They say (“they” who?) that more people write poetry today than read it, creating a bottleneck for aspiring poets. Unless you’re Mary Oliver or Yusef Komunyakaa, getting published in reputable magazines requires years-long dedication and career planning that makes software engineers look like slackers. That’s why books like this offer hope. Not only do new poets emerge, but systems exist to ensure the transition from “new” to “seasoned” poets.”
Editor Brenda Shaughnessy compiles fifty poets whose sole criterion for inclusion is that they haven’t published a full-length book yet. Thus her collection includes everyone from sturdy journeyman poets whose first book is impending, to promising students whose scanty résumés don’t matter to their dedicated backers. These are poets who cannot trade on their names and reputations. They have to stand out, because readers judge each poem on its merits.
Shaughnessy has no unifying theme. Her poets represent a diversity of styles, themes, backgrounds, and aesthetic judgments. Though we see a heavy representation of deeply personal verse in this collection, that only reflects trends in the larger poetry community. Even “personal” has personal meaning here: unlike the maudlin shoegazing sometimes prevalent in poetry classrooms, we get truly unique experiences, like Jennifer Givhan’s “Karaoke Night at the Asylum”:
When I was eleven, my mother sang karaokeSeveral poets follow Givhan’s lead, pushing themselves beyond repeating formulae learned from other poets, until they tell stories only they could tell, in ways only they could tell them. This means blunt honesty, but it also means closely held truths: the best poetry, in this collection and elsewhere, is profoundly intimate. Poets take audiences into their confidence, often at great risk. Consider Michelle Bonczek’s “Entering the Body”:
at the asylum. For family night, she’d chosen
Billie Holliday, & while she sang
my brother, a fretted possum, clung
to me near the punch bowl. I remember
Mother then, already coffin-legged—
mustard grease on her plain dress,
the cattails of her hair thwapping along
with the beat…
All I could think of at firstDon’t let the couplets confuse you. Though both these examples share that form, nobody’s beholden to any moddish custom; even within that poem, Bonczek becomes increasingly diffuse, her stanzas growing and changing like some radio signal fighting the static. Many poems experiment with form; others eschew it altogether. And for readers still persistent in believing poetry should rhyme, there’s verses like Amy Woolard’s “A Girl Gets Sick of a Rose”:
was cooking. Of that skinned
rabbit in my freezer, fur torn, gaze
jammed between a package of phyllo
and a carton of ice cream.
Of all that succulent meat
dripping from its own skeleton,
sweet marrow, and a bottle of merlot, but
I end up in the palace of longing...
When I asked for a pencil, they gave me a rattle.(I know, that’s a pretty broad use of “rhyme.” Other poems, like Claudia Burbank’s “TGIF,” featuring Greek Gods having a weekend cocktail, are more conventional. But I really, really like Woolard’s moxie.)
When I asked for a hammer, they gave me a kiss.
All mongrel, no matter, I’ll stay out past dinner;
I’ve practiced the answers to all of their tests.
I’ve given up sweets, their ridiculous shapes,
Their instructions on which ones have cherries.
Everything under the sun is lukewarm;
The poppies are blooming with worry.
Each poem, each poet, is essentially self-contained. Nobody here has the cachet of Billy Collins or Natasha Trethewey, whose poems remain quite good, but whose names have indisputable brand recognition. We judge each poem on its unique merits. If one particular verse doesn’t move us, it’s like listening to the radio: wait three minutes, another song will begin. That song will be different, independent, and speak its own unique language.
Besides the poetry itself, this book includes two important appendices. “Participating Magazines” and “Participating Writing Programs” include contact information from publications and schools which submitted work for consideration from eligible writers. That is, they include means of contacting magazines that encourage submissions from journeyman writers, and schools (mostly graduate programs) that help students establish careers beyond the sheepskin. Huzzah!
Numerous best-of-year collections appear annually, and most are quite good. Whether they sample poetry broadly, or subdivide it by demographic or region or whatever, they give exciting overviews of artistry in their time. But this one’s different. It focuses on the future, not the past. 2013 is over, this collection says, but these fifty poets’ best work is still ahead. And so, by implication, is yours.