The Best American Poetry 2019

I used to abhor anthologies but now I find them perfectly suited to my taste, my mood, my attention span(?). These are the best poems of the year, according to Major Jackson this year’s guest editor, a bold statement that invites raised eyebrows. And  of course leads to all sorts of squabbles in the comments/rating system of the book online, people who are pissed not to see more straight white men represented, as if we haven’t had enough of their droning. My own beef is with the ordering system, listing the poems by author’s last name, alphabetical. As someone with a name at the end of the alphabet, I hate this default ordering system. Why not zetabetical, mix it up a bit?

I loved poems from my continued favorite, Ada Limón (Cannibal Woman), along with David Lehman’s It Could Happen to You (I like the idea of taking the anniversary of an event and exploring what else was happening on that day, oh so long ago).

Ilya Kaminsky’s Last Will and Testament, Amy Gerstler’s haunting Update (what life is like after a death), Chen Chen’s I Invite My Parents to a Dinner Party wherein they are advised yet again that he is gay and his boyfriend will be attending and to please be interested in him. Victoria Chang’s Six Obits also great (I’m seeing my trend of loving death as a topic)—for friendships, optimism, affection, clothes, the ocean, and the clock. Margaret Atwood has a delightful Update on Werewolves which allows women to get wild and hairy. Jeffrey McDaniel’s Bio from a Parallel World: “Jeffrey McDaniel runs his hands along the two f’s in his name like elephant tusks and shakes his head like a bucket full of soggy trademarks.” The powerful Head Crack Head Crack from Willie Perdomo. Philip Schultz’s The Women’s March zapped me back in time to 2017 at my own march. And I like the idea of David Wojahn’s Still Life: Stevens’s Wallet on a Key West Hotel Dresser, where he describes the contents of Wallace Stevens’s wallet as he’s at a conference away from his wife.

A Poetry Handbook

Another book I’ve been sipping from for weeks, and one I’ll likely keep reading continuously. I picked up at the Beat Museum, on my list to buy after another poet (Hoagland) called Oliver “the Miss Manners of poetic convention,” so I rose to defend her. This is a helpful book that drills down on technique, inviting students to mimic other writers to try on different styles, to pay attention to SOUND, to the line, whether or not to go for free verse or something more restricted, the role of imagery, tone, voice, the importance of revision.

She recommends consistent writing to allow inspiration to know when to show up. You “promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself—soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes or are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.”

Imagery

“The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely, or anyway that part of the world she has taken for subject. If a poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because she has not stood long enough among the flowers—not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.”

Line length

“The pentameter line is the primary line used by the English poets not for any mysterious reason, but simply because the pentameter line most nearly matches the breath capacity of our English lungs—that is, speaking in English—and thus it is the line most free from any special effect.”

Tone

“In order for the tone of the poem to change, the line had to change. Now a line was needed that would sound and feel not like formal speech but like conversation. What was needed was a line which, when read, would feel as spontaneous, as true to the moment, as talk in the street, or talk between friends in one’s own house…. Speech entered the poem. The poem was no longer a lecture, it was time spent with a friend. Its music was the music of conversation.”

 

Leaves of Grass (1855 edition)

Almost a week of December has slipped away and I’ve only posted one book here, what could I be up to? I’ve been sipping slowly and deliberately at this delicious Whitman concoction for the past few weeks and finally decided to pop it up here, although I don’t think I’m going to ever stop reading it, a few lines a day maybe, briefly considering the effort it would take to memorize some of it, wouldn’t that be divine to be able to summon Uncle Walt’s words at a moment’s notice? So far I’ve only managed to memorize “Washes and razors for foo-foos…. for me, freckles and a bristling beard”—a line that Whitman excised from the “Deathbed” edition of his much-revised poems, which tells you everything you need to know about which version to read (this first one, of course).  This Penguin edition I’m reading has an intro by Malcolm Crowley from 1955 wherein he calls this first edition a “buried masterpiece of American writing” because everyone ignored it before his resurrection I suppose. Walt himself insisted that the 1892 Deathbed edition (a bloated 383 poems instead of the pure 12 included here) was the version he preferred and recommended, but I’m on Crowley’s side with this one.

This version seems more pure, a simple clarity with “no twistified or foggy sentences” as Whitman himself put it. After 1855 he fell under his own spell and thought himself a prophet, puffed up his prose and overedited things into shambles. Crowley calls this period when Whitman was “inflated.”

The only thing I’ve yet to really appreciate is Whitman’s original introduction to the 1855 edition, written after the poems and when he was catching a bit of the puff of himself. It’s 19 pages of blathering that I need to gird myself to go back to, when I’d much rather frolic in the verses themselves. “My words itch at your ears till you understand them.”

Sidenote, not from anything I read in this edition but my own convoluted knowledge of strange things: Whitman’s idea for the cover art (Flowery letters of gold overlaid on green) came after he saw his pal Fannie Fern‘s book cover- Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio (to whom he owed a bit of money that he never repaid, by the by).

 

Illuminations

Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1875), translated by John Ashbery in 2011, is a wonderous thing. I love Ashbery’s word choices and the decision (always wise) to publish the French and English side by side, allowing me to test my rudimentary French skills and roll the words around in my mouth.

In part 5 of the prose poem, Childhood/Enfance, “I am the learned scholar in the dark armchair. Branches and the rain hurl themselves at teh library’s casement window. I am the walker on the great highway through dwarf woods; the murmur of sluices muffles my steps. I gaze for a long time at the melancholy gold laundry of the setting sun.” (la mélancolique lessive d’or du couchant– gorgeous!)

I confess most of my knowledge about Rimbaud comes from The Day on Fire: A Novel Suggested by the Life of Arthur Rimbaud which was excellent.

 

Application for Release from the Dream

My wavering appreciation for Hoagland returned a bit stronger with this 2015 collection of poems. He’s still problematic, of course, but you can tell he’s trying to own up to his white male privilege, even if he gets to wink and nudge his way there: “I probably should not have called my class in feminist literature Books by Girls.” And his strange White Writer poem where he flips the designation, hating to be known as a white writer when he’s so much more.

“There is no single particular noun for the way a friendship, stretched over time, grows thin, then one day snaps with a popping sound.”

“The flaring force of this thing we call identity as if it were a message, a burning coal one carries in one’s mouth for sixty years, for delivery to whom, exactly; to where?”

The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice

Hoagland speaks from beyond the grave with this latest book of essays about poetry focusing on the voice of the writer. “When we hear a distinctive voice in a poem, our full attention is aroused and engaged, because we suspect that here, now, at last, we may learn how someone else does it—that is, how they live, breathe, think, feel, and talk.”

Great example poems in here and he seems to correct his gender imbalance a bit. Another reference to the Czselaw Milosz poem Ars Poetica? with this sentence: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person.”

I did not like the constant reminder after each essay to find corresponding writing exercises at the back of the book, it made it seem dumbed down.

Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft

My crush on Hoagland is crashing and burning, no surprise. I waded through these lectures/essays and noticed a faint whiff of the stench that ubiquitous white male arrogance brings to the table, invariably. At least he’s dead and so won’t be horrified by my change of heart. At one point he calls Mary Oliver “the Miss Manners of poetic convention,” which made my misogynistic spidey senses start tingling. Then I started noticing that most of his examples of poems in the essays were by men, a handful of women sprinkled in. Rage simmered once I reached his treatment of Gertrude Stein; no one is able to refrain from poking fun at her awareness of her own genius.

A few things I did take from slogging through this: fragment is the unit, juxtaposition is the method, collage is the result.

And an introduction to the wonderful Matthea Harvey, whose poem is here:

FIRST PERSON FABULOUS

First Person fumed & fizzed under Third Person’s tongue while Third Person slumped at the diner counter, talking, as usual, to no one.Third Person thought First Person was the toilet paper trailing from Third Person’s shoe, the tiara Third Person once wore in a dream to a funeral. First Person thought Third Person was a layer of tar on a gorgeous pink nautilus, a foot on a fountain, a tin hiding the macaroons and First Person was that nautilus, that fountain, that pile of macaroons. Sometimes First Person broke free on first dates (with a Second Person) & then there was the delicious rush of “I this” and “I that” but then no phone call & for weeks Third Person wouldn’t let First Person near anyone. Poor First Person. Currently she was exiled to the world of postcards (having a lovely time)—& even then that beast of a Third Person used the implied “I” just to drive First Person crazy. She felt like a television staring at the remote, begging to be turned on. She had so many things she wanted to say. If only she could survive on her own, she’d make Third Person choke on herself & when the detectives arrived & all eyes were on her, she’d cry out, “I did it! I did it! Yes, dahlings, it was me!

Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God: Poems

More goodness from Hoagland in his final book of poetry, poems about oncology waiting rooms and realizing things are better than expected, “I have outlasted the voluntary numbness I required in order to remain alive.” Letters to his father, “He is the language that you use when you speak harshly to yourself, trying to hide the fact that you are lost.” In Moment in the Conversation, after a woman drops a casual reference to her husband and realizing he’s probably been leaning in too closely, “Life used to be a whole subdivision of crazy possibilities but now it’s just a few quiet rooms on the second floor in the economy motel near the edge of town.” In Trying to Keep You Happy, I love this image: “On summer days, the southwest breeze will carry the drowsy mumbling of bees out of the corn and grapevines across the kitchen window sill where in a little tray above the sink the bar of soap your hands have touched repeatedly is waiting to be touched again.” In Frog Song, comparing the croak of bullfrogs to the voices of dead fathers, “at a certain hour of the night they begin to speak with disproportionate satisfaction from the warm porridge of the swamp, where they believe they are geniuses and kings, having discovered an unexpected gift for throat-singing, and an ability to love themselves they were denied in human life… Father—go take your place among your kind, content in the oily moistness of your skin, replete in your ability to catch the quickest bugs. I would have loved you more, if only I had known you were a frog—amphibious, mottled, and small-brained; not intimate by nature; preferring to stay half-immersed below the water line; so much a part of nature’s plan you are oblivious to it.”

And from The Third Dimension, this, after comparing himself to Odysseus:

I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea
to go through life hidden.
It must be something I picked up while traveling.
Clearly it has something to do with self-protection.
I just have this preference for keeping the edges blurry.

The only thing that confused me was the inclusion of the poem Playboy in here again, it was in his 2009 chapbook, Little Oceans, but nothing else was repeated.

 

 

 

 

 

From another book of poems that I skimmed but am not putting up here because I can’t stop thinking about it:

What Narcissism Means to Me: Poems

This 2003 collection contains a few of the poems people were chattering about recently that drew me to Hoagland. My initial flurry of swoon is waning a bit, as it is want to do, I can never sustain a writerly crush for long on contemporaries for some reason. I’m a bit put out by his weird racist-adjacent writing, rooting for the white girl in the tennis match against the strong black woman, anti-rap music in another. But then I come around again with poems like Hate Hotel: “Sometimes I like to think about the people I hate. I take my room at the Hate Hotel, and I sit and flip through the heavy pages of the photographs, the rogue’s gallery of the faces I loathe. My lamp of resentment sputters twice, then comes on strong, filling the room with its red light. That’s how hate works—it thrills you and kills you with its deep heat. Sometimes I like to sit and soak in the Jacuzzi of my hate, hatching my plots…”

Another favorite: Reasons to Survive November:

Little Oceans

Hello to a new poet crush who I read all the way home from the library, cackling with delight and reading poems quietly aloud as I strolled, only pausing to look up at intersections where death machines (e.g. cars) lurked. Someone mentioned Tony Hoagland in my digital world today, and, in need of a brisk walk, I hied down to the main library to scoop up his work.

His phrases are to die for, “swinging her credit card like a scythe,” “the guy on the rowing machine who is stroking across a cardiovascular ocean.”

A few hits:

The Uses of the Body

Deborah Landau’s book of poems from 2015 sparkles, flashes of light from the language that catch the tips of my eyes before twisting me around, dizzy. Her description of the chaos of a summer, beginning with a wedding, a death mourned in Paris, a birth, a relocation from LA to New York. An entire lifetime captured in a slim, bursting volume of poetry.

Meditations in an Emergency

Frankie soothes me with his 1957 book of poems. Gems include For Grace, After a Party (Grace Hartigan) and the eponymous Meditations in an Emergency.

For Grace:

You do not always know what I am feeling.
Last night in the warm spring air while I was
blazing my tirade against someone who doesn’t interest / me, it was love for you that set me / afire, / and isn’t it odd? for in rooms full of / strangers my most tender feelings /
writhe and / bear the fruit of screaming. Put out your hand, / isn’t there
an ashtray, suddenly, there? beside / the bed? And someone you love enters the room / and says wouldn’t / you like the eggs a little / different today? / And when they arrive they are / just plain scrambled eggs and the warm weather / is holding.

Blue Iris: Poems and Essays

A great collection of poetry and brief essays by Mary Oliver that I found while in the “O”s of the poetry section recently. Two favorites:

Black Oaks

Okay, not one can write a symphony, or a dictionary,

or even a letter to an old friend, full of remembrance
and comfort.

Not one can manage a single sound though the blue jays
carp and whistle all day in the branches, without
the push of the wind.

But to tell the truth after a while I’m pale with longing
for their thick bodies ruckled with lichen

and you can’t keep me from the woods, from the tonnage

of their shoulders, and their shining green hair.

Today is a day like any other: twenty-four hours, a
little sunshine, a little rain.

Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from
one boot to another — why don’t you get going?

For there I am, in the mossy shadows, under the trees.

And to tell the truth I don’t want to let go of the wrists
of idleness, I don’t want to sell my life for money,

I don’t even want to come in out of the rain.

 

and Blue Iris

Now that I’m free to be myself, who am I?

Can’t fly, can’t run, and see how slowly I walk.

Well, I think, I can read books.

“What’s that you’re doing?”
the green-headed fly shouts as it buzzes past.

I close the book.

Well, I can write down words, like these, softly.

“What’s that you’re doing?” whispers the wind, pausing
in a heap just outside the window.

Give me a little time, I say back to its staring, silver face.
It doesn’t happen all of a sudden, you know.

“Doesn’t it?” says the wind, and breaks open, releasing
distillation of blue iris.

And my heart panics not to be, as I long to be,
the empty, waiting, pure, speechless receptacle.

Lunch Poems

The beauty of shopping at the library is to stumble on old friends when picking up new ones. While I was in the 811.54’s fetching Sharon Olds, I spied Frank’s lunch poems and even though I’ve read them before (but somehow not catalogued here) they made me giddy as I walked out with them at lunchtime into the sunshine. Hayes Valley never saw me smile so much. Maybe it’s coming back to Frank after knowing about his closeness to Grace Hartigan, after learning more about his role in the art scene in the 50s/60s, knowing that it was to his desk at MOMA he was returning from all those lunch breaks he records. The poems swirl and dance and themes recur (Iroquois, construction hats, Lana Turner [“oh Lana Turner we love you get up”], Pierre Reverdy) “Everything suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of a Thursday.” “I had a teacher one whole summer who never told me anything and it was wonderful” and “I read what you read/ you do not read what I read/ which is right, I am the one with the curiosity/ you read for some mysterious reason/ I read simply because I am a writer” One of my favs is Personal Poem, “but now I’m happy for a time and interested”… leading me to scratch my head when trying to figure out what the poet’s walk in SF was (we don’t like Henry James so much we like Herman Melville we don’t want to be in the poets’ walk in San Francisco).

One Secret Thing

I had not read this collection of poems by Sharon Olds but my sister had just replaced a book at her library in the display I’d suggested books for, and so I trudged down to the library to discover what it was I’d supposedly recommended (I’d previously enjoyed her poems in The Father). I was a bit unimpressed until I got to the last section of the collection, the eponymous One Secret Thing, and staggered by her descriptions of her dying and then dead mother, her application of vaseline to dried lips.”The secret was how deeply I did not want to touch inside her, and how much the act was an act of escape, my last chance to free myself.” She crawls into the hospital bed sobbing, her mother tilted up “eyes closed, mouth open,” and then is there for her last hour, the death rattle described as a gasp forced in then quiet, then a sign of relief. “I felt as if she had always wanted to escape and now she had escaped.”…. “my mother’s dying was like an end of life on earth, some end of water and moisture salt and sweet, and vapor, till only that still, ocher moon shone, in the room, mouth open, no song.” …. “It was like walking away from someone who is drowning in inches of water—and I’d bent beside her, and called to the morphine to drown her, she had lain face up in the cloud of it lowered like a pool to her face. It was time. It was past midnight, the air of the quiet town was wild with fresh salt sea and pine. Never again. Always. Never again. Always.”