Book Review: Best American Poetry 2010

I’ve always enjoyed the Best American Poetry series – I’m pretty sure my friend, journalist John Reed, turned me onto them when I lived in Brussels in the mid-90s. Since then, I’ve inconsistently picked them up, but when I have, I appreciate the job that the guest editor does (this year was Amy Gerstler) of sifting through thousands of poems, in journals, books and online, and choosing a ‘best selection’. Some years, I am more excited, others more challenged; I’m not sure what kind of objectivity I bring to the process since I’m probably also affected by the particular mood that I’m in the season I read it. What I’ve consistently enjoyed is reading the biographies of the poets, and their statements about the poems that have been chosen. Some poets choose not to comment, some give a face value response, others are more poetically allusive.

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I liked this year’s collection. A few perhaps I was less engaged with, or didn’t understand, but nothing to make me notice. More near the end of the collection did a few poems make me stop completely, and make note of how much I liked them, for example, Carl Philips’ “Heaven and Earth” and G.C. Waldrep’s “Their Faces Shall Be as Flames”. But there were certainly others that I enjoyed. I enjoyed the contrast between the economy of a poem like Todd Boss’ “My Dog Has No Nose” and a prose poem such as by Thomas Sayers Ellis – I’m often not so engaged by prose poetry, but this treatise, “Presidential Blackness”, is fantastic, for some reason I was reminded by this of some of the passages from Angels in America.

I like trying to make some sense out of the whole. Nearly everyone in the anthology is a university or college professor, though there is a musician, a caterer, and a fine arts consultant and researcher. Most poets I’d say are in their early forties, a few in their thirties, and many older, established writers. It was good to read poets I’m familiar with – Sharon Olds, Charles Simic, Louise Gl├╝ck, Gerald Stern – and be introduced to others. There seemed to be a lot of sonnets, but also many poets working with traditional forms and metres. I think Corinne Lee’s selection might have been the only poem I’d consider experimental. Most poems were very accessible. I find it quite exciting to read criticism like that of Anis Shivani who in his dissection of the 2009 anthology has enough knowledge of contemporary poetry and a clear viewpoint on what good poetry should be to offer meaty commentary on what he reads. Me, I’m a much more casual reader, and lesser informed. In that way, I don’t necessarily read the BAP series to be able to offer critique, but just to catch up on what’s happening. For someone who writes poetry, even if it’s not the style of poetry he or she writes, I think it’s a good thing to do.

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