Book Reviews

The Best American Poetry 2018: A Review

"The poetry scene isn't a cemetery; it's a crowded, noisy maternity ward."

Dana Gioia does not fawn over esoteric poetry. He wants and writes poetry that his parents would like, or that might affect anyone crossing the street. And we find such poems in “The Best American Poetry 2018,” for which Gioia served as editor. Within the collection, we all can enter Brendan Constantine’s The Opposites Game when he writes: “The opposite of a gun is wherever you point it.” And Hieu Minh Nguyen’s B.F.F. is so populist that it was originally published on Buzzfeed. Gioia does not believe that poetry should exist in an aristocratic or academic bubble. He writes in his introduction:

“Thirty years ago the typical young poet taught in the university. Today’s new generation is more likely to be living in a big city and employed outside of academia.”

Gioia’s selections defy stereotypes and the “unspoken rules” about successful modern poetry. Though you can find free verse throughout, many of the poems rhyme. Ernest Hilbert opens Mars Ultor with: “Before they had a fleet / Romans rowed on logs / As they prepared to meet.” Some assert religious belief, as when Michael Robbins shares in Walkman:

“My mom had been born again,

to my chagrin. But lately I find

I do believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker

of heaven and earth:

and in Jesus Christ,

his Son our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Ghost.”

Dick Davis’ A Personal Sonnet is, well, a sonnet (Gioia notes a “surge in sonnets” among today’s poets). Though many poems require effort to unpack, you’ll find none of them are utterly incomprehensible, as one might find in more academic or “serious” literary journals.

But as Gioia glories in a revival of classic styles and themes, he also praises changes in the world of poetry. He shares in his introduction that he might have included spoken word and performance poetry, if such forms could be sufficiently presented in a book. And he encourages the use of mediums such as YouTube to develop and communicate poetry in the modern age. Michael Dirda seems right, that Gioia’s mantra might be: “Let a hundred flowers blossom.” Gioia cautions against letting ourselves believe that poetry has settled in to any one mainstream:

“There is no mainstream at all-only more alternatives. The best metaphor is not death but birth. The poetry scene isn’t a cemetery; it’s a crowded, noisy maternity ward.”

This collection is an introduction to that ward. I highly recommend a visit.

Though the entire collection deserves a reading, my favorites include:

  • “Miscarriage,” by Allison Adair
  • “The Opposites Game” by Brendan Constantine
  • “Mars Ultor” by Ernest Hilbert
  • “Using Black to Paint Light: Walking Through a Matisse Exhibit Thinking about the Arctic and Matthew Henson” by Robin Coste Lewis
  • “B.F.F.” by Hieu Minh Nguyen
  • “Silver Spoon Ode” by Sharon Olds
  • “Happy Birthday, Herod” by Aaron Poochigian
  • “Walkman” by Michael Robbins
  • “A Violence” by Nicole Sealey
  • “Grief Runs Untamed” by Agnieszka Tworek

You can order a copy here.

Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

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