Best American Poetry 2001

Roughly one third of the poems included in this thirteenth compilation of The Best American Poetry have some connection, however tenuous, with theological thought, with religious sentiment or devotion. Twenty-five or so of the seventy-five poems presented in the anthology use theological language, meditate on ritual, invoke religious themes or names, admit to the importance of some bit of church history, etc. This should not surprise us. When one kneads and stretches language for the sake of art one might well discover a ray of religion or a spiritual thought, especially from one’s childhood. The words of Christianity and Judaism have left deep marks on our language through doctrine and congregational life. Some of these are still visible, even in the art of those who claim no place in a faith community.

Reading these poems one discovers representation of bits of individual human consciousness, picked up pieces of experience and reflection shifted and spilled out in free verse, exactly what one expects to find in contemporary poetry.  Of course there is much to enjoy in this kind of composition, including insights into many aspects of life experience, new angles on beauty and grace resulting from tumbled language and sound, epiphanies of various sorts arising from surprising simmered meaning, high expectations and conflicting emotions squeezed into compact compositions. Religion, where it appears in these best poems, seems to have been picked up in shards of half-remembered formulas and concepts. Religion is here in the mix, along with politics, marriage, vocations, etc. as one of the cultural frames for artistic commentaries and musings on life today.

Piety is not the prevailing mood in these poems. However, Galway Kinnell’s The Quick and the Dead bows to the forces of the earth with attention resembling reverence.

The editorial essay by Robert Haas imagines each poet here as a creator, an original maker, charged with deep “telling” of something about the shape and sound of his or her own days on earth. Using familiar language of the original creative energy, Haas writes that readers should come “to this volume as an instance of the force with which human beings seem to need to represent themselves, to make symbols out of their experience, to say what it is like to be themselves, to make things that have not been made before and to bring them into the world and alter the world by doing so.”The selections are ordered alphabetically according to the poets’ names, making it easy for readers to find their favorites. Veteran stars of the American scene, past and present, are here: Ashbery and Bishop, Bly and Creely, Hall and Hollander, Rich and Simic, to name a few.

One notices how the old earth deities lie just under the surface of these poems. Asherah—goddess of female fertility—can be felt numerous times, in Nin Andrews Notes for a Sermon on the Mount, for example, or in Grace Paley’s garden self-portrait, Here. Baal, god of rain and thunder, blessing one’s native ground, can be imagined under Robert Pinsky’s Jersey Rain.

Authors’ comments, included with their biographies behind the poems, shed welcome light on the origins of some of the compositions.  I remember reading aloud Billy Collin’s poem, Snow Day, when it first appeared in The Atlantic. Collin’s comment on the creation of the poem increased my pleasure as I enjoyed it again.

In quiet evening moments these poems might be received as individual brief enactments of praise, defiance, lament, poor judgment, good humor, as reflections of slow rural moments and of smart city sarcasm, as artistic packages of the usually forgotten, overlooked, unassigned ordinary details of life.

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