Best American Poetry 1996


Edited By Adrienne Rich




by Adrienne Rich


Every authentic poem contributes to the labour of poetry ... to bring together what life has separated or violence has torn apart .. . . Poetry can repair no loss, but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labour of reassembling what has been scattered.


  JOHN BERGER, "The Hour of Poetry"


As long as social relations are skewed, who speaks in poetry will never be a neutral matter.




Whoever you are holding me now in hand,

Without one thing all will be useless,

I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,

I am not what you supposed, but far different.


 – WALT WHITMAN, "Calamus"


Whoever you are that picks up this anthology:


These are not, by any neutral or universal standard, the best poems written, or heard aloud, or published, in (North) America during 1995. From the first, I pushed aside the designations "best" and "American" (surely in the many Americas there are many poetries). This is a gathering of poems that one guest editor, reading through mailboxesful of journals that publish poetry, found especially urgent, lively, haunting, resonant, demanding to be reread. By temperament, experience, and life – work I've been drawn at various times over the past six decades to various kinds of poetry and poetics, not always comparable to each other. I've also been inclined toward certain kinds of artistic motivation, certain claims for poetry. Those inclinations are without doubt reflected in the poems I chose for this book.    


But also reflected in this collection – both by what's here and by what is not – are the circumstances of North America (reaching into Mexico through Roberto Tejada's "Honeycomb perfection ... ") in the century's final decade: a decade which began with the Gulf War and has witnessed accelerated social disintegration, the lived effects of an economic system out of control and antihuman at its core. Contempt for language, the evisceration of meaning from words, are cultural signs that should not surprise us. Material profit finally has no use for other values, in fact reaps benefits from social incoherence and atomization, and from the erosion of human bonds of trust – in language or anything else. And so rapid has been the coming – apart during the years of the 1990s in which these poems were being written, so stunned are so many at the violence of the dismantling (of laws, protections, opportunities, due process, mere civilities) that some of us easily forget how the history of this republic has been a double history, of selective and unequal arrangements regarding property; human bodies, opportunity, due process, freedom of expression, civility, and much else. What is new: the official recantation of the idea that democracy should be continually expanding, not contracting – an idea that made life more livable for some, more hopeful for others, caused still others to rise to their fullest stature – an appeal to the desire for a common welfare and public happiness, above the balance sheets of profit.


As I read throughout the year, I found myself asking, 'What does it mean for poets when so powerful an idea, prescription, vision of the future – however unrealized – is so abruptly abandoned or driven underground? Increasingly it seemed to me that it's not any single poem, or kind of poem, but the coming together of many poems, that can reassemble what has been scattered, can dify the space that separates, can offer, in Muriel Rukeyser's words, the truths of outrage and the truths of possibility (The Life of Poetry.)


In selecting these seventy – five poems (the number stipulated by the series format), I read through a great many literary and cultural journals, requested many others. Early on I sensed that the poetry I was searching for would not be confined to the well – known journals. But I read them in a spirit of hope and discovery, and was sometimes well rewarded. I also sought out many local and regional publications, as well as nonliterary periodicals that publish poems occasionally.


Let me say here what, overall, I was looking for:


I was listening, in all those pages and orderings of words, for music, for pulse and breath, for nongeneric voices.


I was looking for poems with a core (as in corazon). The core of a poem isn't something you extract from the poem's body and examine elsewhere; its living energies are manifest throughout, in rhythm, in language, in the arrangement of lines on the page and how this scoring translates into sound. A great many poems rang hollow and monotonous to me; at best they seemed ingenious literary devices, at worst, "publish or perish" items for a vita or an MFA dissertation – academic commodities.[1]


I was looking for poetry that could rouse me from fatigue, stir me from grief, poetry that was redemptive in the sense of offering a kind of deliverance or rescue of the imagination, and poetry that awoke delight – lip – to – lip, spark – to – spark, pleasure in recognition, pleasure in strangeness.


I wanted poems from 1995 that were more durable and daring than ever – not drawn from the headlines but able to resist the headlines and the shattering of morale behind them. I was looking for poems that could participate in this historical emergency, had that kind of tensility and beauty. I wasn't looking for up – to – the – minute "socially conscious" verse; I was interested in any poet's acknowledgment of the social and political loomings of this time – space – that history goes on and we are in it. How any poet might take that to heart I could not, would not, attempt to predict. (I also wanted poems good enough to eat, to crunch between the teeth, to feel their juices bursting under the tongue, unmicrowaveable poems.)


I was constantly struck by how many poems published in magazines today are personal to the point of suffocation. The columnar, anecdotal, domestic poem, often with a three – stress line, can be narrow in more than a formal sense.


I found   no surprise   that the great majority of poets published in literary magazines are white, yet relationships of race and power exist in their poems most often as silence or muffled subtext if not as cliche. Given the extreme racialization of our social and imaginative life, it's a peculiar kind of alienation that presumes race and racism (always linked to power) will haunt poets of "color" only. Like riches and poverty, like anti – Semitism, whiteness and color have a mythic life that uncontrollably infiltrates poetic language even when unnamed – a legacy of poetic images drawn on racial fantasies, "frozen metaphors" as the critic Aldon Nielsen calls them. The assumptions behind "white" identity in a violently racialized society have their repercussions on poetry; on metaphor, on the civil life in which, for better or worse, oppositionally or imitatively, all art is rooted. For this racialization is more than a set of mythic ideas: it is a system of social and demographic power relations and racially inflected economic policies, and the de facto apartheid of our institutionalized literary culture reflects that system.


Most literary magazines in the United States and Canada are edited by white men (some by white women). A few of these editors clearly try to seek out and publish work that embodies the larger reaches of North American writing and experience. But they do so within a constricting foreground of raceless" white identity, and usually in "special issues," not as regular practice.[2] This series itself, Best American Poetry, has So far been guest – edited by six white men and three white women, including myself The major awards and support grants for poets (such as the Ruth Lilly Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Prize, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award) are administered largely by white judges and bestowed largely on white men. Beyond the recognition involved, which can lead to other opportunities, such prizes do literally allow someone to write – they are inestimable gifts of time. Memberships in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Chancellorships of the Academy of American Poets, all vested with the power to distribute other honors, are overwhelmingly passed on by white men to white men, in retention of collegial associations and influence. White women writers are affected by these conditions in that they may be passed over or disregarded as women; but as white people some of us benefit, in a career sense, from this literary apartheid.


As one such woman, I know that in a more crucial, hands – on sense, no one's work benefits from an artistic climate of restrictive covenants and gated suburbs. Need I add that when in 1992 an Mrican – American woman delivered her verse at a presidential inauguration, and another Mexican – American woman was named, Poet Laureate of the United States, these events did not vitiate the racist policies of the state or the general human desolation the state is willing to countenance? But how could they?[3]


Apartheid of the imagination, like other enforced social separations, becomes a blockage in the throat of poetry. It is an artistic problem, a fault line in the tradition, it derives from a devastating social reality, and it cannot be addressed as an artistic problem only. We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out – of – control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation. Poetry, as Audre Lorde wrote long ago, is no luxury. But for our poetry – the poetries of all of us – to become equal to a time when so much has to be witnessed, recuperated, revalued, we as poets, we as readers, we as social beings, have large questions to ask ourselves and each other.


Career – minded poets, expending thought and energy on producing a "publishable manuscript," on marketing their wares and their reputations, as young poets are now urged (and even trained) to do, may have little time left over for thinking about the art itself, ancient and contemporary, and why it matters – the state of the art itself as distinct from their own poems and vitas. This shallowness of perspective shows up in reams of self – absorbed, complacent poems appearing in literary magazines, poems that begin "In the sepia wash of the old photograph ... "; poems containing far too many words (computer – driven? anyway, verbally incontinent); poems without music; poems without dissonance; brittle poems of eternal boyishness; poems oozing male or female self – hatred; poems that belabor a pattern until it becomes numbing; poems with epigraphs that unfortunately say it all; poems that depend on brand names, others that depend on literary namedropping ("I have often thought of Rilke here ... ").


Of course, such templates are not molded solely by a culture of de facto apartheid and a ruthless "market" economy; their use, surely, has to do with individual self – indulgence, passionlessness, and passivity. But they have in common the stamp of deep alienation – and obliviousness of that fact. ("Readers of this issue," says the editorial in The Paris Review 134, "may ... note that a theme seems to run through much of the content namely, one of self – destruction. This is, in fact, a coincidence.")


I was also looking for poems that didn't simply reproduce familiar versions of "difference" and "identity." I agree with Charles Bernstein, poet – critic and exponent of L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poetry, when he remarks inA Poetics that "difference" too often appears in poems simply as "subject matter and ... local color," rather than as "form and content understood as an interlocking figure – the one inaudible without the other." Indeed, there are legions of columnar poems in which the anecdote of an ethnic parent or grandparent is rehearsed in a generic voice and format, whatever the cultural setting. In this collection, poems by Carolyn Lei – Lanilau ("Kolohe or Communication"), Kimiko Hahn ("Possession: A Zuihitsu"), C. S. Giscombe ("All [Facts, Stories, Chance ]"), and Wanda Coleman ("American Sonnet [35]") embody dialectics of "otherness" in language itself, the strange and the familiar interpenetrating.


But formal innovation alone is not what I was looking for. The most self – consciously innovative, linguistically nonlinear poetry, whatever its theory, can end up as stultifying and as disintegrative as the products of commercial mass media. It all depends. To hold up the mirror of language to a society in fracture, porous with lying and shrill with contempt for meaning, is not the same thing as creating – if only in the poem itself – another kind of space where other human and verbal relationships are possible. What Toni Morrison calls "the struggle to interpret and perform within a common language shareable imaginative worlds" surely requires keeping that language "endlessly flexible" (Playing in the Dark). It also requires vigilance against self – reference and solipsism.


I believe that poems are made of words and the breathing between them; that is the medium. I believe as well that poetry isn't language in the abstract but language as in: I want to learn your language. You need more than one language to get by in this city. To learn a language is to earn a soul. She is teaching English as a second language. It is forbidden to use that language in this workplace. A dead language is one that is no longer spoken; it can only be read.


We need poetry as living language, the core of every language, something that is still spoken, aloud or in the mind, muttered in secret, subversive, reaching around corners, crumpled into a pocket, performed to a community, read aloud to the dying, recited by heart, scratched or sprayed on a wall. That kind oflanguage.


Formal innovation always challenges us to "keep the language flexible." It may – or it may not – collaborate (against its own theories) with the rhetoric of deception that seeks to rob language of meaning. I go on searching for poetic means that may help us meet the present crisis of evacuation of meaning.[4]


I did not plan for this anthology to open with a poem by a maximum security prison inmate, nor for that poem to be followed by a death row meditation from a poet "outside." The alphabetical ordering of poets, a convention of this series, creates a structure of its own. I selected the poems, agonizing over some decisions, then organized them alphabetically and saw, for the first time, this book. It doesn't seem strange to me that within this arrangement I discern crisscrossings of voices, dialogues between, arguments among, dissimilar poets, and I believe you, as readers, will overhear such murmurings as well.


Until I read them in their sequence here, I had not expected what kindred sparks might fly up from Naomi Shihab Nye's "The Small Vases from Hebron," Alicia Ostriker's "The Eighth and Thirteenth," and Raymond Patterson's "Harlem Suite." How Reynolds Price's "Twenty – One Years," Angela Shaw's "Crepuscule," Reginald Shepherd's "Skin Trade," and Deborah Stein's "heat" would hold erotic colloquy from differing styles, sexual orientations, generations (Stein is one of three poets of high school age represented in this book). How Marie Annharte Baker's "Porkskin Panorama," Susan Wheeler's "Run on a Warehouse," and Ramon Garda's "Salmo: Para El" would conspire in seriously hilarious wordplay, each doing a send – up of a culture from within. I could not have foreseen how W S. Merwin's "Lament for the Makers," in its deliberately awkward music, mourning dead poets and his own youth in poetry, would be answered aslant in Jane Miller's bitterly tender "Far Away," and, in a sense, by the vital spark in every poem in this book. How the figure of the pariah would recur – notably in Chase Twichell's ''Aisle of Dogs," Martin Espada's "Rednecks," Henry Hart's "The Prisoner of Cam au," Alma Luz Villanueva's "Crazy Courage," and Sidney Burris's "Strong's Winter."


The hunger for art in desolate conditions has always been one of Diane Wakoski's themes; it returns in "The Butcher's Apron," to be reinscribed in so dissimilar a poem as Jean Valentine's terse vignette of Mandelstam reciting poems in Stalin's prison ("Tell Me, What Is the Soul"), and by the four poems from behind the steel and concrete of United States prisons today. Robert C. Fuentes's "In This Place" is a shaped cry against conditions that would seem absolutely destructive to poetry, yet the poem is there, miracle against all odds. Also, from a women's prison, Jacqueline Dash:


What an idiot (I said to myself

a thousand times over) to perfect all that craft

of description and describe only myself,

as though I had nothing to show but my head,

nothing better to tell than the mistake of a lifetime.


("Me Again")


I didn't know that Jane Kenyon, dead at forty – eight, and Stanley Kunitz, alive and celebrating at ninety, would speak dialectically to each other here: Kenyon's "Reading Aloud to My Father" concerned with letting go the flesh, Kunitz's "Touch Me" with holding on. Three other poets here are dead before their time (but today who knows what anyone's "time" is anyhow?). William Dickey's "The Arrival of the Titanic" summons that quintessential Western ship of death to collectivize personal mortality in the age of AIDS. James Merrill's "b 0 d y" places that four – letter word under a magnifying lens. And Jean Starr's "Flight" speaks from her American Indian sense of time, change, continuity, and death, moving from the runways of an abandoned airfield to the "'burnt – out" stars overhead to "where Etowah Mound rises from the bottomland."


Nineteen ninety – five saw other severe losses to poetry: Essex Hemphill and Assotto Saint, dead of AIDS, and Andrew Salkey. None of these three (all Black men) was published in any of the magazines I saw during the year. And the fact is, many poets don't publish in magazines much, if at all, but in small – press chapbooks, cassettes and CDs, performance videos, anthologies.[5]


In this America where I'm writing now, suffering is diagnosed relentlessly as personal, individual, maybe familial, and at most to be "shared" with a group specific to the suffering, in the hope of"recovery." We lack a vocabulary for thinking about pain as communal and public, or as deriving from "skewed social relationships." Intimate revelations may be a kind of literary credit card today, but they don't help us out of emotional overdraft, they mostly recycle the same emotions over and over. The poems in this anthology are, in one way or another, victories, because they don't flinch at the materials and they don't stop at the personal.


Maturity in poetry, as in ordinary life, surely means taking our places in history, in accountability, in a web of responsibilities met or failed, of received and changing forms, arguments with community or tradition, a long dialogue between art and justice. It means finding our rightful, necessary voices in a greater conversation, its tones, gestures, riffs and rifts. These poems, different from each other in so many ways, ride on stubborn belief in continuity and beauty, in poetry's incalculable power to help us go on.


It's my hope that this collection will be used by teachers and students, by people doing the kind of "continuing education" work that deals with literacy as well as expressive writing; that it will be read alike by poets and by people newly discovering poetry, wherever they are.


I want to say here my gratitude to all the poets, including those who were almost included here, and to the magazine editors who first published this work. To David Lehman for asking me to do this, for his suggestions, and for his willingness to give the guest editor complete independence throughout. To Maggie Nelson, poet and literary detective, who found the "missing" poets wherever they could be located, and whose spirit has been so encouraging. And finally, to Steve Turner and the Santa Cruz – Monterey Bay Local of the National Writers Union, and to Sandra Laronde of Toronto's Native Women in the Arts, for their help in tracking two hard – to – find poets.


At the deadline for delivery of the manuscript two poets were still unreachable: Joseph O. Legaspi (''Visiting the Manangs in a Convalescent Home in Delano," from Bamboo Ridge) and Michael Spence ("Flag Burning," from Chariton Review.) It was painful to lose their fine poems, but I am glad to know about their work.






Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1929. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951, the year her first book of poems was selected by W H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Since then she has published more than fifteen volumes of poetry, three collections of essays, and a feminist study of motherhood. Her work has been translated into German, Spanish, Swedish, Dutch, Hebrew, Greek, Italian, and Japanese. Her books include Snapshots of a Daughter – in – Law (1963), Diving into the Wreck (1973), The Dream of a Common Language (1978), Time's Power (1989), Collected Early Poems, 1950 – 1970 (1993), and Dark Fields of the Republic (WW Norton, 1995). In 1992 she received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for An Atlas of the Difficult World, and in 1994 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (W W Norton, 1993) is her most recent critical book. Ms. Rich has lived in California since 1984.

[1] David Milofsky notes that although there is "very little money involved" in publishi:lg poems in magazines, "the stakes, even in poetry, are high, for often such things as litorary fellowships, faculty appointments, tenure and promotion are based on not only the ::.:ality but the number of publications an individual can amass. The sheer volume of ;"Jbmissions to this literary magazine and others can attest to the fact that publication in ::::'0 literary magazines is held in high esteem by many in the arts." (Editor's Page, Col'cioReviewXXlI [Spring 1995]: 10 – 11.)


[2] Between 1992 and 1994, under Marilyn Hacker's editorial tenure, The Kenyon Review became a remarkable new space for literature and criticism, refracting the light of North American writing in this decade. Hacker's energetic vision and active solicitation policy literally changed the formerly desiccated magazine. Despite vocal protests by writers, publishers, and others, she was fired by the trustees of Kenyon College, but her editorial influence was still apparent in the 1995 issues of the magazine.


[3] What can, and does, open out the field, forward the action, for many beleaguered poets and poetries, are projects bringing both literacy and poetry into local communities, workplaces, libraries, reservations, and prisons – like Laverne Zabielski's The WorkingClass Kitchen in Lexington, Kentucky, June Jordan's "Poetry for the People" in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Guild Complex in Chicago, Native Women in the Arts in Toronto, inmate workshops sponsored by groups like the Pelican Bay Information Project in California or the Prison Education Fund at Boston University, and organizations like the National Writers' Voice Project, working through YMCAs around the country, the Lila Wallace – Reader's Digest Foundation, and the Lannan Foundation, which have assisted these and other locally run projects.


[4] For this, I've looked in recent years to poets like Dionne Brand, Kamau Brathwaite, .\t1arilyn Chin, Wanda Coleman, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Tory Dent, Joy Harjo, Lynda Hull (d. 1994), June Jordan, Medbh McGuckian, Patricia Smith, and others – poetry that flickers and articulates all around the edge of a common language, yet whose core of heat is right there between poetic and political urgencies. A poetry of embodiment more than pronouncement, resistance that can't be severed from its medium.


[5] *See, for example, Joseph Bruchac, ed., Returning the Gift: Poetry and Prosefrom the First NorthAmerican Native Writers' Festival (University of Arizona Press, 1994), or Roberta Fernandez, ed., In Other Words: Literature by Latinas of the United States (Arte Publico Press, 1994.)