From the Publisher: The 2018 edition of the Best American Poetry—“a ‘best’ anthology that really lives up to its title” (Chicago Tribune)—collects the most significant poems of the year, chosen by Poet Laureate of California Dana Gioia.
The guest editor for 2018, Dana Gioia, has an unconventional poetic background. Gioia has published five volumes of poetry, served as the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and currently sits as the Poet Laureate of California, but he is also a graduate of Stanford Business School and was once a Vice President at General Foods. He has studied opera and is a published librettist, in addition to his prolific work in critical essay writing and editing literary anthologies. Having lived several lives, Gioia brings an insightful, varied, eclectic eye to this year’s Best American Poetry.
With his classic essay “Can Poetry Matter?”, originally run in The Atlantic in 1991, Gioia considered whether there is a place for poetry to be a part of modern American mainstream culture. Decades later, the debate continues, but Best American Poetry 2018 stands as evidence that poetry is very much present, relevant, and finding new readers.
Verbal felicities, haunting or explosive imagery, the architectonic dazzlements of rhyme and meter — all these are dwarfed by American poetry’s reverence for genuineness, for authenticity. “Look in thy heart and write” advised Sir Philip Sidney’s muse, but that injunction has long been our own literature’s credo. Yet in their introductory essays to “The Best American Poetry 2018,” the 30th installment of this always excellent annual anthology, series editor David Lehman and this year’s guest editor, Dana Gioia, present dissimilar views on precisely what authenticity entails.
Lehman doesn’t disguise his contempt and near-despair over the vast popularity of “the queen of Instagram poets,” Rupi Kaur, characterizing her work as greeting-card verse. Without quite saying that bad poetry drives out good, he happily turns away from wearisome Twitter parodies of William Carlos Williams to celebrate the real achievements of John Ashbery and Richard Wilbur, two indisputable poetic giants who died in 2017.
In contrast, Gioia glories in being a populist, even a Maoist. His mantra might be: Let a hundred flowers blossom. This former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, now poet laureate of California, rejoices that poetry has discovered new energy in slams, hip-hop and YouTube videos. Today poets reach their audiences through performance more often than print. We have, in effect, revitalized the ancient tradition of the bard, the singer of tales.
Still, Gioia admits that you can’t successfully capture live-action versifying in a book. To assemble “The Best American Poetry 2018,” he read thousands of poems to find the 75 that spoke to him most deeply, no matter their style or form. While his chosen authors range from long-esteemed masters (Gary Snyder, A.R. Ammons) to former poet laureates (Natasha Trethewey, Kay Ryan) to prison inmates and recent immigrants, their themes are — surprisingly, unsurprisingly? — traditional: By Gioia’s estimate, the top five are family, childhood and adolescence, love, poetry itself and, not least, nature and the environment, this last usually focusing on its despoliation rather than daisies and daffodils. Gioia emphasizes that most of the work he selected was written before the last presidential election, but he does include Christian Wiman’s “Assembly” — “It may be Lord our voice is suited now/ only for irony, onslaught, and the minor hierarchies of rage” — and Ernest Hilbert’s “Mars Ultor”:
Brutes push their way to power,
But the muddiest barbarian
Also wants the throne an hour,
And dons a crown, marks affairs,
Nods under a golden branch until
A stronger one turns up the stairs.
Even more stark is Agnieszka Tworek’s “Grief Runs Untamed” about impoverished exiles who carry a door handle: “they attach it to every mountain and wall,/ hoping the handle will conjure the door/ That will open and let them in.”
The great test of any poem is simply “Would I like to learn this by heart?” Alas, nothing here quite merits that reward, though Dick Davis’s autumnal reflections in “A Personal Sonnet” come close. Still, many poems offer striking phrases worth remembering. In “American Dreams,” Julia Alvarez recalls a childhood candy store and its “tinkling bell that tattled I was coming in the door.” That “tattled” is inspired. Having fled the Dominican Republic, Alvarez found America to be not a land of milk and honey but “the land of Milk/ Duds, Chiclets, gumdrops.”
In “Those Were the Days” George Bradley plays off old sayings, upending proverbs into a subspecies of what Harry Mathews dubbed perverbs: “Seamstresses back then were many and available and kept us in stitches”; “Clothes made the men and unmade the women.” J. Allyn Rosser’s “Personae Who Got Loose” proffers a similar litany of wry non-sequiturs: “Aloof, wary, notwithstanding her giddy enthusiasm for handsome misogynists and fine crystal.”
Wordplay reliably leavens, lightens or just makes us smile. In “The Wives of the Poets” Susan de Sola reflects on errant husbands in a wittily infectious singsong: “The wives of the poets,/ they never complain./ They know they are married/ to drama and pain.” To describe the moon’s quarter phase in “Yonder, a Rental,” Anna Maria Hong exults that “It’s all or nada as noon-night’s empanada.” In “We’ll Always Have Parents,” Mary Jo Salter neatly repurposes the most famous line of “Casablanca” into a meditation on family life, while A. E. Stallings brings “Pencil” to a close with a brilliant conceit: “And Time the other implement/ That sharpens and grows shorter.”
Gioia prints several engrossing long poems, my favorites being Michael Robbins’s exuberant “Walkman,” about sex, drink and rock-and-roll, and Jacqueline Osherow’s “Tilia cordata,” which yokes the fragrance of linden flowers with the horror of the Holocaust. Having learned about the latter at a young age, Osherow recalls that she “wouldn’t take a shower until I was seven,/ worried gas might come out. That was what my mother/ had told me: gas came out instead of water.” Later, she writes that her daughters “have been known to make bets/ before dinner parties about how many minutes/ will pass before I bring up the Holocaust.” Usually, “the winning number is about twenty,” adding with mock ruefulness: “they’re merciless, my girls.”
“The Best American Poetry 2018” concludes with more than 50 pages of “contributors’ notes and comments.” A jaundiced critic might sum up these honor-rich biographies with the words of Lewis Carroll’s Dodo: “All must have prizes.” Sometimes pretentious academese darkens the commentary too, though a few mini-essays, such as Mandy Kahn’s on “Ives,” are almost as good as the poems they illuminate.
In the end, though, “The Best American Poetry 2018” is simply a sampler, so when you discover a poem you like, don’t stop there: Go out and buy its author’s latest collection. That’s one New Year’s resolution that should be easy to keep.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
The stagnation of American poetry: The Best American Poetry 2018
By James McDonald
20 April 2019
The Best American Poetry, New York: Scribner, 2018, 240 pp.
The seventy-five poems in The Best American Poetry 2018 ( BAP ), selected by Dana Gioia—former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and currently California State Poet Laureate—provide little of the sustenance and exhilaration that, at its best, poetry is capable of. In fact, they are characterized by nothing so much as their sameness—the sagacious pose, the personal lyric form, the compulsory box-ticking of extended metaphors. Further, with the exception of a pervasive Gothic foreboding, more about which later, these are eminently safe poems, carefully dressed, peer reviewed and scrupulously attentive to contemporary cultural regulations of taste.
As with America, so with American poetry. The past four decades of American life have suffered from an increasing precariousness, with workers finding it more difficult to receive a living wage and those still earning a middle-class salary growing acutely conscious of their own vulnerability. Among this salaried-but-vulnerable layer of workers are today’s published poets, who for the most part teach in colleges and universities and compete with each other for official approval and the diminishing resources of English departments and creative writing programs.
At the same time, American culture has registered the effects of the declining US empire’s overt turn to militarism and authoritarianism. American good versus alien evil—terror—dominates the movies, where today’s youth are fed a diet of superhero spectacles. To the extent social criticism is allowed into official culture—Hollywood and the university—it is mostly in the form of a reactionary identity politics that serves to classify and divide people based on their race and sex. It is no accident, then, that Hollywood and the university are the incubators of the virulent “Me Too” movement.
It is difficult to create forward-looking art while looking over your shoulder. For this reason it would be a mistake to lay all the blame at the feet of the poets for a certain stagnation of American poetry. After all, it stands to reason that today’s poets are as talented and as gifted with creative energy as poets have ever been. To be sure, there is talent on display in the pages of BAP 2018. Remarkable imagery, original phrases, emotions bodied forth and subtle patterns discerned in the profuse interplay of individual and world. There is good poetry among the best.
The purpose of this review is not to celebrate the artistic achievements to be found in the anthology, however, but to assess the preconditions of artistic marketability among the contemporary liberal middle class—that is, the preoccupations and anxieties that govern today’s published American poetry and the resolutions toward which that poetry gestures. What we find then is not primarily discrete works of art but a collage of pessimism and escape into irrationality. It is the bankruptcy of an ideology in a period of transition.
Over two-thirds of the seventy-five poets represented in The Best American Poetry 2018 are academics. At least forty-five teach or have taught at colleges or universities while others are students in M.F.A. or Ph.D. programs. This preponderance is the result of Gioia’s selection process, detailed in his preface, in which he reasonably chose to read thousands of poems published in poetry and literary journals published in the US, which themselves overwhelmingly publish the work of academics.
Notably, it was Gioia himself who, in a famous 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?”, recounted and mildly bemoaned the professionalization of poetry. The proliferation of poetry journals through the ‘70s and ‘80s, he observed, was a direct market response to the dire need of young academics, including teachers of creative writing, to publish. The result was an insular affair in which poets wrote primarily for other poets, and all of those poets were vying for tenure.
“The problem is not that poets teach,” Gioia explained. “The campus is not a bad place for a poet to work. It’s just a bad place for all poets to work. Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform with institutional ones.”
Enter the digital age. In his 2018 preface, Gioia celebrates “the new bohemia,” the democratized literary landscape where aspiring writers can e-publish and where social media “connects people more effectively than any faculty lounge.” At the same time he takes note of the deflating arts budgets and evaporating tenure-track positions of today’s academy, a state of affairs that, he blithely observes, has made baristas and lawyers of the poets.
Gioia also acknowledges “large parts of the population unlikely to participate in academic literary life because they are blocked by poverty, education, language, and race.” His inclusion of “race” in this list of academic disqualifications, however, is a telling, if disoriented, reflex. All American institutions of higher learning discriminate to some extent on the basis of one’s ability to pay for tuition. In 2018, on the other hand, Gioia would have been hard pressed to find one that “blocks” participation in academic literary life on the basis of race.
In any event, while Gioia goes on to praise the popularity of “spoken poetry” and hip hop, he regrets that they are not included in BAP 2018 because “those auditory and performative modes lose impact when transcribed.” It is a strange thing for an editor of a volume of poetry, let alone a poet, to claim. The long and the short of it is that Gioia’s preface presents a confused and confusing mishmash of liberal happy talk, complete with the requisite lauding of “diversity,” “new perspectives and new energy” in the American poetry scene, all the while introducing a volume of mostly ordinary poems in a nearly exhausted vein.
BAP 2018 features poems from some of our more celebrated poets, such as Julia Alvarez, Joy Harjo, former poet laureate Kay Ryan and Gary Snyder. Alvarez and Harjo each contribute an able piece—“American Dreams” and “American Sunrise,” respectively—reminiscences of youthful confrontations with racism. Snyder writes a melancholy meditation on the transience of American culture, “Why California Will Never Be Like Tuscany.”
Ryan’s “Some Transient Addiction to the Useless” valorizes an idealized intransigence in great art. This idea is echoed in Anne Stevenson’s enjoyable “How Poems Arrive,” in which she writes,
But poems, butch or feminine, are vain
And draw their satisfactions from within
These are the satisfactions of form, of “silver els and ms.”
In these few pieces by a set of American poetry’s elder statespersons can be found some of the best writing the anthology has to offer. Taken collectively, one also finds in them the thematic circumference of BAP 2018.
Personal recollection, existential pessimism and some style of idealism characterize BAP ’s celebration of American poetry in ways that reflect not simply “the times” but the current liberal culture from which the poems are produced. It is a culture in crisis, in which an accurate understanding of terminally decayed liberalism’s contradictions and limitations would necessitate the rejection of liberalism itself.
Contemporary American poetry—to call it “bourgeois poetry” would be redundant—cannot transcend the time and conditions of its production any more than speech can transcend language. This poetry, it must be emphasized, is largely a product of the current professoriate, who face enormous pressures to publish, in journals edited by other poet-professors, all of them dependent upon the approval of the academy for their daily bread. This state of affairs, this market, all but guarantees that industry standards, market research and customer service infiltrate the world of poetry.
As a group, the poet-professors also tend to adhere to what passes today for liberalism—a habitual exposure to Democratic Party propaganda, including the anti-democratic tenets of identity politics, criticism of Donald Trump rooted in “human rights” militarism and palace intrigue, and a portrayal of real problems like economic inequality, when they are considered at all, as being just a little less malleable than the weather. It is not surprising that our poets, as middle-class consumers of this propaganda and witnesses to the economic, social and political crumbling of the American empire, should write a poetry of fear, loathing and escapism. But let us place today’s poetry in a broader historical context.
Perhaps the finest poem in the anthology is the posthumous “Finishing Up” by A. R. Ammons. A stanza:
…is more missing than was never enough: I’m sure
many of love’s kinds absolve and heal, but were they passing
rapids or welling stirs: I suppose I haven’t done and seen
enough yet to go, and, anyway, it may be way on the way
before one picks up the track of the sufficient…
Born in 1926, Ammons carried forth the earlier Modernist expansion of the intimate in loose form and free verse, American poetry’s most heavily mined vein for at least the past seventy years. By the 1980s, though it still yielded many sparkling gems (the robust work of Edward Hirsch and Rita Dove come first to mind), this vein had increasingly come to tend toward the preciousness to which it is vulnerable. Formally, the nadir of self-absorption was reached in the ‘80s and ‘90s experimental “language poetry,” an artistic naked emperor if ever there were one. Thematically, the personal lyric can stray into the weeds of self-aggrandizement, amply on display at your local poetry slam.
BAP 2018 is largely a selection of such intimate lyrics, voiced in the first person, often narrative and realist in style. A few are beautiful (notable examples are Nausheen Eusuf’s “Pied Beauty” and “Sono” by Suji Kwock Kim), many are good, some merely plausible. Taken as a whole, the first-person poetry in BAP, even that by relatively young poets, evokes younger days and attempts a reconciliation with death, positioning the poet in a present both reliably tranquil and, at the same time, tottering on the brink of extinction. It is to be expected, perhaps, that the culture that has made a common suffix of -pocalypse should generate a poetry of last things.
The poem that most explicitly juxtaposes nostalgia with pessimism is R. Nemo Hill’s “The View From the Bar,” which opens,
So much of the coin of youth was spent
while leaning here, with smoke and brew,
my back half-turned to face a view
beyond this room’s brief consequence.
This “view beyond” is of the bar’s television set, which, like the Nietzschean sea, “holds translucent evidence/of what has come again to pass.” It seems that the “weight and mass” of the bodies in the bar must succumb to the doom of this eternal return, “this screen of calm abstraction.” Hill depicts the patrons,
drinking their sloe-gins and rums,
picking daisies, snorting roses,
practicing Pompeian poses–
at least until the lava comes.
And so, one lives and longs for youth until one dies a death that will make one’s life—that is, history—uncanny. At the same time this death is imagined as communal, a barpocalypse:
For when it comes, we’ll all be frozen,
some on the dance floor, some in the street
The lava is coming to get us, as our personal death but also as some historical malignance that will, it seems, be televised, again. Like Vesuvius, though, its approach will be sudden and catch us unawares. This poem indulges in the irrational to the extent that it renders history uncanny and immutable, a force of nature suffered passively by humanity.
Another poem, this one pernicious, that approaches history from an irrational perspective is Jacqueline Osherow’s “Tilia cordata.” The title is the Latin name for the linden tree. The poet has a linden, an aromatic tree when in flower, in her yard and is surprised and unnerved to encounter the scent of linden on a visit to a park in Darmstadt:
I—unhinged already—was undone,
as if the trees themselves were in collusion
The source of Osherow’s distress (in her biographical entry she acknowledges the poem as autobiographical) is her very presence as a Jew in Germany. Osherow’s recorded feelings are certainly understandable, and the reader is sympathetic toward her disorientation upon visiting Germany. These are emotional responses, and their representation in poetry is one of the tasks of art. Far more problematic, however, is that the poem, which also undertakes a distanced reflection upon these emotional responses, ultimately equivocates on the implied issue of an inherent barbarism in the German people and language. In Osherow’s choice in the poem to conjoin blood and land is the rejection by an educated adult—a professor at the University of Utah—of a historical, rational understanding of fascism and the horrific irrationality of Nazism.
Amid the vaguely-grounded pessimism and irrational sentimentality, the question arises whether BAP 2018 offers any historically informed awareness of the immense class conflict that is taking place all around us. Unfortunately, this official anthology of the state of American poetry provides no glimpses of an art energized by the accelerating struggle of workers and the optimism that struggle portends. That poetry will come in time. BAP does, however, include a few poems that protest, if too little, current objective conditions.
The most trenchant and moving of such poems is Alexandra Lytton Regalado’s “La Mano,” dedicated to “the more than 60,000 children from Central America who cross the border unaccompanied.” The poem, set in San Salvador, tells of “a flock of wild parakeets” coming to roost outside a family’s window and of the young son’s response to the birds.
We are living in tumultuous times. Global capitalism has entered into profound crisis, imperialist nation-states are on a dangerous collision course, and workers worldwide—from striking teachers unions and autoworkers in the US and plantation workers in Sri Lanka, to workers in Matamoros, Mexico, and the Yellow Vest movement in France—are emerging as an increasingly self-conscious class against their employers, their union misleaders, and their governments. American poetry seems to register these historical realities only obscurely, when at all, but this situation cannot persist. Already the liberalism of the professors is in crisis, and at the fork in the road between socialism and barbarism the irrationality of identity politics and self-absorbed escapism will be exposed for the selfish, reactionary phenomena they have always been.
It is impossible to predict the characteristics of the poetry that will escape the conceptual confines of today’s academic milieu and reflect these developments. It may even emerge in the form of the personal lyric. In any event, there is reason to be optimistic about “the best American poetry” of the future.