The Best American Poetry 2019
Major Jackson, Guest Editor
David Lehman, Series Editor
Though the question, “What is the best poetry in America?” is virtually impossible to answer, the Best American Poetry series seeks nonetheless to compile some of the finest American poems in one volume each year, edited by a different renowned poet. 2019 sees American poet and professor Major Jackson stepping up to the plate to offer his meticulously selected picks in an edition that features beloved poets like Leonard Cohen, Li-Young Lee, Sharon Olds and Margaret Atwood (who, notably, is Canadian), as well as younger poets Morgan Parker, Ada Limón, Chen Chen and Ocean Vuong, among others.
The Best American Poetry series is interesting because the selection, though always including famous names, varies widely each year depending on the taste of the guest editor; inevitably, I find some volumes more enjoyable than others (2016 is a favorite, edited by Edward Hirsch). Again, it all comes down to personal taste—for example, 2018, edited by Dana Gioia who is noted for his frequently formal writing, included a high number of sonnets. This, of course, begs the question: who’s to say which American poems are the “best”? Should selection be entirely based on the guest editor’s particular palate, or should it be approached with a degree of objectivity, taking into account poetic technique, subject matter, and reception by critics and readers?
However, this is not to say that my opinions of the poems were completely out of alignment with Jackson’s. Poems like “America Will Be” by Joshua Bennett, “Six Obits” by Victoria Chang and “A Brief History of the Future Apocalypse” by Rebecca Lindenberg, among many others, reflect not only the concerns and obsessions of American poets and readers but also the diversity of American writing (and the diversity of Jackson’s choices in particular), which orbits every conceivable subject in every possible form. One of the greatest pleasures in opening any copy of the Best American Poetry is turning the page to a poem and seeing a wildly different one on the next. In fact, I often recommend the series to people who say they don’t know poetry and don’t know where to begin with it. Approaching the subject of contemporary verse can be overwhelming and perhaps off-putting to some, but this series is a wonderful way to get started.
The guest editor’s introduction essay is always thought-provoking, and Jackson’s is no different. In it, he contemplates the nature of poetry in the context of our society, quoting Czeslaw Milosz’s definition of poetry as “the passionate pursuit of the Real.” Jackson writes that poetry “works to maintain the sovereignty of language against abusive and corruptive rhetoric that breeds hatred—like much of what we experience today in our political sphere. . . What we seek in poetry is ourselves beyond the inarticulateness, silence, and immeasurable mystery that define human existence. Poems work to free us of this tyranny.”
Later in his essay, he adds, “Whether as a mode of confession or a mode of inquiry, poetry grants significance to human life. . . reading poetry yields the simple pleasure of language outside normal usage and the chance of encountering the stark voice of a sole individual on its way to blessed enlightenment.”
Readers, I will admit that I did not adore all of Major Jackson’s selections of the best American poems. But that’s just me, and like all art, it’s a matter of taste. I do, however, reaffirm my belief in the existence of the Best American Poetry series, which serves to remind us of the power of poetry and its ability to reflect all Americans, to define and shape our lives, and to reflect the sheer diversity of the world in which we live.
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