A 25-Year Retrospective: The Best American Poetry 1996, Edited by Adrienne Rich
BY COLLEEN ABEL
Like many, I entered poetry via the dead. I read out loud, uncomprehending and entranced, from the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. I tucked a slightly mildewed copy of a book called Ariel into the crook of my arm and carried it off to my bedroom from a shelf in the basement. I was twelve years old. But there was a third book I kept in my room, a plain black hardback with gold letters that read Adrienne Rich, Poems Selected and New, 1950-1975. It took me years to work my way through it, and by the time I was in high school, I was copying my favorites of her pieces by hand, alongside The Smiths’ lyrics and other embarrassing juvenilia, into a black leather-bound journal. Best of all, when I went to my mall bookstore at age sixteen to find more works by Rich, I learned that she was, in fact, still writing, still publishing, still alive. I bought The Dream of a Common Language, and I also noticed a shelf for anthologies dominated by the Best American Poetry series, with a volume for each year beginning in 1988, and including the newest, 1996, edited by Rich. I bought that, too. It was my first introduction to the poetry of the present and the future, instead of merely the past.
If a single-author collection is an immersion, then an anthology skims a stone across the surface of a time period, contained within the parameters of an editor’s aesthetic vision. But even among anthologies, BAP was distinct. First of all, the series editor, David Lehman, hands over the reins each year to a different editor, allowing them to trawl through thousands of poems published in journals to select the capital-B best. The lofty value ascribed to these poems by the title of the volume, the fact that the names of the magazines from which they were selected were included on the same page as the poem itself—these things mean that the series is at least as much, maybe more, a reflection of the world of poetry publishing, of po-biz as I came to know it years later, as it is anything else. In 1996, without any kind of sustained access to the Internet, I only had the poetry shelf at the local mall bookstore as my portal to that world. So this is where real poets publish, I thought, paging through the anthology to see the names of the magazines. So this is what it takes for Adrienne Rich to think you’re the Best.
But if BAP showed the state of poetry publishing, Rich was clearly not happy with it. She had been invited to edit after having a poem selected for an earlier volume, and writing to Lehman to express her admiration for the series, as well as her impression that it was lacking. “The poems are diverse in certain ways,” she told him, “but they don’t as yet, to my sense of it, reflect the richness and range of the best American poetry.” Her own introduction to the 1996 volume shows the kind of richness she valued: poetry that recognized that America was in the midst of a “historical emergency” and that “history goes on and we are in it.” In her essay, she points to the dismantling of protections and rights, to capitalism’s impetus to profits over people, to “contempt for language,” and to violence and war. These aren’t new, she says, but what is new is “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.” Reading Rich’s conception of this historical emergency gives me a jolting sense of overlap, as if Rich were looking around her in 1996 and seeing our current predicament as a country, twenty-five years later, overlaying it like tracing paper.
Even without context, as a newcomer, I could see where Rich’s editorial vision was expansive, the correction she sought when she wrote to Lehman. The book included incarcerated writers and a number of poets who were still, like me, in high school. I had not heard of the likes of Wang Ping, Kimiko Hahn, Wanda Coleman, or Sterling Plumpp (who had two poems selected) but I recognized that they were writing out of Black vernaculars, out of Asian American experiences. There were poems entirely in Spanish, untranslated. The curation showed a deliberate commitment to representation across genders, sexualities, races, ages, languages, status. On the one hand, revisiting the anthology twenty-five years on offers those pleasures that attend anthologies in general—seeing whose names are still recognizable, whose work was captured on the cusp of an amazing career, who seems unjustly forgotten. I love to see Carl Phillips represented here when he was just two books into his career, or to see Beth Ann Fennelly’s appearance while she was still an MFA student. (The poem Rich chose, “Poem Not to be Read at Your Wedding,” was Fennelly’s first ever in print.) I’m brought up against the loss of those in the community who died before they should have: Jane Kenyon, Reginald Shepherd. And I’m compelled to seek out those whose names I don’t know, to see what became of them. (Of the three teen writers included, one is now a high-powered communications executive in New York City; another is playwriting faculty at UC San Diego.)
But on the other hand, this particular anthology cannot be separated from the controversy it caused at the time, and the way it feels like a crossroads moment in poetry publishing, its resonances still echoing. In her 2020 biography of Rich, called The Power of Adrienne Rich, Hilary Holladay describes the aftermath of the anthology’s appearance as creating a “rip-roaring controversy about the nature of poetry, just the sort of debate [Rich] loved.” I was totally unaware of the critical response, not being an avid reader of, say, The New Criterion, where an indignant takedown accused Rich of creating an anthology only in her own image and reflecting an art in decline.
What I did know, however, was that I was back at the mall bookstore to buy BAP 1997 the following year, and was surprised to also see the meta-anthology The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997. Edited infamously by Harold Bloom, the volume failed to include a single selection from BAP 1996. Bloom decreed in his own introductory essay that this decision was because he “failed to discover more than an authentic poem or two in it.” I was a teenager: I knew drama when I saw it. I paged through the introduction right there in the B.Dalton’s and put the book back on the shelf. Bloom belonged in the past; it was obvious that’s where he wanted to be. His introduction is full of references to Milton and Shakespeare and Donne. As a “lifelong aesthete,” he sets himself up to be able to make the Best proclamation of Bestness; Rich and her ilk are “enemies of the aesthetic” who care more for politics and identity than for artistry.
All of this is exhaustingly familiar now, twenty-five years on. It’s hard to hear Bloom’s Make Poetry Great Again rhetoric and not see it cut from the same cloth as the political speechifying of the past five years, used to deny rights and freedoms, to justify oppression. I’ve seen the same tired argument play out in the rapid cycles of social media more times than I can count, and I’ve seen the same push-and-pull in other cultural institutions all over America, from museums to theatres and symphonies, where the gatekeepers fret and whisper among themselves about whether things have gotten just a bit too radical. I won’t offer any false platitudes about how far we’ve come since then, or how much more diverse poetry publishing is now. But I can see more and more of the gatekeepers, even Lehman himself, taking up Rich’s editorial mandate: In the past ten years, more than half of the guest editors of BAP have been poets of color. In the past five years, only one editor has been white.
It’s difficult to know how much my own trajectory as a poet, as a teacher, as an editor—and as a voter, a citizen, a person who cares keenly about justice—was impacted by encountering Rich’s vision when I did, holding her words close as a teenager for whom poetry meant everything. But being primed to believe in her vision before I had the knowledge to form my own helped me also to believe in the larger implications she foresaw in the refusal to enlarge the poetic canon, to understand that the state of our arts and the state of our democracy cannot be pulled apart. It taught me to listen, to keep listening, to the voices of the living.