Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Best American Poetry, 2016


Edited by Edward Hirsch, this year’s edition of The Best American Poetry, 2016, astronomically abounds with rising stars and a constellation of such brilliant poets as David Bottoms, Lynn Emanuel, Dana Gioia, Jorie Graham, Tony Hoagland, Garrett Hongo, Yusef Komunyakaa, Li-Young Lee, Larry Levis, David St. John, James Tate, and C.K. Williams, whom I mention only because I know for sure I’ve read, appreciated, and re-read their work. Yet others in this collection are every bit as dazzling or insightful.

Published annually by Simon & Schuster, who kindly sent me a complimentary copy to review, this year’s edition offers poets and poetry lovers an anthological wonder usually found only in thick volumes. As a bonus, the “Contributors’ Notes and Comments” in the back matter let us know what gave the poets the impetus for many of the poems.

Equally helpful, the book includes the names of journals in which each poem originally appeared. This information expands our possibilities for publication as we visit the websites for those journals and e-zines, study their publications, adhere to their writing guidelines, and submit our own best work.

With poet-professor David Lehman the series editor each year, these “best” books also give us a glimpse of the variety of poetic forms and content shaping American literature.

In the opening “Foreword,” David Lehman sets a high standard for our “apocalyptic” age by referring us to the “chilling statement of our condition” as revealed in the hauntingly beautiful poem “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats, which begins:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”


…an intensity which increases in the poem's remaining lines.

This year’s editor Edward Hirsch then gives us a sweeping assessment of American poetry in the “Introduction,” before summarizing his response to “reading hundreds of literary magazines.” As he candidly tells us:

“What was I looking for? – I wasn’t always sure. What I found myself responding to, what continued to compel me, was precision and surprise. Memorable lines, craft deployed. Poems I could not shake, texts that arrested me. Poems that demonstrated a certain kind of thinking, imagistic or metaphorical thinking, poetry 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.”

A fresh slant or insight is an integral part of this as shown in “The Sadness of Clothes” written by Emily Fragos and initially published in Poem-A-Day.

”You tell the worn raincoat that if you talk about it,
you will finally let grief out. The ancients etched the words
for battle and victory onto their shields and then they went out

and fought to the last breath. Words have that kind of power
you remind the clothes that remain in the drawer, arms stubbornly
folded across the chest, or slung across the backs of chairs….”


Tony Hoagland also presents a fresh, highly visual perspective in “Bible Study,” originally published in Poetry magazine:

“I was on the road for so long by myself,
I took to reading motel Bibles just for company.
Lying on the chintz bedspread before going to sleep,
still feeling the motion of the car inside my body,
I thought some wrongness in my self had left me that alone.

And God said,
You are worth more to me
than one hundred sparrows.
And when I read that, I wept.
And God said,
Whom have I blessed more than I have blessed you?

And I looked at the minibar
and the bad abstract hotel art on the wall
and the dark TV set watching like a deacon.
And God said,
Survive. And carry my perfume among the perishing.”

These spiritual instants often appear in down-to-earth moments such as “I Got Heaven…” by Garrett Hongo, whose “I” of the Miramar published poem walks “among penitents at the Festival of the Dead” and gives us these imagistic lines:

“I swear that, in Gardena, on a moonlit suburban street,
There are souls that twirl like kites lashed to the wrists of the living
And spirits who tumble in a solemn limbo between 164th
And the long river of stars to Amida’s Paradise in the West.”


In free verse, sonnets, villanelles, and prose poetry, the poems in this collection address life, death, disappointments, loneliness, and spiritual meanderings. For example, the poem from The Southern Review, “If He Came & Diminished Me & Mapped My Way,” by the late Larry Levis asks:

“Who was present in the pattern of the snake fading
Into the pattern of the leaves again?

And who presided over the empty clarity of water falling,
Water spreading into a thin, white veil
Glimpsed just once in a moment clear & empty as a heaven –

Once heaven has been swept clean of any meaning?”


In “Psalm for the Lost” published in Image, Paul Mariani investigates the dark “Because it is the nature/ of the restless mind which knows too well/ that nothing is ever really known, no matter/ how much one tells oneself it is.” The poem then draws some relief from the hope flicking through this conclusion:

“Dark, dark, oh dark. And nothing for it
but to let the wind rebuild it, bit by bit, and lift it as it will.”


In “Late Aubade” James Richardson confesses:

“I get that the coffee, the sunlight on glassware, the Sunday paper
and our studious lightness, not hearing the phone, are iconic
of living regretless in the Now. A Cool that’s beyond me:
I’m having some trouble acting suitably poised and ironic.”


In the widening gap between generations past and those to come, the above poem from The Yale Review ends by asking, “Life, are we exclusive, are we forever?”

That’s the kind of question one might ask a lover. But then, that’s what this highly recommended book presents: a love affair with life, words, and the intimate details of that-which-has-been-noticed and intricately received.

Mary Harwell Sayler, poet-writer, reviewer, ©2016


The Best American Poetry, 2016, paperback




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