In Robert Pinsky’s words, the Best American Poetry series is “a vivid snapshot of what a distinguished poet finds exciting, fresh and memorable,” a selection of more than 70 poems drawn from literary magazines large and small.
I love dipping into these collections whenever I have the chance—I especially like the inclusion of poets’ comments on their work in the Contributors section—but this year was the first that I sat down and read the whole book cover to cover in a few sittings, and I wholeheartedly recommend the experience.
Series editor David Lehman’s introduction considers Yeats’s “The Second Coming” as poem and prophecy, making the case, I think, for poetry engaged with the concerns of the day, while guest editor Edward Hirsch writes about the role of lyric poetry in the contemporary landscape (among other things, lyric poetry is, he writes, “a nonutilitarian form of language sometimes put to utilitarian ends, used to build nations and to undermine them, to reinforce power and to protest it.”)
As he read through hundred upon hundreds of poems, Mr. Hirsch (who is the recipient of many honors and awards, the author of many books, and the current president of the Guggenheim Foundation) writes,
What I found myself responding to, what continued to compel me, was precision and surprise. Memorable lines, craft deployed. Poems that demonstrated a certain kind of thinking, imagistic or metaphorical thinking, poetic inquiry. Literary investigations, obsessions, intelligence. Emotional accuracy. Poems written under pressure, poems in which something dramatic is at stake, at risk, for the speaker, who would not be deterred. A kind of ruthless authenticity. Poems that take themselves to task.
“Precision and surprise”—those are qualities I found over and over again as I read The Best American Poetry 2016*, across a broad spectrum of poetic forms and subjects. Poems by Jill Bialosky, Michelle Boisseau, Natalie Diaz, Amy Gerstler, T. R. Hummer, Major Jackson, Keetje Kuipers, Cate Marvin, Hai-Dang Phan, Anya Silver, and Adrienne Su particularly struck me, though I found something to admire in every poem in this collection. I should also note that roughly half the names in this collection were unfamiliar to me, which is both a testament to the editors’ choices and my own
A review of each poem would of course be unreasonable, so I thought I’d leave you, Dear Readers, with a handful of favorite lines, though they do seem lonesome away from their poems.
Off-shore, the whale-roads are so thick
with monsters that were you nimble enough
you could dash across their breaching.
(Michelle Boisseau, from “Ugglig”)
making their great speeded way across the darkest hours,
rippling the sapphired sky-water into a galaxy road.
(Natalie Diaz, from “How the Milky Way Was Made”)
They are all boys, ceaselessly.
(Cate Marvin, from “High School in Schuzou”)
And this, from Edward Hirsch’s introduction:
[Poetry] is an art form that continues to thrive in unexpected ways, engaging and evading its own history, setting out on unknown paths. We live, perhaps we have always lived, in perilous times, and stand on the edge of an abyss, which absorbs us. We are called to task. Poetry enlarges our experience. It brings us greater consciousness, fuller being. It stands on the side of life, our enthrallment.
Add linebreaks, and that’s a poem too.
What poems are you reading this week?
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.
9 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: The Best American Poetry 2016, Edited by David Lehman (series editor) and Edward Hirsch (guest editor)”
I love the first two passages, and think they actually go very well together – I picture the whales sailing right on into the sky.
As you know I don’t read a lot of poetry, but the last I read was George Elliott Clarke. Because I don’t read a lot of poetry, and therefore feel like I don’t know anything about it besides whether I like it or not (and I am aware that this is not the same thing as knowing good poetry from bad), I would love to know what you think of George Elliott Clarke. To see if what you say about it matches how I feel. If you ever get a chance… 🙂
Naomi, what’s your favorite book of his?
That’s a hard question. My favourite book of his is ‘George and Rue’, but that’s a novel (one that’s very poetically written). Then there is the novel he wrote in poem form – ‘Whylah Falls’ – that is his most popular and well-known book, I think. And I own that one, but haven’t read it yet (have no idea why – probably because I own it). Out of his poetry collections that I’ve (mostly) read through, I would probably choose ‘Blue’. But, boy, a lot of it made me squirm in my seat! That’s a sign that he’s doing his job, though, right? But I would love to know from someone who knows poetry. (That’s you!)
It is so annoying that Canadian poets can be so hard to find here!
Argh! You can’t find him? I thought for sure you’d be able to find GEC – he’s far from obscure! Very frustrating.
Maybe ‘they’ think Americans can’t handle his poetry. 😉
Entirely possible, but honestly poetry sections here are terrible, with rare exception.
Boo again! I just checked and they have some of his books at Abe Books. Or you just might have to make a trip to NS! 🙂
I’ve never read a single volume of Best American Poetry! (Disgrace, I know.) But I love some of these lines, and it’s quite a testament to the editor’s work on this that you were able to read through the entire volume and enjoy it fully.
It’s no disgrace! I don’t read them every year (as the blog will attest), but I really enjoyed making a go of it this time.