John Ashbery, who died Sept. 3 at age 90 , left an indelible mark on American poetry. His avant-garde approach stretched, twisted and redefined the concept of poetry. In 1976 he won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for his collection "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror." Now, with the publication of Ashbery: Collected Poems 1991-2000 (The Library of America), edited by Mark Ford, readers can delve into the seven books Ashbery published mid-career, when his writing was moving in new directions. The collection opens with his monumental book-length poem "Flow Chart" (1991), orchestral in its span and scope as Ashbery explores his thought process and the collective experience of everyday life, which we know "is so busy, but a larger activity shrouds it, and this is something/we can never feel, except /occasionally,/in small signs/put up to warn us." Other sections feature shorter, tighter pieces that highlight some of his interests — opera, French poetry, the artist Henry Darger — and demonstrate Ashbery's tremendous range as a poet who masterfully combined the mundane and the dreamlike. Along the way, the poems offer hints about how to read them, as in "I Found Their Advice," from the book "Hotel Lautreamont": "When you hear the language/ (not the spirit of the language) it unfolds like a shelf/ just to be equal with the level you have risen to./ A change takes place."
The Best American Poetry 2017, edited by Natasha Trethewey (Scribner), former U.S. poet laureate, features many of the field's biggest names, including Ashbery, Mary Jo Bang, Billy Collins, Robert Pinsky, Kevin Young and Matthew Zapruder. The poems, ordered alphabetically by author, have a wonderful cohesion and flow, as if each contributes to a larger narrative about life today. Some take on topical subjects, such as President Trump's election and political unrest on college campuses. Others grapple with more-private struggles, such as a father and son who share few commonalities, an oncologist who pleads with the Holy Father to let his aunt die because he can't stand to see her in pain, a woman who wants to pray for her daughter's safety yet can't because she does not trust God. A few poems focus on love or the natural world and offer glimpses of beauty and hope. Yet for most of the writers here, life is poignant because it is fragile and full of ambivalence, as Maggie Smith explains in "Good Bones," where she describes a world that is "at least/ fifty percent terrible, and that's a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children," because "I am trying / to sell them the world." While readers may question some of the selections — an annual sport with this series — most will find much that resonates, including the insightful author notes at the back of the anthology.
On the longlist for this year's National Book Award, Don't Call Us Dead (Graywolf) by Danez Smith opens with a deeply moving sequence in which the speaker envisions an afterlife for all of the black men and boys who have been shot and killed by police. In that "unpopular heaven," each victim is reborn in a land where "there's no language/for officer or law, no color to call white" and there is "no need for geography/ now, we are safe everywhere." Smith, a performance poet who has won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, among other honors, then takes aim at the racism and inequities in America that make many black people fear for their safety on a daily basis. Smith, who identifies with neither gender, also writes about sex, desire and the HIV diagnosis that resulted after one lover came over "& then he left/but he stayed." As this stunning collection unfolds, the speaker weaves together personal sickness with societal ills, wondering "just how/ will I survive the little/ cops running inside/ my veins." These pieces pulse with the rhythms and assertiveness one expects from poetry slams. They also demand that people understand why the speaker wants to leave Earth "to find a land where my kin can be safe."
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.