual series of anthologies called “The Best American Poetry,” inviting distinguished poets to edit each year’s selection. For this, the 25th anniversary of the project, he asked former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky to choose 100 poems from throughout the series for “The Best of the Best American Poetry” (Scribner, $35). Here is an edited version of an e-mail dialogue with Pinsky.

What qualities of voice and vision emerged during your selection process? How was the force of history affecting these poets’ work?

(Eric Antoniou) - Robert Pinsky.

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Do electronic media, with their speed and range, enhance the dignity of the individual or render it obsolete? That contemporary social issue, with its political corollaries about democracy, resembles questions that poets faced a hundred years ago. The Modernist writers defied two kinds of belittlement: First, the middlebrow complacency of bromides, the synthetic sweetness of Edgar Guest’s “It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home” — so unlike the sharp, Modernist force of Marianne Moore’s “Silence.” Secondly, there was the deprecation of aestheticism, a dismissal of poetry as being able to encompass major concerns. Compare, for instance, Swinburne’s cotton-candy “Atalanta in Calydon” with William Carlos Williams’s ambitious documentary “Paterson.” I love that alphabetically this book goes from Sherman Alexie to Kevin Young, and that it includes poems as large-minded and as different as Terrance Hayes’s “A House Is Not a Home” and Anne Winters’s “The Mill-Race.” I found it easy to choose poems that have a capacious sense of the enterprise, comparable to that generation of Moore and Williams.

To what extent did the sounds — the musicality — of the poems influence your selections?

“Poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.” That’s among the many good things said by that deplorable man Ezra Pound. In our time, much popular music may have atrophied by becoming a bit mindless, and much poetry may have atrophied by lacking musical qualities. In music, an intelligent rapper like Sadiq or an intelligent folk-rocker like Josh Ritter can overcome that tendency. From the other direction, I hope that if you open “The Best of the Best” at random and begin reading aloud, you will hear something musical, something a reader might treasure. The sounds of the sentences and vowels and consonants were a guide for me in selecting poems.

Looking back, we find certain poets whose work altered the course of the art form’s development. In the works gathered here, do you see glimpses of new directions emerging? For example, the long inward-spiraling explorations of Anne Carson, or Paul Muldoon’s hybrid lyrics that fuse diverse cultural languages?

I don’t think much about trends, schools, fashions, -isms, academic categories. That kind of thinking placed John Keats as a minor follower of Leigh Hunt. Trends tell us nothing about Dickinson or Whitman. I’m glad that the Best American Poetry books arrange poets in alphabetical order. That’s more interesting than categories like “Nieces of the Beats” or “Nephews of the Imagists.” But the two poets you mention may fit a non-trend: the idea of poetry as being close to music. I haven’t seen her performances, but I’ve read that Carson has worked with dancers. And I certainly have heard and read Muldoon’s song lyrics and songlike poems. They are terrific.

William Carlos Williams said of poetry that “men die miserably everyday for lack of what is found there.” Did the poems collected here strengthen your belief in that?

We humans are the art-making, art-needing animal. Making things up and taking pleasure in made-up things — those are fundamental human traits. Whatever else art gives us, it eases misery. So, yes, I find that pleasure or comfort in, say, Allen Ginsberg’s “Salutations to Fernando Pessoa” or Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It” or David Rivard’s “The Rev. Larry Love Is Dead.” I could list any three of these 100 poems, I’m happy to say.

Ratiner is a poet and educator.

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