Scanning the annual beauty contest of verse

'The Best American Poetry" series got its start in 1988, under the general editorship of poet and critic David Lehman. Each year, a different famous poet, such as Donald Hall, Mark Strand, or Louise Gluck, chooses a selection of what he or she feels were "the best" poems published that year.

But what is "the best"? Who should judge and by what criteria? In truth, it is only when the creations of today have, as Shelley put it, "been washed in the blood of the Redeemer Time," that we - or future generations - will discover which poems are the ones that will continue to matter.

Meanwhile, as this year's editor, Rita Dove, tells us: "I will not claim Objectivity in my selections. Subjectivity is what makes life interesting and turns human history into a kaleidoscope of wills meeting accidents."

Dove's final criterion was Emily Dickinson's: "If I felt the top of my head had been taken off, the poem was in." Not all readers may feel quite this degree of excitement about all or even most of these selections, but whatever the state of one's scalp, there is much here to savor and ponder.

Some of the poems are by well-known figures, like A.R. Ammons, W.S. Merwin, Richard Wilbur, Thomas Gunn, Derek Walcott, Mary Oliver, Carolyn Kizer, and Robert Pinsky. But all are by writers who take poetry seriously.

In Quincy Troupe's "Song," which echoes Hart Crane, we hear of "words & sounds that build bridges toward a new tongue/ within the vortex of cadences, magic weaves there/ a mystery, syncopating music rising from breath of the young."

Seriousness need not preclude humor, as in Jean Nordhaus's poem comparing her "Aunt Lily and Frederick the Great":

and when she raised her porcelain cup

with pinky arched and blew the word

'Limo-o-o-gges' across the lip,

that made a tender wind, as if a host

of cherubs rafted through the room.

Mad for all things French,

she'd never read Voltaire....

...You'd never guess

King Frederick and my aunt

would have so much

in common. Both were short,

bilingual, stubborn, confused,

enlightened in some ways, benighted

in others, tyrannical, clever, benevolent,

fierce. Like Frederick, she flourished,

like Frederick, she died. She was tiny

and great and is buried in Queens.

Others poems find inspiration in American history. Thomas Lux asks us to consider the significance of "Henry Clay's Mouth":

a long slash across his face,

with which he ate and prodigiously drank,

with which he modulated his melodic voice,

with which he liked to kiss and kiss and kiss.

He said: 'Kissing is like the presidency,

it is not to be sought and not to be declined.'

Julianna Baggott speaks in the voice of "Mary Todd on Her Deathbed":

Nothing was mine, after all. Strangers

crowded his open coffin, snipped souvenirs

from the curtains,

slipped hands,

into the casket to unclip his cufflinks.

Some of the poems are quite remarkable: Robert Pinsky's "Samurai Song" is as keen and elegant as a sword. Christopher Edgar's "Birthday" returns us to the rich world of a child's imagination. Elton Glaser presents the more sophisticated but no less poignant world of maturity in "And in the Afternoons I Botanized." And a stark, even scalp-tingling, sublimity can be found in John Yau's "Borrowed Love Poems":

Now that the seven wonders of the night

have been stolen by history

Now that the sky is lost and the stars

have slipped into a book...

What can I do,

I who never invented anything

and who dreamed of you so much

I was amazed to discover

the claw marks of those

who preceded us across this burning floor

But perhaps the last words should be given to (or come from) Mary Oliver's joyful poem about her poetic vocation, "Work":

Would it be better to sit in silence?

To think everything, to feel everything, to say nothing?

This is the way of the orange gourd.

This is the habit of the rock in the river, over which the water pours all night and all day.

But the nature of man is not the nature of silence.

Words are the thunders of the mind.

Words are the refinement of the flesh.

Words are the responses to the thousand curvaceous moments....

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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