Editors: Kevin Young (installment), David Lehman (series)
Publication Date: 9/20/11
The latest installment of the yearly anthology of contemporary American poetry that has achieved brand-name status in the literary world.
I thought for a long time about whether I wanted to review this or if I had the capacity to do so. I feel like there are hordes of poetry fans and critical readers who are waiting in the wings to tell me I’m an idiot and that I don’t understand poetry. Anthologies are always hit and miss for people--it’s near impossible to something meaningful to every reader but this collection had enough poems that truly hit it out of the park for me that I felt I should at least write something about it. Is this the definitive collection of the best poems of the year? I really couldn’t say; I am no authority. I’ll leave that to other people to debate and just speak to my reading experience. Thankfully, David Lehman discusses this point in his foreword. The plethora of quotations in the first half of the foreword made it a choppy read for me but I am ecstatic to say that the part I enjoyed most about it was the last few paragraphs that Mr. Lehman wrote which summarized his own feelings on anthologizing poems, the wherewithal of poetry, and the structure and organization of the collection and all while devoid of quotes. It came as quite a surprise to me that this anthology is organized alphabetically. I read the foreword and introduction after the collection and didn’t notice (and constantly wondered about) the connective thread. I'm happy to finally know. Kevin Young, who selected the poems for this work, manages quite a feat in his introduction—he made me want to reread every poem in the book with his discussion and he compared the comeback of the sonnet to the much-hyped and awaited return of the McRib sandwich. Bravo, Mr. Young.
My favorite poems are the ones that punch you in the gut in the fewest number of stanzas possible. Tell me in a two pages or less or my eyes will start to glaze over and my mind will start wandering. I read three or four of these poems every few nights before I went to sleep and some I read over and over and over. It is truly a gift to be able to evoke emotions with your words in such a brief format. I must admit that a few of them made me tear up, but the same number dazzled me with their humor and cleverness. For example, Rachel Wetzsteon’s Time Pieces features short haiku stanzas, each a clever play on a heading about the passage of time: “Intermission Time/Guilty admission:/this plunge from art to life’s a/painful transition.” Or “Just give it time/Though I frankly feel/better, there’s nothing sadder/than starting to heal.” (emphasis my own to differentiate headings) For some reason, I am always drawn to poems about loss. I was touched by Yusef Komunyakaa’s A Voice on an Answering Machine, in which he writes of a woman lost but whose voice still remains as a reminder and similarly moved by Gretchen Steele Pratt’s, To my father on the anniversary of his death. I think the common thread for me will always be personal memories. We all like to make that connection with other people and wait patiently for those a-ha moments in literature when writers fascinate us with their perfect statements.
I have to admit that I laughed out loud during Erin Belieu’s, When at a Certain Party in NYC…clearly we’ve met some similar people in our travels. (and felt unhip at times) And I was quite surprised, as several of my reader friends may be, that both Sherman Alexie and Julianna Baggott have poems in this collection. I only mention these two specifically as I was familiar with their names before reading their biographical sections. I particularly enjoyed (as much as you can enjoy) Alexie’s Valediction, which goes back to my death-related poem obsession. He writes, “Yes, my sad acquaintance, each dark time is/Indistinguishable from the other dark times./Yesterday is as relentless as tomorrow.” Makes you really want to go to sleep, eh? A few of my other favorites were Eric Pankey’s Cogitatio Mortis (“After awhile, each room is a waiting room.”), James Longenbach’s Snow and Jane Hirschfield’s extremely short The Cloudy Vase, which captures optimism in just four lines.
Because each poem is such a singular experience, I could obviously ramble about this anthology for ages. Some were better than others to me and many poems I enjoyed were left out of this review for the sake of brevity. This was my first experience with The Best American Poetry series and it won’t be my last. I’ll just leave you with just one more quote, from James Richardson’s “Even More Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays from Vectors 3.0,” “What is more yours than what you always hold back?”
Thanks to the publisher and Simon & Schuster’s Galley Grab program for reminding me how amazing poetry can be and for a larger collection of favorite quotations.