Poetry Review — Best American Poetry 2018

“A poem is an interruption of silence, whereas prose is a continuation of noise.”
Billy Collins

Best American Poetry 2018 edited by Dana Gioia is this years edition of David Lehman’s yearly poetry anthology. Gioia is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning poet and former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He received a B.A. and an M.B.A. from Stanford University and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Gioia has published four full-length collections of poetry, as well as eight chapbooks.

This years edition features seventy-five poets as well as a short biography of each. Lehman opens the collection with his state of poetry address. The New Yorker still publishes poetry. David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, explains:

Poetry is arguably, in some compressed and magical fashion, the highest form of expression, the greatest devotion we have to our most intricate invention, language itself.

That pretty much explains poetry and its importance to language and expression. Even so, poetry seems to have lost the common reader and many uncommon readers. Poetry seems to be on the fringe of literature even among those who attend universities for degrees in literature. I am surprised at the number of people in the field who have not read major poets. Like Lehman, I have also become concerned at the number of “internet sensations” who have published “poetry” in the form of short platitudes or trite cliches. Perhaps, like Lehman hopes, these are gateways to real poetry, but they seem more likely to be saying “I would love poetry if it were not poetry.”

This collection, as Gioia mentions, contains a wide variety of poetry: prose poetry, sonnets, free verse, but no internet sensations. The internet has skewed the popularity of poetry. YouTube readings reach millions of people instead of twenty sitting at a coffee shop reading. Poetry Slams and other events see many more people online than in person. Poetry is getting out, but not always in the traditional means. The poetry section at a Barnes and Noble is smaller than the particle physics section (not really, but close). Traditional poetry media seems to be fading. Poetry magazine has two apps. One that has the magazine and another with a poetry database and a fun “find a poem” feature. Jennifer Benka at the Academy of American Poets emails out daily poems. Poetry is still getting out, but it may not always be in book form. Television has even picked up poetry. Rugged Sheriff Longmire read John Donne, and Breaking Bad used Walt Whitman’s “When I heard The Learn’d Astronomer.” Apple and Volvo have turned to poetry in their advertisements.

Not all is good though. Universities are churning out advanced degrees but not hiring. Adjunct positions are replacing tenured positions to save money. Even so, poets are adapting. No longer are new poets the young professors but baristas, bookstore clerks, professionals, and people from all other walks of life. Technology has allowed more people to publish outside of academia, and social media helps get the word out to a vast audience. Poetry is not dying but merely adapting to the new environment.

This year’s collection presents Gioia’s favorite poems. The poetry is varied and even contains a haiku-like poem — Joyce Clement’s “Birds Punctuate the Days.” Dick Davis presents “A Personal Sonnet,” keeping alive the old form of poetry. David Manson’s “First Christmas in the Village” presents imagery and new experiences in a traditional form. Mike Owens rounds out the collection by taking on social and mental health issues in his “Sad Math.”

What is lacking in this year’s collection is a clear-cut theme except, perhaps, the variety of poetry itself. The poetry is arranged alphabetically by the poet’s name and not by topic or form; there is no build up or a traditional closing poem that helps connect the collection together. All the poems in the collection were new to me, and with the variety, I can say not all of them were equally liked in form or content. This year’s selection was made special by the insight given by both Lehman and Gioia and the poetry used to support their premise. Best American Poetry 2018 is a win for American poetry.

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