“Best” Anthologies: A Global Trend

Dalia Sofer
From the March/April 2003 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Scribner published 5,000 copies of the inaugural volume of The Best American Poetry when David Lehman started the series in 1988. It was an optimistic print run for a book of poems that had already appeared in literary magazines across the country during the previous year. But the idea caught on. “They sold out and couldn’t keep up with the orders,” says Lehman. “I thought it was the magic of John Ashbery, who was the first guest editor. But each year we continued printing more copies. Last year the first print run was 30,000.” The Best American Poetry 2002, edited by Robert Creeley, was published in September.

The online project exposes the work of New Zealand poets not only to their compatriots, but to readers in the rest of the world, especially in the U.S., where New Zealand literature has thus far remained unknown.

Such anthologies, compiled annually by editors who scan diverse sources and publish the poems they deem “the best,” are quickly gaining popularity worldwide. The latest of these is an online publication called Best New Zealand Poems. Published by the International Institute of Modern Letters, an organization with headquarters in Wellington and Las Vegas whose mission is to identify, support, and preserve emerging literary talent worldwide, Best New Zealand Poems features twenty-five poems from the country’s literary magazines and poetry collections. It includes notes about and by the poets, along with links to relevant literary Web sites. The new issue, Best New Zealand Poems 2002, appears this month and is edited by Elizabeth Smither, a writer and librarian in New Plymouth.

Best New Zealand Poems was launched last year by Bill Manhire, director of the International Institute of Modern Letters. The project, Manhire says, was inspired by and modeled after The Best American Poetry. “I think their format is very good, especially the idea that the editorship changes yearly,” he says. The editor for the inaugural issue, Best New Zealand Poems 2001, was Iain Sharp, a poet and book editor of the Auckland Sunday Star-Times. “We’re not saying that every New Zealand poem worth considering can be found here,” Sharp wrote in the introduction. “This is a little window display, not the whole shop.”

The online project exposes the work of New Zealand poets not only to their compatriots, but to readers in the rest of the world, especially in the U.S., where, according to Manhire, New Zealand literature has thus far remained unknown. “I think America is very good at paying attention to the parts of the world that seem exotic to it and whose literature needs translation,” he says, “but not very good at noticing other English-language communities, particularly the smaller ones. Even if you put up your hand and wave, no one quite notices, because someone in a more exciting costume is waving in another language.”

Great Britain has had its own annual anthology of best poems since 1992. The Forward Book of Poetry is published each October by the Forward Arts Foundation—the organization that sponsors the annual Forward Poetry Prizes, worth a total of £16,000 (approximately $26,000)—and is distributed by Faber. Every year, 50 to 80 poems are selected from collections submitted for the Forward Prizes, as well as from various literary magazines. According to William Sieghart, chairman of the Forward Poetry Trust and founder of National Poetry Day, a celebration of poetry in Great Britain, the anthology sells between 5,000 and 7,000 copies each year.

“Poetry is vibrant in the United Kingdom at the moment,” says Sieghart. “I don’t believe there has been a revival of poetry as such—because poetry never goes away—but there has been a revival of the image of poetry and poets."

Germany had its own version of the annual poetry anthology long before Lehman had the idea for Best American Poetry. Launched in 1979, Jahrbuch der Lyrik (translated as Poetry Yearbook) contains 100 poems by emerging as well as established poets. Published every spring by Beck, the anthology is edited by Christoph Buchwald along with a guest editor. Jahrbuch der Lyrik has published some of the best-known poets writing in German, including Jürgen Becker, Marcel Beyer, Durs Grünbein, and Raoul Schrott.

Scotland may be next in line to create its own version of an annual best-poems anthology. Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh, has applied for grants to launch online and print editions. She envisions an editor at the Library and a guest editor selecting 20 poems each year. “It’s difficult to get poetry published” she says. “This anthology would provide a way to focus on the excellent work coming out, sometimes in obscure places. I hope readers will use it as a compass for further exploration.” If the funding comes through, Marsack plans to produce the first issue at the end of this year or in early 2004.

Dalia Sofer is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.