Anyone who reads poetry seriously and often will have consistent cause to wonder why the high points of their reading year so frequently go ungathered in this annual Scribner anthology. In truth, the interest of each volume lies mainly in what it reveals about the tastes of the guest editor. The poems selected here by Pulitzer winner and former Poet Laureate Dove are typified by plainspoken lyrics, works that are more often crafted and pellucid than ambitious or difficult. Dove’s humor is anecdotal and easily shared; it relies most frequently on our common, liberal-minded sense of the absurd, and its favored ally is humility. (This is not true of Billie Collins’s terrific “Man Listening to Disc,” which features a whimsical Discman-strapped stroller: “The music is loud yet so confidential / I cannot help feeling even more / like the center of the universe / than usual.”) It makes for an enjoyable perusal—there are very few genuinely bad poems—although not one especially full of either revelations or challenges. A few of the usual suspects are here (Ammons, Merwin, Walcott, and Wilbur), but many are missing, which allows a smattering of new voices to take the stage with mixed, though generally happy results. The volume also includes, as an unforgivable gimmick sure to be scrutinized with guilty pleasures, a listing of “The Best American Poems of the Century”—as selected by previous guest editors.
As depicted in these pages, the State of Poetry at the end of the century, like the State of the Union, seems to be in disarmingly good health: if it is not racked with inspiration, neither does there appear any cause for alarm.