The Best American Poetry of 2019, ed. Major Jackson 2019

David Lehman has edited this annual series which began in 1988.  A guest editor brings together dozens of poems by the famous and the unknown into a single volume.  Reading it can be like drinking from a fire hose as the sheer volume of new poems can easily overwhelm the reader, but every year provides some ‘aha’ moments, some previously unknown writers, and some renewed connection with old favorites.  Major Jackson, a Vermont based poet who is editor of the Harvard Review, was this year’s guest editor, and he wrote a spectacular introduction in which he makes the case for poetry and its ‘ability to provide consoling metaphors that explain our passage from life to death’, its ‘verbal dexterity, a passionate intelligence, motivational wit, all from a single imagination that sees beyond reality.”  Jackson’s introduction would be reason enough to read this volume, but the poems, while inevitably varying in interest and style for any one reader, are also quite wonderful.  Lehman dedicates this volume to my old pen pal and favorite poet, Donald Hall who died last year, and Hall also gets a shout out from Jackson.  The editor skillfully combines some wonderful, well-known poets (Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Robert Hass, Edward Hirsch, Jane Hirshfield, Gail Mazur, Andrew Motion (former Poet Laureate of England), Paul Muldoon, Sharon Olds, Carl Phillips, Lloyd Schwartz (poet laureate of Somerville, MA), Alan Shapiro, Jane Shore (another Vermont poet), Tracy K. Smith (recent US Poet Laureate and recipient of the Harvard Medal last year), and Natasha Trethewey (another former US Poet Laureate) with a raft, bevy, plethora, etc. of poets previously unknown to me but distinguished in their resumes.  These brief resumes or bios conclude the book and provide insight into some of the more obscure poems and references. They also give a sense of the enormous and vibrant world of American poetry where prizes, teaching jobs (Wash U, Northwestern, UMass Amherst, VCU, and on and on and on), chap books, volumes of poetry, and poems in dozens of magazines and literary journals speak to the energetic life of this art form today.  Many of the poems protest our current social scene including #MeToo, endless war, trump, child abuse, violence against women, providing hope and direction as a vital contemporary part of our democracy.  This is a volume with many different positives—the introduction, the poems, and the bios.  Give it a try, but don’t expect to sit down and read it straight through.  Dip into it now and then and feel the energy.

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