In 1988, poet David Lehman began an annual series of anthologies called “The Best American Poetry,” inviting distinguished poets to edit each year’s selection. For this, the 25th anniversary of the project, he asked former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky to choose 100 poems from throughout the series for “The Best of the Best American Poetry” (Scribner, $35). Here is an edited version of an e-mail dialogue with Pinsky.
What qualities of voice and vision emerged during your selection process? How was the force of history affecting these poets’ work?
Do electronic media, with their speed and range, enhance the dignity of the individual or render it obsolete? That contemporary social issue, with its political corollaries about democracy, resembles questions that poets faced a hundred years ago. The Modernist writers defied two kinds of belittlement: First, the middlebrow complacency of bromides, the synthetic sweetness of Edgar Guest’s “It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home” — so unlike the sharp, Modernist force of Marianne Moore’s “Silence.” Secondly, there was the deprecation of aestheticism, a dismissal of poetry as being able to encompass major concerns. Compare, for instance, Swinburne’s cotton-candy “Atalanta in Calydon” with William Carlos Williams’s ambitious documentary “Paterson.” I love that alphabetically this book goes from Sherman Alexie to Kevin Young, and that it includes poems as large-minded and as different as Terrance Hayes’s “A House Is Not a Home” and Anne Winters’s “The Mill-Race.” I found it easy to choose poems that have a capacious sense of the enterprise, comparable to that generation of Moore and Williams.