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The Best of the Best American Poetry

by Robert Pinsky

Hardcover, 322 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $35 |


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Book Summary

An anthology of 100 top-selected poems culled from the prestigious poetry publication's first quarter century offers insight into the art form's flourishing status and is complicated by introductory essays and current poet biographies. Robert Pinsky, former poet laureate, serves as guest editor for this volume.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Best Of The Best American Poetry




Creepy little creepers are insinuatingly
curling up my spine (bringing the message)

saying, Boy!, are you writing that great poem
the world's waiting for: don't you know you

have an unaccomplished mission unaccomplished;
someone somewhere may be at this very moment

dying for the lack of what W. C. Williams says
you could (or somebody could) be giving: yeah?

so, these messengers say, what do you
mean teaching school (teaching poetry and

poetry writing and wasting your time painting
sober little organic, meaningful pictures)

when values thought lost (but only scrambled into
disengagement) lie around demolished

and centerless because you (that's me, boy)
haven't elaborated everything in everybody's

face, yet: on the other hand (I say to myself,
receiving the messengers and cutting them down)

who has done anything or am I likely to do
anything the world won't twirl without: and

since SS's enough money (I hope) to live
from now on on in elegance and simplicity --

or, maybe,just simplicity — why shouldn't I
at my age (63) concentrate on chucking the

advancements and rehearsing the sweetnesses of
leisure, nonchalance, and small-time byways: couple

months ago, for example, I went all the way
from soy flakes (already roasted and pressed

and in need of an hour's simmering boil
to be cooked) all the way to soybeans, the

pure golden pearls themselves, 65¢ lb. dry: they
have to be soaked overnight in water and they

have to be boiled slowly for six hours — but
they're welfare cheap, are a complete protein,

more protein by weight than meat, more
calcium than milk, more lecithin than eggs,

and somewhere in there the oil that smoothes
stools, a great virtue: I need time and verve

to find out, now, about medicare/medicaid,
national osteoporosis week, gadabout tours,

hearing loss, homesharing programs, and choosing
good nutrition! for starters! why should I

be trying to write my flattest poem, now, for
whom, not for myself, for others?, posh, as I

have never said: Social Security can provide
the beans, soys enough: my house, paid for for

twenty years, is paid for: my young'un
is raised: nothing one can pay cash for seems

very valuable: that reaches a high enough
benchmark for me — high enough that I wouldn't

know what to do with anything beyond that, no
place to house it, park it, dock it, let it drift

down to: elegance and simplicity: I wonder
if we need those celestial guidance systems

striking mountaintops or if we need fuzzy
philosophy's abstruse failed reasonings: isn't

it simple and elegant enough to believe in
qualities, simplicity and elegance, pitch in a

little courage and generosity, a touch of
commitment, enough asceticism to prevent

fattening: moderation: elegant and simple
moderation: trees defined themselves (into

various definitions) through a dynamics of
struggle (hey, is the palaver rapping, yet?)

and so it is as if there were a genetic
recognition that a young tree would get up and

through only through taken space (parental
space not yielding at all, either) and, further:

so, trunks, accommodated to rising, to reaching
the high light and deep water, were slender

and fast moving, and this was okay because
one good thing about dense competition is that

if one succeeds with it one is buttressed by
crowding competitors; that is, there was little

room for branches, and just a tuft of green
possibility at the forest's roof: but, now,

I mean, take my yard maple — put out in the free
and open — has overgrown, its trunk

split down from a high fork: wind has
twisted off the biggest, bottom branch: there

was, in fact, hardly any crowding and competition,
and the fat tree, unable to stop pouring it on,

overfed and overgrew and, now, again, its skin's
broken into and disease may find it and bores

of one kind or another, and fungus: it just
goes to show you: moderation imposed is better

than no moderation at all: we tie into the
lives of those we love and our lives, then, go

as theirs go; their pain we can't shake off;
their choices, often harming to themselves,

pour through our agitated sleep, swirl up as
no-nos in our dreams; we rise several times

in a night to walk about; we rise in the morning
to a crusty world headed nowhere, doorless:

our chests burn with anxiety and a river of
anguish defines rapids and straits in the pit of

our stomachs: how can we intercede and not
interfere: how can our love move more surroundingly,

convincingly than our premonitory advice


garbage has to be the poem of our time because
garbage is spiritual, believable enough

to get our attention, getting in the way, piling
up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and

creamy white: what else deflects us from the
errors of our illusionary ways, not a temptation

to trashlessness, that is too far off, and,
anyway, unimaginable, unrealistic: I'm a

hole puncher or hole plugger: stick a finger
in the dame (dam, damn, dike), hold back the issue

of creativity's flood, the forthcoming, futuristic,
the origins feeding trash: down by I-95 in

Florida where flatland's ocean- and gulf-flat,
mounds of disposal rise (for if you dug

something up to make room for something to put
in, what about the something dug up, as with graves:)

the garbage trucks crawl as if in obeisance,
as if up ziggurats toward the high places gulls

and garbage keep alive, offerings to the gods
of garbage, of retribution, of realistic

expectation, the deities of unpleasant
necessities: refined, young earthworms,

drowned up in macadam pools by spring rains, moisten
out white in a day or so and, round spots,

look like sputum or creamy-rich, broken-up cold
clams: if this is not the best poem of the

century, can it be about the worst poem of the
century: it comes, at least, toward the end,

so a long tracing of bad stuff can swell
under its measure: but there on the heights

a small smoke wafts the sacrificial bounty
day and night to layer the sky brown, shut us

in as into a lidded kettle, the everlasting
flame these acres-deep of tendance keep: a

free offering of a crippled plastic chair:
a played-out sports outfit: a hill-myna

print stained with jelly: how to write this
poem, should it be short, a small popping of

duplexes, or long, hunting wide, coming home
late, losing the trail and recovering it:

should it act itself out, illustrations,
examples, colors, clothes or intensify

reductively into statement, bones any corpus
would do to surround, or should it be nothing

at all unless it finds itself: the poem,
which is about the pre-socratic idea of the

dispositional axis from stone to wind, wind
to stone (with my elaborations, if any)

is complete before it begins, so I needn't
myself hurry into brevity, though a weary reader

might briefly be done: the axis will be clear
enough daubed here and there with a little ink

or fined out into every shade and form of its
revelation: this is a scientific poem,

asserting that nature models values, that we
have invented little (copied), reflections of

possibilities already here, this where we came
to and how we came: a priestly director behind the

black-chuffing dozer leans the gleanings and
reads the birds, millions of loners circling

a common height, alighting to the meaty steaks
and puffy muffins (puffins?): there is a mound

too, in the poet's mind dead language is hauled
off to and burned down on, the energy held and

shaped into new turns and clusters, the mind
strengthened by what it strengthens for

where but in the very asshole of come-down is
redemption: as where but brought low, where

but in the grief of failure, loss, error do we
discern the savage afflictions that turn us around:

where but in the arrangements love crawls us
through, not a thing left in our self-display

unhumiliated, do we find the sweet seed of
new routes: but we are natural: nature, not

we, gave rise to us: we are not, though, though
natural, divorced from higher, finer configurations:

tissues and holograms and energy circulate in
us and seek and find representations of themselves

outside us, so that we can participate in
celebrations high and know reaches of feeling

and sight and thought that penetrate (really
penetrate) far, far beyond these our wet cells,

right on up past our stories, the planets, moons,
and other bodies locally to the other end of

the pole where matter's forms diffuse and
energy loses all means to express itself except

as spirit, there, oh, yes, in the abiding where
mind but nothing else abides, the eternal,

until it turns into another pear or sunfish,
that momentary glint in the fisheye having

been there so long, coming and going, it's
eternity's glint: it all wraps back round,

into and out of form, palpable and impalpable,
and in one phase, the one of grief and love,

we know the other, where everlastingness comes to
sway, okay and smooth: the heaven we mostly

want, though, is this jet-hoveled hell back,
heaven's daunting asshole: one must write and

rewrite till one writes it right: if I'm in
touch, she said, then I've got an edge: what

the hell kind of talk is that: I can't believe
I'm merely an old person: whose mother is dead,

whose father is gone and many of whose
friends and associates have wended away to the

ground, which is only heavy wind, or to ashes,
a lighter breeze: but it was all quite frankly

to be expected and not looked forward to: even
old trees, I remember some of them, where they

used to stand: pictures taken by some of them:
and old dogs, specially one imperial black one,

quad dogs with their hierarchies (another archie)
one succeeding another, the barking and romping

sliding away like slides from a projector: what
were they then that are what they are now:


toxic waste, poison air, beach goo, eroded
roads draw nations together, whereas magnanimous

platitude and sweet semblance ease each nation
back into its comfort or despair: global crises

promote internationalist gettings-together,
problems the best procedure, whether they be in the

poet warps whose energy must be found and let
work or in the high windings of sulfur dioxide:

I say to my writing students — prize your flaws,
defects, behold your accidents, engage your

negative criticisms — these are the materials
of your ongoing — from these places you imagine,

find, or make the ways back to all of us, the figure,
keeping the aberrant periphery worked

clear so the central current may shift or slow
or rouse adjusting to the necessary dynamic:

in our error the defining energies of cure
errancy finds: suffering otherwises: but

no use to linger over beauty or simple effect:
this is just a poem with a job to do: and that

is to declare, however roundabout, sideways,
or meanderingly (or in those ways) the perfect

scientific and materialistic notion of the
spindle of energy: when energy is gross,

rocklike, it resembles the gross, and when
fine it mists away into mystical refinements,

sometimes passes right out of material
recognizability and becomes, what?, motion,

spirit, all forms translated into energy, as at
the bottom of Dante's hell all motion is

translated into form: so, in value systems,
physical systems, artistic systems, always this

same disposition from the heavy to the light,
and then the returns from the light downward

to the staid gross: stone to wind, wind to
stone: there is no need for "outside," hegemonic

derivations of value: nothing need be invented
or imposed: the aesthetic, scientific, moral

are organized like a muff along this spindle,
might as well relax: thus, the job done, the

mind having found its way through and marked
out the course, the intellect can be put by:

one can turn to tongue, crotch, boob, navel,
armpit, rock, slit, roseate rearend and

consider the perfumeries of slick exchange,
heaving breath, slouchy mouth, the mixed

means by which we stay attentive and keep to
the round of our ongoing: you wake up thrown

away and accommodation becomes the name of your
game: getting back, back into the structure

of protection, caring, warmth, numbers: one
and many, singles and groups, dissensions and

cooperations, takings and givings — the dynamic
of survival, still the same: but why thrown

out in the first place: because while the
prodigal stamps off and returns, the father goes

from iron directives that drove the son away
to rejoicing tears at his return: the safe

world of community, not safe, still needs
feelers sent out to test the environment, to

bring back news or no news; the central
mover, the huge river, needs, too, to bend,

and the son sent away is doubly welcomed home:
we deprive ourselves of, renounce, safety to seek

greater safety: but if we furnish a divine
sanction or theology to the disposition, we

must not think when the divine sanction shifts
that there is any alteration in the disposition:

the new's an angle of emphasis on the old:
new religions are surfaces, beliefs the shadows

of images trying to construe what needs no
belief: only born die, and if something is

born or new, then that is not it, that is not
the it: the it is the indifference of all the

differences, the nothingness of all the poised
somethings, the finest issue of energy in which

boulders and dead stars float: for what
if it were otherwise and the it turned out to

be something, damning and demanding, strict and
fierce, preventing and seizing: what range of

choice would be given up then and what value
could our partial, remnant choices acquire then:

with a high whine the garbage trucks slowly
circling the pyramid rising intone the morning

and atop the mound's plateau birds circling
hear and roil alive in winklings of wings

denser than windy forest shelves: and meanwhile
a truck already arrived spills its goods from

the back hatch and the birds as in a single computer
formed net plunge in celebrations, hallelujahs

of rejoicing: the driver gets out of his truck
and wanders over to the cliff on the spill and

looks off from the high point into the rosy-fine
rising of day, the air pure, the wings of the

birds white and clean as angel-food cake: holy, holy,
holy, the driver cries and flicks his cigarette

in a spiritual swoop that floats and floats before
it touches ground: here, the driver knows,

where the consummations gather, where the disposal
flows out of form, where the last translations

cast away their immutable bits and scraps,
flits of steel, shivers of bottle and tumbler,

here is the gateway to beginning, here the portal
of renewing change, the birdshit, even, melding

enrichingly in with debris, a loam for the roots
of placenta: oh, nature, the man on the edge

of the cardboard-laced cliff exclaims, that there
could be a straightaway from the toxic past into

the fusion-lit reaches of a coming time! our
sins are so many, here heaped, shapes given to

false matter, hamburger meat left out


scientists plunge into matter looking for the
matter but the matter lessens and, looked too

far into, expands away: it was insubstantial all
along: that is, boulders bestir; they

are "alive" with motion and space: there is a
riddling reality where real hands grasp each

other in the muff but toward both extremes the
reality wears out, wears thin, becomes a reality

"realityless": this is satisfactory, providing
permanent movement and staying, providing the

stratum essential with an essential air, the
poles thick and thin, the middles, at interchange:

the spreader rakes a furrow open and lights a
drying edge: a priestly plume rises, a signal, smoke

like flies intermediating between orange peel
and buzzing blur: is a poem about garbage garbage

or will this abstract, hollow junk seem beautiful
and necessary as just another offering to the

high assimilations: (that means up on top where
the smoke is; the incinerations of sin,

corruption, misconstruction pass through the
purification of flame:) old deck chairs,

crippled aluminum lawn chairs, lemon crates
with busted slats or hinges, strollers with

whacking or spinningly idle wheels: stub ends
of hot dogs: clumps go out; rain sulls deep

coals; wind slams flickers so flat they lose
the upstanding of updraft and stifle to white

lingo — but oh, oh, in a sense, and in an
intention, the burning's forever, O eternal

flame, principle of the universe, without which
mere heaviness and gray rust prevail: dance

peopling the centers and distances, the faraway
galactic slurs even, luminescences, plasmas,

those burns, the same principle: but here on
the heights, terns and flies avoid the closest

precincts of flame, the terrifying transformations,
the disappearances of anything of interest,

morsel, gobbet, trace of maple syrup, fat
worm: addling intensity at the center

where only special clothes and designated
offices allay the risk, the pure center: but

down, down on the lowest appropinquations, the
laborsome, loaded vessels whine like sails in

too much wind up the long ledges, the whines
a harmony, singing away the end of the world

or spelling it in, a monstrous surrounding of
gathering — the putrid, the castoff, the used,

the mucked up — all arriving for final, assessment,
for the toting up in tonnage, the separations

of wet and dry, returnable and gone for good:
the sanctifications, the burn-throughs, ash free

merely a permanent twang of light, a dwelling
music, remaining: how to be blessed are mechanisms,

procedures that carry such changes! the
garbage spreader gets off his bulldozer and

approaches the fire: he stares into it as into
eternity, the burning edge of beginning and

ending, the catalyst of going and becoming,
and all thoughts of his paycheck and beerbelly,

even all thoughts of his house and family and
the long way he has come to be worthy of his

watch, fall away, and he stands in the presence
of the momentarily everlasting, the air about

him sacrosanct, purged of the crawling vines
and dense vegetation of desire, nothing between

perception and consequence here: the arctic
terns move away from the still machine and

light strikes their wings in round, a fluttering,
a whirling rose of wings, and it seems that

terns' slender wings and finely tipped
tails look so airy and yet so capable that they

must have been designed after angels or angels
after them: the lizard family produced man in

the winged air! man as what he might be or might
have been, neuter, guileless, a feathery hymn:

the bulldozer man picks up a red bottle that
turns purple and green in the light and pours

out a few drops of stale wine, and yellow jackets
burr in the bottle, sung drunk, the singing

not even puzzled when he tosses the bottle way
down the slopes, the still air being flown in

in the bottle even as the bottle dives through
the air! the bulldozer man thinks about that

and concludes that everything is marvelous, what
he should conclude and what everything is: on

the deepdown slopes, he realizes, the light
inside the bottle will, over the weeks, change

the yellow jackets, unharmed, having left lost,
not an aromatic vapor of wine left, the air

percolating into and out of the neck as the sun's
heat rises and falls: all is one, one all:

hallelujah: he gets back up on his bulldozer
and shaking his locks backs the bulldozer up


dew shatters into rivulets on crunched cellophane
as the newly started bulldozer jars a furrow

off the mesa, smoothing and packing down:
flattening, the way combers break flat into

speed up the strand: unpleasant food strings down
the slopes and rats' hard tails whirl whacking

trash: I don't know anything much about garbage
dumps: I mean, I've never climbed one: I

don't know about the smells: do masks mask
scent: or is there a deodorizing mask: the

Commissioner of Sanitation in a bug-black caddy
hearse-long glisters creepy up the ziggurat: at

the top his chauffeur pops out and opens the
big back door for him: he goes over a few feet

away, puts a stiff, salute-hand to his forehead
and surveys the distances in all depths: the

birds' shadows lace his white sleeve: he
rises to his toes as a lifting zephyr from the

sea lofts a salt-shelf of scent: he approves: he
extends his arm in salute to the noisy dozer's

operator, waves back and forth canceling out
any intention to speak, re-beholds Florida's

longest vistas, gets back into the big buggy
and runs up all the windows, trapping, though,

a nuisance of flies: (or, would he have run
the windows down: or would anyone else have:

not out there: strike that:) rightness, at
any rate, like a benediction, settles on the

ambiance: all is proceeding: funding will be
continued: this work will not be abandoned:

this mound can rise higher: things are in order
when heights are acknowledged; the lows

ease into place; the wives get back from the laundromat,
the husbands hose down the hubcaps; and the

seeringly blank pressures of weekends crack
away hour by hour in established time: in your

0 end is my beginning: the operator waves back

to the Commissioner, acknowledging his understanding

and his submission to benign authority, and falls
to thinking of his wife, née Minnie Furher, a woman

of abrupt appetites and strict morals, a woman
who wants what she wants legally, largely as a

function of her husband's particulars: a closet
queen, Minnie hides her cardboard, gold-foiled

crown to wear in parade about the house when
nobody's home: she is so fat, fat people

like to be near her: and her husband loves
every bit of her, every bite (bit) round enough to get

to: and wherever his dinky won't reach, he finds
something else that will: I went up the road

a piece this morning at ten to Pleasant Grove
for the burial of Ted's ashes: those above

ground care; those below don't: the sun was
terribly hot, and the words of poems read out

loud settled down like minnows in a shallows
for the moment of silence and had their gaps

and fractures filled up and healed quiet: into
the posthole went the irises and hand-holds of dirt:

spring brings thaw and thaw brings the counterforce
of planted ashes which may not rise again,

not as anything recognizable as what they leach
away from: oh, yes, yes, the matter goes on,

turning into this and that, never the same thing
twice: but what about the spirit, does it die

in an instant, being nothing in an instant out of
matter, or does it hold on to some measure of

time, not just the eternity in which it is not,
but does death go on being death for a billion

years: this one fact put down is put down
forever, is it, or forever, forever to be a

part of the changes about it, switches in the
earth's magnetic field, asteroid collisions,

tectonic underplays, to be molten and then not
molten, again and again: when does a fact end:

what does one do with this gap from just yesterday
or just this morning to fifty-five billion

years — to infinity: the spirit was forever
and is forever, the residual and informing

energy, but here what concerns us is this
manifestation, this man, this incredible flavoring and

building up of character and éclat, gone,
though forever, in a moment only, a local

event, infinitely unrepeatable: the song of
the words subsides, the shallows drift away,

the people turn to each other and away: motors
start and the driveways clear, and the single

fact is left alone to itself to have its first
night under the stars but to be there now

for every star that comes: we go away who must
ourselves come back, at last to stay: tears

when we are helpless are our only joy: but
while I was away this morning, Mike, the young

kid who does things for us, cut down the
thrift with his weedeater, those little white

flowers more like weedsize more than likely:
sometimes called cliff rose: also got the grass

out of the front ditch now too wet to mow, slashed:
the dispositional axis is not supreme (how tedious)

and not a fiction (how clever) but plain (greatness
flows through the lowly) and a fact (like as not)

Copyright 1998 by David Lehman.

From The Best of the Best American Poetry, edited by Robert Pinsky and David Lehman. Copyright 2013 by David Lehman. Excerpted by permission of Scribner Poetry.