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.
Edited by Dana Gioia. Series editor, David Lehman
Scribner. 201 pp. Paperback, $18.99
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