'The Best American Poetry 2009': Sonnets, vomit, and 'Mad Men'


Every year, the annual Best American Poetry anthology arrives like the gift that keeps on giving. It contains a generous selection of poetry published over the past year — this time around, 75 poems from more than 56 print and internet outlets — as selected by a guest editor.

That editor (in this case, David Wagoner; in previous years, everyone from John Ashbery to Rita Dove) provides an essay that explains the reasoning that went behind his or her selections. The series editor, poet David Lehman, also always adds his valuable two cents, usually dilating upon the state of poetry in the culture. In The Best American Poetry 2009, Lehman discusses the use of poetry in the previous season of Mad Men (did you know Don Draper’s reading habits caused an upsurge in sales for the poetry of Frank O’Hara?).

But Lehman’s particular theme this year is the state of poetry criticism, and he doesn’t hold back: “Poetry criticism at its worst today,” Lehman asserts, “is mean in spirit and spiteful in intent,” and he goes on from there to apply an especially vigorous flogging to the critic William Logan, who is sort of the Louis C.K. of poetry criticism, and who has written, for example, that reading the work of C.K. Williams is “like watching a dog eat its own vomit.”

Non-vomitous poems selected this year for The Best American Poetry 2009 include Denise Duhamel’s suspenseful “How Will It End,” in which the author and her husband come upon a lifeguard and his girlfriend arguing, find that they cannot pull themselves away from the tense scene — and poet-and-husband end up in an argument themselves. There’s also Terrance Hayes’ salute to the late R&B singer Luther Vandross, “A House Is Not A Home,” which concludes with the poet expressing his own desire to:

“… record the rumors and raucous rhythms/of my people, our jangled history, the slander/in our sugar, the ardor in our anger, a subcategory/of which probably includes the sound particular to one/returning to his feet after a friend has knocked him down.”

Finally, The Best American Poetry 2009, like its predecessors, is a handy guidebook to making it in poetry today.  The long “Contributor’s Notes and Comments” provides not only a quick bio of each poet but also a statement from each writer about how he or she came to write the poem included. These entries range from the enlightening to the insufferably pretentious, but they’re never less than entertaining.

There’s also a list of every print or online magazine where these poems were published containing the name of the journal’s poetry editor and address.

Just in case you want to submit your own poetry some place, and risk the future wrath — or praise — of some ornery, or generous, poetry critic.

As I said, you get the current world of poetry in one slim volume.

Do you read much poetry? Does the idea of an annual collection like this appeal to you?

Comments (11 total) Add your comment
  • Michi

    I confess that I don’t read much contemporary poetry, though my well-worn copy of Yeats is always getting a work-out.

  • Katja

    I’ve got to say – Deep and Meaningful poetry has never really appealed to me. To me, it can’t help but come across as pretentious, even though I’m sure much of it is not written with any pretentious intent. My preferred poetry is more along the lines of Shel Silverstein. (“The baby bat/Screamed out in fright,/’Turn on the dark,/I’m afraid of the light'”) My feelings about this volume are sort of: I wouldn’t buy it, but if I got a free copy, I wouldn’t throw it out or otherwise get rid of it. Still nice to know that it’s out there, though.

  • Ava

    I love to read poetry, but I find that the majority of the poems that end up collected in this series every year are overly narrative and kind of boring. I’d like to see more diversity in terms of the poets represented, and more inclusion of experimental work, language poetry, etc. The poetry world is bigger and more inclusive than this series makes readers think it is.

  • Sarah White

    Thanks, Ken Tucker! Poetry CAN be entertaining–and I’m glad you’ve included this review in Entertainment Weekly. This 2009 edition is great–other highlights: a moving poem about self-breast exams by Sharon Olds and a stunning sestina by James Cummins about Freud.

  • Cindy Hochman

    The Best American Poetry series is indispensable and should be required reading by every working poet in America (and in Canada and England too…!)

  • becca

    Not only do I enjoy the annual collection, I usually discover a new poetry publication or two to supplement my reading throughout the year. As a poet and editor myself, I love reading what made it and why.

  • Mike Sherman

    I first read the amazing Denise Duhamel’s work in Best American Poetry 1993 and that led me to her books. In fact, I strongly recommend her latest “Ka-Ching!” It’s possibly HER best so far. But Best American Poetry is a great sampler.

  • jason in mi


    Is Megan Fox in this book?

    Why else would EW cover it?

    In truth, I am happy to see this piece (not really a review) here. All of the Best American books are great.

    I’d also recommend Best American Non-Required reading, edited by David Eggers.

  • Mahaveer

    Poet or not, many happy rneurts to you,On your day of birth a celebration is due,I hope you have had a wonderful, pampered day.Champagne, chocolate truffles? Yes, of course, you may…Sincere sentiments – Happy Birthday we all say.(I tried :!)

  • Poetry

    Magnificent website. Lots of useful info here. I am sending it to several buddies ans additionally sharing in delicious. And obviously, thanks to your sweat!

  • thought empowerment

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