Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Plus ça change, plus c’est le meme chose. The New York Times has been doing a December “notable” or “best” books list since 1967. This time last year, I looked at what was then accessible on the Times website & wrote:

Since 1997, The New York Times has listed 57 “notable” books of poetry in its annual Books of the Year issues. Of these, 84 percent of the books came from just eight publishers. Just under half of the “notable” books, 47 percent, were published by Knopf & FSG.

Over a quarter of the “notable books” were written by just seven poets. Two poets, Anne Carson & Glynn Maxwell, have been listed three times in the past eight years. Five others (Billy Collins, Jorie Graham, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes & Charles Simic) have been listed twice.

This year, the Times adds five new volumes to its list:

COLLECTED POEMS, 1943-2004, by Richard Wilbur, Harcourt

MIGRATION: New and Selected Poems, by W. S. Merwin, Copper Canyon

NATURAL HISTORY: Poems, by Dan Chiasson, Knopf

OVERLORD: Poems, by Jorie Graham, Ecco/HarperCollins

STAR DUST, by Frank Bidart, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Four books were published by members of the Gang of Eight. And two of the five books are by Knopf & FSG. It’s an index of just how concentrated the Times’ selections have been that this is enough to cause these percentages to fall.

One of the five books, Jorie Graham’s Overlord, is by one of the seven poets who has been listed on multiple occasions since 1997. However, Bill Merwin now joins this club with Migration, having previously been cited for The River Sound. Merwin also succeeds in getting a Copper Canyon volume listed for the first time.¹

Two of the five poets (Jorie Graham & Frank Bidart) are roughly my age, while Merwin & Richard Wilbur are old enough to be my parents. The sole concession to youth is the selection of Dan Chiasson, whose imitations of Jack Gilbert are slavish enough to make you think he must still be an undergraduate.

Big collecteds that were not listed this year include Ted Berrigan, David Meltzer & Kenneth Koch. It’s worth noting that both the Meltzer & Koch volumes were published by Gang of Eight houses, tho I should note that Koch’s New Addresses was listed in 2001 and his Collected Poems was reviewed on the same day as the publication of the notable book list. New Addresses remains the only volume by any member of the New American poets listed in the past nine years.

So I went back to 1983, just to see how differently the list might have operated 22 years ago. The total number of poetry titles included that year was a dozen, but since the larger list into which that was embedded contained over 200 titles, poetry’s share of the Times’ attention cannot really be said to have declined. The 1983 list was as follows:

THE ARGOT MERCHANT DISASTER. Poems New and Selected, by George Starbuck, Atlantic/Little, Brown

THE COLLECTED POEMS, 1945-75, by Robert Creeley, California

COUNTRY MUSIC. Selected Early Poems, by Charles Wright, Wesleyan

EROSION, by Jorie Graham, Princeton

FROM THE FIRST NINE. Poems 1946-1976, by James Merrill, Atheneum

GREAT TRANQUILLITY. Questions and Answers, by Yehuda Amichai. Harper & Row

THE KINGFISHER, by Amy Clampitt, Knopf


ON TOUR WITH RITA, by Nicholas Christopher, Knopf


SELECTED & NEW POEMS. 1961-1981, by Jim Harrison, Delacorte/ Seymour Lawrence

TAR, by C. K. Williams, Random House

Some things really don’t change, including, it would seem, the presence of Jorie Graham. A number of the trade presses have been absorbed into others – Atheneum into Simon & Schuster, Random House into Knopf – but what really disappears to poetry when you halve the larger list down from 200 to 100 books is that university presses & poets of color disappear. Is that what the Times means by “fit to print”? Actually, with three university press volumes included out of twelve back in 1983, the selection 22 years ago was less concentrated on the big trades than this year’s list.


¹ Copper Canyon is just the fourth small press publisher of poetry to be listed during this period, joining Seven Stories (Alan Dugan’s Poems Seven), Turtle Point (Richard Howard’s Trappings), and Graywolf (Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise).