The Austin Chronicle


Reviewed by Jess Sauer, May 18, 2007, Books

The McSweeney's Book of Poets Picking Poets

edited by Dominic Luxford

McSweeney's, 211 pp., $14 (paper)

In his introduction to The McSweeney's Book of Poets Picking Poets, David Orr writes, "Readers … are notoriously unfair to anthologies – they skip around, get bored, spill Fritos crumbs on page 15, and read some poems fifty times and others not even once," his point being that an anthologist's concern for fairness or equal representation, while sympathetic, will often go unrewarded.

Poets Picking Poets is certainly something onto which Fritos crumbs will be spilled, and there are poems that outshine others. The difference here is that the anthology was made with readers in mind, going on taste instead of fusty conceptions of what makes a poem worthwhile or "great." Absent a governing principle or single anthologist, the book is a snapshot of which living poets living poets are reading. Such heavy hitters as Charles Simic, Yusef Komunyakaa, and John Ashbery share face time with younger or lesser-known poets, some of whom have yet to publish a full-length book (Brett Eugene Ralph, for instance, whose "Firm Against the Pattern" floored me).

Allow me to rewind a moment: If the title weren't a giveaway, the book constitutes 10 different threads, each beginning with one poet, who then selects a second poet, and so on. Poets get two poems, one of their own choosing and one selected by the previous poet. Each thread is five poets long, and some follow more logical progressions than others. Certain chains (as editor Dominic Luxford, a former Chronicle intern, has coined them), such as the first beginning with David Berman and ending with Charles Simic, are tonally complementary, while others leap wildly between styles.

One of the most noticeable patterns in the book is a tendency toward self-reference and transparency of voice: that is, poems about poems or poets. In "Upon Waking," Denis Johnson writes, "another/poem begins. slumped over/the typewriter i must get this/exactly." In "Like God," Lynn Emanuel addresses the reader, "you, who have/been hovering above this page." Ruth Ellen Kocher writes, in "Issues Involving Interpretation," "The word has no life of its own/despite what the writer tells you." Brenda Shaughnessy cheekily asks, "What kind of poetry is all question, anyway?" Then there's Patrick Lawler, whose titles "That Was Another Patrick Lawler" and "Patrick Lawler Writes About 'Patrick Lawler'" should be enough to give you an idea of his subject matter.

If your tolerance for navel-gazery is low, there's still much to be found and appreciated here. This is by and large a diverse offering from some of today's finest and most exciting poets, a far cry from the volumes of "important" poetry so many of us snoozed through in high school.

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