‘The Best of the Best American Poetry’: An embarrassment of riches


I’ve got mixed feelings about National Poetry Month — not because I don’t love poetry but because I do. If you ask me, every month should be poetry month, and the idea of setting one apart feels a bit like cultural condescension, as if we were paying lip service to an art that we all know ought to be important, even though, deep down, we fear it’s not.

And yet, poetry is important, as a form of expression that does (or can) stand outside narrative, that makes meaning through language, that connects us through the music of words. At its best, it’s my favorite form: concise, cutting, to the point, offering snapshots of the inner life, like bits of consciousness unfurled.

For proof of that, we need look no further than “The Best of the Best American Poetry” (Scribner: 322 pp., $18 paper), a compendium of the 100 “best” poems published in the “Best American Poetry” anthology series over the last 25 years.


Normally, I’m wary of these “best of” designations, but the “Best American Poetry” collections are terrific precisely because they recognize the limitations of the game they’re playing, the idea that any group of poems can encapsulate the breadth of all the poetry that’s been written in America in a given year.

“The Best of the Best American Poetry” encodes that conflict into its very marrow. “An intimidating task,” guest editor Robert Pinsky puts it, describing the rigors of selecting 100 poems from the 1,875 that have thus far been published in the series — although Sisyphean might be a better word.

Either way, the strength of the book (which Pinsky compiled with the aid of series editor David Lehman) is its sense of subjectivity, the way these poems illustrate their editor’s aesthetic, and in so doing, tell us something of how poetry operates in the world.

My favorite stuff here is the most direct, or, maybe, the most interior: Margaret Atwood’s “Bored,” which traces the way childhood ennui can lead to adult curiosity; the long excerpt from A.R. Ammons’ “Garbage,” with its implicit sense of what our human strivings add up to, even as the poet goads himself toward greatness (“Boy! Are you writing that great poem / the world’s waiting for: don’t you know you // have an unaccomplished mission unaccomplished; / someone somewhere may be at this very moment // dying for the lack of what W.C. Williams says / you could (or somebody could) be giving: yeah?”).

In “Salutations to Fernando Pessoa,” Allen Ginsberg compares himself to the Portuguese writer, using humor, bluster — “Everytime I read Pessoa,” he writes, “I think / I’m better than he is I do the same thing / more extravagantly — he’s only from Portugal / I’m American greatest Country in the world” — to establish a deeper lineage that resolves in a shared debt to Walt Whitman.

Tony Hoagland’s “In a Quiet Town by the Sea” begins with two men discussing infidelity, but really, it’s about the weight of longing in a world where “[t]here was no one sleeping / who did not dream of being touched.”

These are poems that take the personal and make it universal, not by grand statements but by specific observation, building a common vision out of the very things that hold us apart. Nowhere is this more vividly rendered than in Denise Duhamel’s “How It Will End,” in which a husband and wife watch another couple fighting, only to take sides themselves.

“I’m angry at him for seeing glee in their situation,” the poem’s narrator tells us, to which her husband replies, “You never even give the guy a chance and you’re always nagging / so how can he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?”

A deft elision there, from second to third person, blurring the border between observer and observed. And that’s what happens with us also, as we witness all the layers of the conflict, becoming complicit in every bit of turmoil the poem records.


The discreet charm of Noon

Maged Zaher’s out-to-lunch poem

Yannis Ritsos and the poetry of witness