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The Best American Poetry 2012: Series Editor David Lehman Paperback – September 18, 2012
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It's unsurprising, then, that the poems included are disproportionately drawn from the "right" establishment journals, the ones everyone in the academy wants to get on their resumes: again by my count, well over half the poems are from the six journals Poetry, The Cincinnati Review, The New Yorker, The New England Review, The American Poetry Review, and Ploughshares. And it's equally unsurprising that most of them read like creative writing seminar exercises.
A facet of the book that may interest those reading this on the internet is that, although we are now well into an age when vastly more poetry in English, both old and new, is available to the average person on the internet than in print journals, so far as this book is concerned, all that poetry might as well not exist. Apparently, the definition of best includes a qualification that poems must have been among the what - 10 percent? 5 percent? 1 percent? - of poems created and presented to the public in 2012, not on line, but in conventional print journals, and only in a relative handful of those.
Recommendation: a fascinating if discouraging book for anyone seriously interested in the state of current American poetry, though it will not in my opinion be worth attention if you have no such interest. I will say, though, that you will find this book invaluable if you aspire to an academic career as a poet: the selections will show you how you are supposed to write, the list of journals will show you where you are supposed to publish, and the list of poets included will show you whom you are supposed to impress.
I particularly liked Billy Collins' "Delivery" where the delivery truck brings news of the narrator's death-- many of these poems deal with death, but then Mr. Collins has said that that is what most poems are about-- "The Gods" by Mary Jo Salter, "Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright on Dissecting the White Negro, 1851" by Natasha Trethewey and "Expecting" by Kevin Young. The poem that is worth the price of this anthology, however, has to be "The Afterlife" by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. I heard Mr. Doty read this poem at a recent book festival and could not believe what I was hearing.
I dreamed I was in the afterlife, it was so crowded,
Hordes of people, everyone seeking someone, staggering
Every which way.
Who should I search for? The answer came quick: my mother.
I elbowed my way through strangers till I found her, worn,
like the day she died.
Mother, I cried, and threw my arms around her, but she
wasn't happy to see me. Her arms hung limp. Help me,
I said. You're my mother!
There are no mothers here, she said, just separate souls.
Everyone looks for their mother. I searched for mine, and found her
searching for her mother,
and so on, through the generations. Mothers, she said,
fathers, families, lovers are for the place you came from.
Here we're on our own.
Here is no help, no love, only the looking. This
is what death means, my child, this is how we pass
for the love we no longer know how to give. I shuddered
myself awake. And yet--my child, she said, my child.
Or did I only dream
that word, dream within a dream?
I sent a copy of this poem to a dear friend of mine, a lover of poetry. She responded with a brilliant analysis: "The poem is stunning, of course, and flies in the face of all we imagine heaven might be. But since this is a dream sequence, what we really learn is the narrator's fears about love and heaven and death and meeting her mother again. She imposes `my child' as a way to save herself from feeing totally alone and dejected, thinking that what she hoped would happen at death doesn't happen-- she's abandoned by her mother, God, and love is lost-- and slips in a tiny bit of hope---laced with a tinier bit of doubt as she reminds herself that the encounter was a dream. The poem's significance lies in `my child', suggesting that her mother remembers and holds some trace of love for her. After all, we rely on the enduring love of our mothers. It's a beautiful image."
I could not have said it so well.