I had been a member of a workshop led by Hirsch years ago at the Indiana Writers' Conference, and remembered him as a warm and generous leader. Soon after he was named president of the Guggenheim Foundation, Hirsch agreed to participate in a Southern Bookman interview, in which his answers seemed guarded.
Back in my writers' workshop days, I also was a member of a workshop led by Lehman at the Atlantic Center of the Arts.
I liked Lehman myself, and felt I learned quite a bit from him, but several members of our group rebelled against what they saw as his lack of interest in their work and a general condescension.
Despite having a different guest editor, the Best American Poetry series struck me as possessing a sameness each year, like the same restaurant chain at different interstate outlets. Each has a mix of established poets and new voices, yet with a few exceptions, the poems lack distinction.
Hirsch's book continues the pattern. He and Lehman point with pride at the number of poets making their first appearance.
The new generation of poets share a penchant for long, meandering poems whose unifying theme is difficult to discern. They also strive for an outlandish surrealism that too often fizzles.
The established poets fare little better. David Bottoms contributes a striking poem based on a rough-hewn farmer who shopped at his grandfather's rural store way back when. Poems by Lyn Emanuel and Richard Howard made little impact.
Poems who've recently passed away receive valedictory appearances that do them little honor. Even Larry Levis, who died in 1996, shows up.
The late Claudia Emerson gives the best performance of the group with a harrowing glimpse at her battle with cancer.
Philip Levine, who died this year, has what might be called a generic Philip Levine poem with the usual elements: Detroit, work, a blue-collar philosopher.
The worst poem in the book is one by the late James Tate, a wretched attempt at surrealistic humor. Tate fans likely will find it brilliant.
Hardened poetry fans will find several worthwhile pieces, and I plan on going back and re-reading the anthology. While a few of the poems will attract the so-called "common reader," many will send them screaming back to their Jennifer Weiner or Lee Child.