Does American poetry suffer from an abundance of artistic dignity and not enough street credibility? It’s possible. When I asked a friend, a terrific prose writer, why she seems to have a slight disdain for poetry, she replied, “It’s too elitist, like walking through a beautiful forest in which I know not where to look, much less know what I am searching for. If I don’t get it as a reader, then I feel like an idiot and somehow not worthy of the form.” In years past, I would have fretted and dismissed her remarks as garden-variety philistinism, but my friend is admirably sensitive, a brilliant scholar, Ivy educated, and not someone prone to make trivializing remarks without great consideration.
Nor is she alone. For the better part of my life, at dinner parties, at neighborhood gatherings, or on the sidelines of my children’s sporting events, I have had to confront the incredulity of ordinarily thoughtful, even erudite people who professed a similar antagonism toward poetry. An English department chair, a Renaissance scholar relishing a moment of candor, with tapenade and a flute of Dom Ruinart in hand, admitted to me that he is “terrified” of poetry. The roots of such fears and anxieties have been the subject of many essays, and as a result there are as many defenses as there are quarrels with poetry, the most recent being Ben Lerner’s humorous and insolently titled The Hatred of Poetry.
Three decades ago, my friend Sven Birkerts explained, almost prophetically, that poets write in an age of great distraction brought on by society’s materialist compulsions, and are helpless in the face of the latest seductive technology that renders the inner musings of poets frivolous, irrelevant, and downright absurd. He writes:
The race is busily standardizing itself and turning its attention outward: sciences, technologies, and the mass processing of information are the order of the day. Truth, for the time being, is what can be measured, calculated, or found on some instrument … And the inner life is given its due only when the strain of imbalance sends a crack zigzagging through the outer shell.
Around the same time, the late Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz—who defined poetry as “the passionate pursuit of the Real”—pinpointed the source of division to the moment in the nineteenth century when, just as the physical laws and equations of science began to assert themselves aggressively as the only relevant language to explain phenomena, poets with an eye on posterity (Ars longa, Vita brevis) resolutely glorified the poem as “Art” for its own sake (L’art pour L’art), with no grander aims than to serve as a vehicle for their fame. The result? A weakening if not a loss of the poet’s divine imagination, through which humankind once profited from the ability to provide consoling metaphors and language that explained our passage from life to death. And thus, says Milosz, the bond between the poet and the “great human family” ruptured, leaving us with no more than slim “volumes of poems incomprehensible to the public” amounting to a collection of “broken whisper[s] and dying laughter.”
My faith in the transformative power of literature has never waned. A year ago, however, after a decade as the poetry editor of The Harvard Review and a score of years teaching undergraduates and graduate students, I began to share the sentiments expressed by my prose-writing friend, particularly regarding the preciousness of poetry. I became disenchanted with what amounted to beautiful architecture, glass fortresses of language whose walls and ceilings were lined with parallel-facing mirrors in which the poet’s ego or aggressive wit or moral superiority or mannered experimentation gradually faded into an abyss of itself, ad infinitum; the age lost its witness, and the reader, yearning for human connection, was crowded out by a narcissism that was hard not to see. And these works were written by some of the best minds! If they failed, it was not for lack of talent. The poems worked for their intended audiences. They won prizes, adulation. Yet their lack of engagement with the world beyond art limits their appeal. It may even be that some poets, “afflicted with a modesty of ambition,” as the recently departed Donald Hall declared, are apt to preen more for their Instagram feeds than for Mount Parnassus.
When faced with the challenge of reading, I have sometimes found myself heavy bored, and the poem in question excessively underwhelming, lacking dimension or scale, or altogether devoid of any authentic feeling or thinking that might render the work illuminating or inspiring. About audience, I am fond of telling students that writing poetry is on par with composing for the gods, who themselves are makers and, we are told, all-knowing, and that the challenge of any poet is to sing beyond the ennui and cynicism that are the byproducts of a restless omniscience. Even the gods are entitled to their revelations, a new purchase on their divinity.
Our art should do more than celebrate ourselves in Whitmanian fashion, or sublimely frame our individualism, or camouflage our moral shortcomings and desperate self-regard. Even the most personal poems should break through our novelistic sense of ourselves and stabilize the mutual fate of our shared destinies, our ephemerality.
On a December day, a Friday, as I was sinking into such dispirited, curmudgeonly feelings, an old friend from my youth, the rapper Black Thought, sporting a tan fedora and tinted shades, dropped a ten-minute freestyle on Funkmaster Flex’s radio show. It is a lyrical performance that rekindled the Philadelphia-born emcee’s legend in hip-hop circles. With lines like “The microphone doctor, black Deepak Chopra / I’m a griot that make you wanna peacock your arm” and “I need royalty because I bleed royal / Go through the veins to the brain, fabulous and strange / My journalistic range is a catalyst for change,” his flow, as we say, went viral and garnered a million YouTube views in a single day. By Monday morning, Jelani Cobb opined in The New Yorker: “In the combative, Darwinian world of hip-hop, [Black Thought’s] densely arrayed metaphors, the calibrated poise, and casual displays of erudition (‘I’m international—my passport pages are like War and Peace’) all point to an artist who remains thoroughly in control of his gifts.” That weekend, I must have watched Black Thought’s performance, ballooning into a cultural event, nearly a dozen times, and was reminded of what first drew me to poetry: verbal dexterity, a passionate intelligence, nutritional wit, all from a single imagination that sees beyond reality.
I had long ago put aside the highbrow argument that rap lyricists and songwriters such as the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan are nonliterary, and thus I was open to the message that, though not a populist art, poetry has the potential of captivating more than an audience of one if it aims for the highest imaginative reaches of human speech, advances an untainted vision of humanity that preserves our dignity as a species, and works to maintain the sovereignty of language against abusive and corruptive rhetoric that breeds hatred (like much of what we experience today in our political sphere). Filled with this conviction, I calibrated my thinking.
And thus editing The Best American Poetry 2019 came as a challenge to fulfill a single criterion: locate poems that by the sheer force and virtuosity of their making renew the bonds between reader and poet, the holy trinity of an art formulated once by Etheridge Knight as “the Poem, the Poet, and the People.” I sought poems that braved human connection; poems that battled the inertia of our daily routines and fixed modes of thinking; poems that shaded in the outlines of contemporary life and generously extended us into a profound understanding of ourselves as outraged, joyous, vulnerable, intelligent, fearful, loving; and finally, poems that overpowered the indifference we exhibit toward each other, which, if unchecked, may become one of the great horrors of living in the twenty-first century. Even with multiple social media platforms, even with satellites that televise from every corner of the world, we are, without art and literature, incapable of taking in the full width and complexity of our humanity and are likely to overlook the miracles that are found there. Now that our skies are once again our battlefields, we reflexively turn to our screens to see our proliferated differences, ideological or otherwise, amplified into profits, a kind of circus composed of codes.
What I am trying to say is that we are the forest, to take up my friend’s metaphor: inscrutable, trodden, and, yes, beautiful. What we seek in poetry is ourselves beyond the inarticulateness, silence, and immeasurable mystery that define human existence. Poems work to free us of this tyranny. We are all aware of how difficult it is to absorb and embrace each other’s unfathomable natures, let alone our idiosyncratic feelings and thoughts, which, when encountered in a poem, can make the uninitiated feel ruthlessly uncomfortable, to the point of bristling.
Still, how rewarding the happenstance when we encounter a poem that embodies that complexity and difficulty, the shape and contours of our deep humanity and aloneness, the words that give expression to what we feel or did not know we felt. Like wow! when one hears a jazz solo and a phrase is played amid the seeming chaos, wholly familiar, just slightly changed and zoom! it’s off again navigating between the suburbs and bedlam of sound.
Poems have reacquainted me with the spectacular spirit of the human, that which is fundamentally elusive to algorithms, artificial intelligence, behavioral science, and genetic research: “Sometimes I get up early and even my soul is wet” (Pablo Neruda, “Here I Love You”); “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better” (Robert Frost, “Birches”); “I wonder what death tastes like. / Sometimes I toss the butterflies / Back into the air” (Yusef Komunyakaa, “Venus’s Flytrap”); “The world / is flux, and light becomes what it touches” (Lisel Mueller, “Monet Refuses the Operation”); “We do not want them to have less. / But it is only natural that we should think we have not enough” (Gwendolyn Brooks, “Beverly Hills, Chicago”). Once, while in graduate school, reading Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” in the corner of a café, I was surprised to find myself with brimming eyes, filled with unspeakable wonder and sadness at the veracity of his words: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: / The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting, / And cometh from afar.” Poetry, as the poet Edward Hirsch has written, “speaks out of a solitude to a solitude.”
Are these the best poems? I count them among a growing personal anthology. For me, the best poems are those in which the author avoids concealment and obfuscation, and the truth of that person, eccentric, vulnerable, and brilliant, bears itself out in a sound heretofore unheard. The best poems evince such authenticity in language, form, thought, and emotion that lead us to breathlessness and a lot of sweating, somehow changing the very air around us. It’s that moment when we stand mouths agape, hands above us in disbelief, at the courageousness, elegance, and purity of the utterance.
For some readers, American poetry begins with Whitman and Dickinson; for others, Anne Bradstreet holds that honor. For me, Phillis Wheatley inaugurates America’s contribution to world poetry, for she is the first to “finger the jagged grain,” expose the complexity of being an American and a casualty of its history of subjugation and plunder, which animates her poems.
The whole of last year I kept returning to the question: What does it profit a nation to uphold a national literature? Is this itself a kind of wall that delimits and determines who is American? Does “best” describe an articulation of poets whose work most signifies Americanness? I contemplated heavily these questions along with that old canard: What is American about American poetry? Does it mean we dream American dreams? Or possess American bodies? Maybe what defines us is our suppressed history or a need for psychic healing which art and poetry serve as a kind of rapprochement. Or is it our inalienable freedom to address aesthetic, political, and social concerns in our art without reprisal or fear?
I settled on the idea that despite our abstruse equivocations about the line between poetry and politics, poets today write in the wake of a long tradition of resistance in American poetry. They heed the ethical imperative to bear witness, to speak out, to advocate for social and economic equality, to combat the forces of various -isms, yet not at the expense of artful language or a loyalty to the self—a duality of purpose that is consistent from generation to generation. In the most successful poems of witness, the lyric greatness we inherit is fully intact. As Martín Espada observes, poets who tackle issues such as sexuality, immigration, rampant technology, and anti-Semitism go beyond mere “protest to articulate an artistry of dissent.” For all the worry about the homogenization of graduate creative writing programs and community workshops, we can take solace in knowing that the professionalization of poetry has not tamed the impulse of conscientious poets to put language to the service of righting injustices or vociferously claiming one’s right to be heard.
With the democratization of American poetry, we’ve lost a single, set measure by which to assess the “best” poems; our gains, however, include the multiple lenses through which we may perceive the ore lining the caves of the composing imagination. To our fortune, these lenses do not cancel each other out but force us to see more than a literary artifact that can be judged according to a strict code of appraisal. We are invited to exercise multiple consciousnesses, multiple literary and cultural traditions. The difficulty of the critic lies in the inability to shape-shift toward a greater incarnation of the human family that ultimately dwarfs one’s tiny tools of evaluation.
All the poems in The Best American Poetry 2019 afforded me a linguistic frisson that startled me to the recognition that what I seek from poems and art is substantive fellowship with humankind, proof we matter to each other. We cannot read each other’s hearts, and sadly, silence is its own pervasive pastime. We are disposed more to assuming masks than we are to revealing the tenderness and freight within that might transform the world. More than any other time in history it seems the man and woman standing in close proximity to each other in a subway car are as far away from each other as two galaxies.
Maybe because of the divisions that partisan politics and manipulative rhetoric have wrought upon our country, maybe because we have yet to cultivate a citizenry that values the uniqueness and potential of every member of society, a good many of us yearn for the connections poetry promises. Whether as a mode of confession or a mode of inquiry, poetry grants significance to human life. If we are afforded the least amount of time during our day—as, say, at the DMV while waiting for our number to be called or just before a morning meeting at work—reading poetry yields the simple pleasure of language outside normal usage and the chance of encountering the stark voice of a sole individual on its way to blessed enlightenment. As an avenue into the inner life, poetry, including even the most radical language experiments, encourages us to experience each other in far richer and more meaningful ways than a news feed. Though in compiling The Best American Poetry 2019 I ventured forth with no parti pris, no agenda or preferred aesthetics, I gravitated to poems that electrified me to speechlessness and catalyzed my attention, leaving me seething with wonder at their monument to language and curiosity.
Major Jackson is the author of five books of poetry including, Leaving Saturn, Hoops, Holding Company, Roll Deep, and the forthcoming collection The Absurd Man. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, he lives in South Burlington, Vermont.
Adapted from the introduction to The Best American Poetry 2019, published next week by Scribner.