About those end of the year lists
I’ve had this bumping around in my head for the last few days, ever since Anis Shivani posted his list of “the 17 Most Important Poetry Books of Fall 2010.” That post is what I had in mind when I referred to pomposity in my last post. Seriously? The most important books of a season?
But then I looked at his list, and it brought back last year’s Publisher’s Weekly debacle, where none of their top ten books were written by women, and the rise of WILLA which became VIDA and the whole debate over keeping count of gender in publication. (Aside: Here’s this year’s list breakdown, and while the top ten is evenly split between men and women, the top 100 is decidedly male-heavy again, with the exception of romance–no surprise–and sci fi/fantasy/horror–bit of a surprise.) Why? Because Shivani’s list is 12 men and 5 women. And he’s not alone. Paul Muldoon in The New Yorker (though he only calls his selections “great”) has 8 men and 2 women on his list. Dan Chaisson is marginally better with 7 men and 3 women (actually 8 men, but Ashbery’s book, as he mentions, came out in 2009). Timothy Donnelly, whose The Cloud Corporation is deservedly on a lot of these lists and was a Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection, chose five men and one woman when asked to recommend six collections by The Week. One of them was by his editor at Wave Books, Matthew Zapruder.
I don’t have the time or the energy to wade through all of these end-of-the-year lists nailing down counts–the ones I noted above are some of the big ones, which is why I was drawn to them, but they’re not, at first glance anyway, unusual in their construction. The best group of lists, for my money, is at No Tells, where contributors to No Tell Motel are given space to list their favorite books of the year. Some include brief explanations as to why–others just list book titles and their authors. Some of the lists are balanced, some lean toward one gender or the other, but the sheer quantity of lists makes it so there’s no definitive “this is who we are claiming as the best” nature to it. And I like that.
Back to Shivani’s list for a minute. For starters, I almost never link to his pieces at Huffington Post because his pieces tend toward the formulaic, and they’re formulas I don’t like. This column is of the first type–say something ridiculously over the top, like “these are the 17 most important poetry books of fall 2010,” and then beg people to argue over it, thus driving page views. The other is to ask a ridiculously stupid question, like “is American poetry dead or dying,” and drive people ready to argue to the site, thus driving either comments or blog posts/tweets/Facebook notes in response, all of which raises the profile of the original post. The worst thing is that it works. I’m doing it right now, though I’m aware of it and only do it selectively and when I have a larger point to make.
And my point is, look at that list–Seamus Heaney, C. K. Williams, Paul Muldoon, C. D. Wright, Charles Simic, Ezra Pound?–not exactly an adventurous list there. I love me some Seamus, and read his latest, and it’s solid Seamus. But that’s all it is. He’s not breaking much new ground in this book, not doing anything very exciting in it. But he’s a Very Important Poet and so winds up on these end of the year lists, it seems, without much controversy.
Which is why most of these lists suck, at least at the big name places, the ones with all the traffic. There’s precious little chance-taking involved. There’s little reaching into the tiny, obscure presses and lifting out a book that no one had heard of before and championing it. Charles Simic doesn’t need a champion. Neither do at least half the people on Shivani’s list. And I’m a person who wants to champion the unknown rather than the known. I get tons more satisfaction running a review of a first book by a young poet at a small press than I do running one of Paul Muldoon’s latest book. I’m a fan of the under-represented, and I hope I always will be.