As the year draws to a close, many Americans will watch year-end reviews and assess where they and the country stand. The Best American Poetry 2011 provides a slower, more in-depth look at our difficult economic times. Yet as guest editor Kevin Young suggests in his preface, the poems are not just “pieces of time,” they are evidence that “poetry, our most lamented yet longest standing of the arts, has hit back – often by taking the recession head on.”
In some poems, “hitting back” means tackling timely subjects, such as technology, the financial world, or blatant materialism. More often, the writing explores the constant unease and insecurity many Americans feel these days. In “Valediction,” the second poem, Sherman Alexie gives voice to both private and public concerns in these opening lines:
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know
That I could not have convinced you of this,
But these dark times are just like those dark times.
Yes, my sad acquaintance, each dark time is
Indistinguishable from the other dark times.
Yesterday is as relentless as tomorrow.
The poem ends, five couplets later, with: “You were a stranger. You were dark and brief./ And I am humbled by the size of your grief.”
The lingering sense of loss – which colors so much of the collection – reflects both the culture and the concept of writer as witness, where poets feel and report on suffering, but they don’t try to offer consolation, because the times themselves don’t provide much comfort.
Instead, readers are propelled through a kaleidoscope of subjects that typify the contemporary American experience: a decadent, meaningless party in New York City, the ever-changing shape of slang, the complex journey of coffee (and some who drink it), the end of intimate relationships, and the fine line between imagination and reality, to name a few. The writing is edgy and sometimes feels like reality TV.
Yet as Young explains, both the edginess and the grief are central, not superfluous: “For the grieving, the poem is not just a receptacle for private grief – something that I think marks our elegiac age – nor is it just a place for mourning, but the birthplace of a private language. How do we write a public poem about private pain, our age asks? How do we make the private language of grief intelligible to others?”
As the book progresses, the placement of poems helps make the abiding sense of loss more bearable. Every few pages, a poem offers a bit of humor or warmth, as when Denise Duhamel describes a fantasy strip club that involves putting on winter clothes and Alan Feldman expresses gratitude for his family, home, and “for never having strayed very far/ into the wide world.” These poems are like islands where readers can rest before diving back into a culture awash in struggle and change.
Yet even the softer moments offer only a brief respite because, as Jennifer Grotz writes in “Poppies,” sadness touches everything, and
Love is letting the world be half-tamed.
That’s how the rain comes, softly and attentively, then
with unstoppable force….
Most of the writing in "The Best American Poems 2011" is strong, yet readers will likely find themselves asking two questions: “Do I like these poems?” and “How much looking back do I need?” For this reviewer, who has had a rough year, the first answer is, “I admire many of the poems and love several.” The second is, “I need to move forward.”
Sometimes speaking up about injustices – “hitting back” as Young would say – is all we need, or can manage. Yet as 2012 draws closer, the promise of a clean slate and a clean page beckon.
Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.