Championing the most exciting new voices of poetry, the Yale Younger Poets Prize is the oldest annual literary award offered in the United States. Firsts: 100 Years of the Yale Younger Poets (Yale, $35), edited by the current judge, poet Carl Phillips, is both a fascinating historical exploration of our literary landscape over the last century and an examination of the shifting concerns of what we value in our poetry. Masterfully curated, this anthology represents all the Award’s past winners, those who have changed our conception of poetry and also those who have been forgotten. It also moves beyond many of the obvious selections to include lesser known works by some of the greatest poets of our time; here is early work by Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, and Robert Haas, for instance. Writing as both a judge and a poet Phillips situates the collection within the changing considerations of what we expect and desire of poetry and the ways evolving cultural attitudes towards race, gender, and sexuality are reflected through the kinds of poetry hailed as important. This book is a fascinating document and ultimately a rewarding testament to the sustaining importance of poetry as an art.
Resisting the trend of divisiveness, this outstanding anthology of contemporary poetry looks instead for what unites us. It opens with a simple request: “Please raise your hand” if you’ve ever “been a child / lost,” and with Aracelis Girmay’s disarming “Second Estrangement,” we’re reminded that at some level we’re all still vulnerable as children, that we all live in a “world…/filled, finally with strangers.” Part of this collection’s mission is to make some of those strangers familiar. As Smith notes in her introduction, poetry is ideally suited for this task; reading a poem, we draw close to those we’d “never get the chance to meet” otherwise. In his beautiful “becoming a horse,” Ross Gay taps into such empathy by first “putting my heart to the horse’s” to learn what the horse feels. After that he’s ready to “drop my torches/…drop my knives.” But before we can adopt the “slow honest tongue of horses”—a tongue of universal goodwill toward all living creatures—we have to listen carefully to the many voices and languages around us, from that of Nathalie Diaz’s brother, tormented by a “hellish vision” to Erika L. Sánchez’s “The Poet at Fifteen,” speaking with a “hybrid mouth, a split tongue,” to the insistent “ringing hum” of a war vet’s PTSD in Brian Turner’s “Phantom Noise.” We also have to recognize how official stories distort not only history but ordinary lives, a lesson taught in different ways by Solmaz Sharif’s brilliant “Personal Effects” and Layli Long Soldier’s searing account of the nation’s execution of thirty-eight Dakota men in 1862. Like all strong anthologies, this one will introduce readers to new poets and reveal new aspects of familiar work as the poems comment on each other. American Journal is also notable for being more than a collection of fifty poems by fifty strong poets: it’s also, like its namesake, a late poem by Robert Hayden (1913-80)—the nation’s first African American to serve as what evolved into the Poet Laureate, the post Smith now occupies—a “loving yet critical portrait of a nation in progress.”
Sixty poems may not be enough to show everything that’s been going on in American poetry since 1980, but Stephen Burt’s selection is a spirited tour of the “states of the art.” A substantial anthology, The Poem is You (Belknap, $27.95) includes work by icons, by established poets in their prime, and younger writers just making their literary marks. Even long-time poetry readers will find new names here as Burt traces myriad literary movements, from traditional forms to confessional verse to language poetry and into Nuyorican, baroque, alt-lit, and beyond. Terrance Hayes, for instance, who is a painter and pianist as well as a poet, fuses the blues with Dante’s terza rima. Robin Schiff draws on U.S. history, engineering, and Italian poetic forms for an ingenious cultural critique. Juan Felipe Herrera, like a hybrid of Whitman and Ginsberg, melds street theatre with protest poetry. Burt presents revolutionaries as well as poets of ordinary life, poets writing from Native American, Eastern, and Islamic traditions, poets who put everything in, poets who take most things out, poets who push the limits of coherence, giving readers a taste of what it’s like to be dyslexic and/or gender fluid, alienated from categorical thinking. Burt, an enthusiastic reader, Harvard professor, and practicing poet, is an outstanding guide to all of this.