THE BEST OF RHYMES,nTHE WORST OF RHYMESn”One of the minor disadvantages ofnbeing a poet … is being continuallynasked who reads one’s poetry. Or whonreads poetry.” It is easy to appreciatenwhy John Ashbery gave way to thisnminor fit of pique in the introduction tonThe Best American Poetry 1988 (NewnYork: Charies Scribner’s Sons; 249 pp.,n$19.95). While Ashbery does run intonthe odd person who actually reads hisnown poems, he wonders aloud, “Doneven poets read poetry?” and has tonconfess “to some laziness in this regard.”nAfter wasting some time on hisnanthology, including a typical examplenof his own anti-verse, I can envynAshbery’s laziness. If this is the bestnAmerican poetry of 1988, then thenstate of verse in the US is even worsenthan I had imagined.nTo be fair to the editor, he has madenan effort at balance, by representingnmost of the dominant schools of contemporarynverse. Greeley and Koch andnGary Snyder are here, but so are RichardnWilbur and Anthony Hecht. Indeed,nit is somewhat surprising to discovernseveral more or less formalnspecimens in the volume. But to illustratenhow far the estate of poetry isnsunk, only one or two of the formalnpoems are really competent: AnthonynHecht’s “Envoi” — a poem I positivelyndisliked—stands out as the best-craftednpiece in the anthology. John Hollander’snattempt at rhyme and meter isnlistless, and George Bradley’s “Nochneinmal an Orpheus” is as wooden asnanything from the 16th century.nVersification is not a trivial art thatncan be learned froin handbooks ornpicked up in a summer course. It is ancraft that can only be mastered bynpractice and by a careful reading of thenmasters. In 1988, competent poets arenan endangered species, and their art willnprobably go the way of stained glass.nSome reason for hope, however, isngiven in two recent collections of seriousnverse: Robert Richman’s The Directionnof Poetry: An Anthology ofnRhymed and Metered Verse Written innthe English Language Since 1975 (Bos­nREVISIONSnton: Houghton Mifflin; 168 pp.,n$19.95), and “Expansionist Poetry:nThe New Formalism and the NewnNarrative,” the latest issue of Crosscurrents,nA Quarterly edited by Dick Allen.nOf the two anthologies, Richman’s isnbroader and more inclusive. Richman,nthe poetry editor of The New Criterion,nhas the freedom to include some of thenbest poets who have written in Englishnin the past two decades: X.J. Kennedy,nGeoffrey Hill, Howard Nemerov, RichardnWilbur, and Elizabeth Bishop. Atnthe same time he is also reaching out tona variety of “name” poets who occasionallyndescend to some degree ofnformality: Donald Justice, MaynSwenson, Seamus Heaney, John Hollander,nand Derek Walcott — all ofnwhom appear in Ashbery’s anthologynand none of whom does any better innthese halfhearted attempts innRichman’s book to display their knowledgenof the craft. Their inclusion, perhaps,nhas led to the exclusion of betternand more important formal poets.nDick Allen’s special issue of Crosscurrents,non the other hand, is a virtualnmanifesto for restoring meter and narrativento poetry, containing essays as wellnas verse. “Expansionist Poetry” includesnmost of the younger leaders ofnthe movement to restore sound andnsense to poetry: Dana Gioia, BradnLeithauser, Dick Allen, and BrucenBawer, and the volume is dedicated—nquite appropriately — to X.J. Kennedy.nNevertheless, the real hero, both of thenvolume and of the movement, is FredericknTurner, whose essays helped tonreawaken interest in rhythm, and whosenscience fiction verse novels are attractingnnew readers to poetry. Turner isnrepresented by a fine poem, as arenGioia, Timothy Disch, Robert B. Shaw,nand Timothy Steele, who also appearsnin Richman. (A short poem of ThomasnFleming is included there as well, notn— in his own opinion — one of hisnstrongest performances.)nIf one thing connects many of thenso-called neoformalists with the formlessnpoets, it is the lack of ambition. In anwonderful essay, “Poetry and Ambition”n(in Poetry and Ambition: Essaysnnn1982-88, Ann Arbor: University ofnMichigan; 207 pp.), Donald Hallnchides poets for not even attempting tonwrite great verse and complains thatn”poems have become as instant as coffeenor onion soup mix.” Hall’s soluhonnis to abolish the MFA and the poetnworkshops that only producenMcPoems. I wish I liked Hall’s poemsnmore, but he is represented in Ashberynby one of his best pieces and by far thenmost ambitious poem in the volume,n”Prophecy,” which is almost worth thenprice of the book. It is the rare thing,nespecially these days: a long poem thatnis rhetorically convincing, rhythmical inna dramatic way, and filled with passionatenlanguage:nYour children will wandernlooting the shopping mallsnfor forty years, suffering for yournidleness,nuntil the last dwarf body rots inna parking lot.nWith the conspicuous exceptions ofnGeoffrey Hill, Frederick Turner, and thencomparatively unknown RichardnKenney, few of the neoformalists representednin these anthologies are willing tontake the risks that Hall is taking. Perhapsnthe problem is with the termnneoformalist. There is a fundamentalndishonesty in all such neo-logisms,nwhether it’s neo-Nazi or neoliberal.nWhy not admit it, if what you want to donis write real poetry?nThe most promising signs are, Inthink, the younger poets who have begunnto take their trade seriously: TimothynSteele (in both), Richard Kenneyn(Richman), Dana Gioia (who is a businessman,nof all things), and TimothynDisch, whose verse is clever even if hendoes work for The Nation. Whennthe present generation of over-50 academicnpoets dies off, their names (withnvery few exceptions) will be forgottennand their land will know them not. Illiteratencultures have long memoriesnonly when the memory is preserved innsong or rhythmical verse. Our anti-literatenculture, on the other hand, will benpreserved only as a horse laugh echoingnfrom footnote to footnote. (TF)nMAY 1989/43n