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The Birth of The Best

The Making of The Best American Poetry


David Lehman (View Bio)
Paperback: Marsh Hawk Press, 2023.

The Birth of The Best

The first chapter, written for the 2018 reissue of the inaugural volume of the series, gives an account of the birth of The Best American Poetry (Scribner) and is followed by the forewords Lehman wrote for the books that appeared in consecutive years from 2015 through 2022-years marked by the Trump presidency, the Covid pandemic, the pollution of civic discourse by way of social media, new forms of censorship, and now Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Naturally, these developments have had a profound effect on the anthology's poets and what they aim to do in their work. This book chronicles that history and, at the same time, serves as a personal introduction for editors beginning their own magazines, book series, or small presses.

"For over three decades, David Lehman has produced a compelling hybrid of literary journalism and poetic criticism characterized by prodigious urbanity, range, and timeliness. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Birth of The Best, which offers a fascinating glimpse into the process of his collaboration with guest editors of The Best American Poetry series and priceless reminiscences/appreciations of eminent poets. Lehman is especially astute in assessing the impact of cultural trends on poetry’s subject matter, formal attributes, distribution, and reception. Perhaps the most crucial aspect of this essay collection is its thorough refutations of the ceaseless carping of those who would cremate poetry and dump its ashes into some musty attic, as well as those whose adherence to a particular orthodoxy would drastically limit its scope. Lehman is not an 'apologist' for poetry; he is a vibrant advocate." — Tom Fink

"David Lehman's The Birth of The Best gives readers a riveting behind-the-scenes look at the making of the yearly anthology he founded in 1988. Series editor of The Best American Poetry, Lehman has long had his pulse on contemporary poetry/poetries as well as the politics and culture that inform it. He has undoubtedly transformed and enlarged a readership for poetry. Luring many who might have otherwise eschewed it, he notes John Ashbery who once called poetry 'our little secret.' Or put more bluntly in the film "The Big Short"—'people fucking hate poetry.' Censorship, social media, misinformation, the first amendment, editorial independence. Lehman has something to say about all these topics and more in his elegant prose. Prolific, iconoclast, and true believer, Lehman is the hardest working man in po-biz. And, like Frank O'Hara, Lehman knows that 'Poetry, like virtue, is its own reward.'" — Denise Duhamel

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