Contemporary Poetry Review: “The Best American Poetry 2018”

NATALIE PATTERSON

“The Best American Poetry 2018”
Dana Gioia, Guest Editor
David Lehman, Series Editor

In an essay published in The Atlantic in 1991, poet Dana Gioia asked, “Can Poetry Matter?”  Now, over twenty-five years later, he serves as guest editor for the 2018 release of “The Best American Poetry,” a series that has, since 1988, proven to readers of contemporary American poetry that yes, poetry can and does matter—especially when it reflects the times in which it is written.  Every year, a renowned poet is chosen as guest editor to compile a book of the year’s best poetry. Each release is different, colored with the style and tastes of the new editor.

Normally, I like to review debut collections by minority poets, but this month I would like to draw attention to this vital American series.  I talk a lot about contemporary poetry, and about how important it is to read what is being written today. Too often, though, people will express a distaste for poetry that stems from their experiences with it in high school—with the verse of dead white men taught through a purely analytical, emotionless lens.  

Sometimes, people will voice an interest in contemporary poetry, but say that they have no clue where to begin. In response, I always recommend picking up a copy of “The Best American Poetry.”  No matter the year or guest editor, it is representative of much of the written poetry that is making an impact on the country, and tends to include a mix of established and emerging poets.

In his introduction, Gioia, currently Poet Laureate of California, considers the present readership of poetry in America.  Statistically speaking, it seems as though fewer and fewer people are reading poetry these days and the art is beginning to lose its relevance, especially among the younger generation.  However, these statistical reports rarely include poetry readings or survey people under eighteen, nor do they account for the impact that modern technology has on poetry, as well as other factors that defy traditional views of poetry readership.  Look to slam poetry, YouTube readings, and other media that enhance the written word—in truth, Gioia notes, poetry is thriving, and these new forms of sharing it “exist as alternative approaches to the same art.”

Gioia also mentions how deeply the younger generation of poets has been influenced by the poetry of hip-hop, rap, and other modern cultural influences.  (I personally recommend, for example, the 2015 anthology “The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop.”)

“So don’t panic,” writes Gioia, “Poetry is not in danger, at least no more than usual.  New forms of poetry don’t eliminate established forms. They do, however, influence and modify them.  Culture is not binary but dialectical…. All styles are possible, all approaches open, and everyone is invited.”  

It is easy to see the influence of contemporary culture on the poems that Gioia has selected.  Many of them experiment with traditional conventions such as rhyme and prescribed structures like sonnet form, but with new rhythms and subjects and twists, breaking rules and reinventing the poem itself.  The poems muse on everything from race and ethnicity to art, grief, family, love, and the nature of language.

Consider, for instance, a personal favorite of mine: “Using Black to Paint Light: Walking Through a Matisse Exhibit Thinking about the Arctic and Matthew Henson,” by Robin Coste Lewis. The poem is part meditation on color, light, race, yearning and the body, part ekphrasis engaging with the paintings of Matisse and part intellectual wondering about the life of Matthew Henson, an African American explorer who spent decades voyaging in the Arctic.  These elements emerge with startling beauty and cohesion in the poem, which mixes prose and verse forms, making it feel like an epic in seven pages. The personal, lyric nature of the poem and the experimentation with form, as well as its unique inspiration, reflect the modernity of the book. And Lewis’ sheer creative power shines through in every line: “Choose something dark. Choose a dark line to hang above you. If you want to see what light can do, always choose the dark” (58).

One of the best things about “The Best American Poetry” is the notes that the poets offer on their own work.  Of “Using Black to Paint Light,” Lewis says, “I had obsession on my mind. Matisse, Henson, and I formed a love triangle, and what we had/have in common, what their lives continue to teach me is that passion, as an aesthetic tool, is a liberator” (164).

This passion is a vein that runs through the whole book.  Sometimes funny, often heartbreaking, frequently hopeful and always uniquely modern, “The Best American Poetry 2018” does not disappoint, showing the effectiveness of Gioia’s judgment and the persistent relevance of poetry in contemporary society.  Once again I am grateful for the cultural reminder that poetry does, and always will, matter.

Visit the “Best American Poetry” online at blog.bestamericanpoetry.com.

Is there a new release in poetry that you would like to see reviewed?  Contact me at natalie.patterson@salem.edu with your ideas!

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