The Best American Poetry 2022 (The Best American Poetry series)
Trying to determine the best of anything is difficult. What are the criteria? Who is making the decisions? Who is always expected to be among the best? Poetry at times is like every other food on the table. People will eat and love what they want while disregarding the rest. If someone then conducts a poll about what’s the best restaurant in a city, it might just be the last place you ate or the last poem you read.
There is a way one should approach the Best American Poetry series. First credit should be given to the general editor David Lehman. Lehman is a poetry sleuth and edited the The Oxford Book of American Poetry. His vision should be applauded. The series began back in 1988. No surprise that the first guest editor was John Ashbery. I’m certain if Frank O’Hara was alive he might have been Lehman’s first choice. Over the years the poets he selected to edit this series represent a roster of literary all-stars: Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, Harold Bloom Rita Dove Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Muldoon, Robert Pinsky, Tracy K. Smith, Dana Gioia, Edward Hirsch, and Amy Gerstler.
For 2022 he selected Matthew Zapruder, who teaches in the MFA program and English department at St. Mary’s College of California. From 2016 to 2017 he had the annually rotating position of editor of the poetry column for The New York Times Magazine. One can therefore assume Zapruder reads quite a number of poems each year.
Upon picking up The Best American Poetry 2022 one should first check the list of magazines where the poems were first published. Here we see (often every year) some of the same magazines listed. Where are the best poems coming from? It’s good to see geographical representation: The Adirondack Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Mississippi Review, The Missouri Review, Northwest Review , Paris Review, The Virginia Review, and The Yale Review. Note all the “reviews” listed. How many of these publications are the type of journals people coming out of MFA programs desire to publish in? Might we consider these publications the literary mainstream? In the future how many online publications will be listed in the back of future collections of The Best American Poetry?
For example a few pages into Zapruder’s choices we come across “Vows” by E. C. Belli. It begins:
“I’ve been cradling the heavy cat in the half-dark
For an hour
She lies how I make her feel
And I like her—
I was mean to the dog
And now he’s dead . . .”
A dead dog will stop a dog lover and perhaps even someone who loves poetry.
Belli’s work is from Poem-a-Day. One can hear the hum coming from this poem as it speeds toward the general reader. Is it a really good poem? Is it the best one can find in 2022?
In the opening paragraph of his introduction Matthew Zapruder tells us what’s coming before we place our order.
“If you are reading this and don’t read much poetry, or feel uncertain in relation to it, you are more than welcome here. Maybe you are browsing in a bookstore, or have been assigned this book for a class, or have received it as a gift. Please know that I chose these poems thinking of you.”
This is an admirable approach to editing a collection of poems. If we were talking about food we would expect carryout even before the pandemic. Might the reader find a milkshake after turning a few pages?
One will find quite a number of poems dealing with death. No surprise here. Our lives the last few years have been restricted; many people separated from their families and loved ones. Death is a writer’s topic, the poet ponders not just loss but the meaning of life. Magruder writes, “Many of our contemporary poems enter into that conflict between the self and the collective—not to resolve it, which would be impossible, but to clarify our position.”
The Best American Poetry 2022 is not a collection of sweets. Many of the poems do not linger in the mouth or want you to read them more than once. Exceptions are “Inaugural” by Jericho Brown, “Marriage” by Cathy Linh Che, “Let Me” by Camille T. Dungy, “Against Death” by Noor Hindi, “Big Clock” by Li-Young Lee, and “Elegy on Fire” by D. A. Powell.
The meat of Magruder’s book can be found in the challenging work of Terrance Hayes and Jason Koo. Koo’s “The Rest Is Silence” is 17 pages. Seldom do we find publications embracing the long poem. So kudos to Copper Nickel for opening the door.
The best thing about The Best American Poetry 2022 is the Contributors’ Notes and Comments at the back of the book. Here we find the writers explaining why they wrote their poems. For the general reader this is a coupon or a meal pass. It’s a ticket of information that is often frowned on in workshops. People are encouraged to stuff their mouths with explanations and ignore the poet in the room. Just experience words and sounds, no need to pause and search for meaning. But hey—everyone loves Google.
The 75 poems in this book are just a slice of the good poetry being written in our country right now. One hungers for more and perhaps a few poems with extra spice or toppings.