Former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey in her introduction to the 2017 Best American Poetry recalls how poetry gave her courage and solace when she was a child of mixed-race parents growing up in segregated Gulfport, Miss.
While series creator David Lehman's foreword weakly defends poetry against Ben Lerner's condemnations in "The Hatred of Poetry" that poets disappoint readers by failing to achieve universality, the poems selected by guest editor Trethewey affirm poetry's relevance.
The strongest poems in the anthology express how history and culture intersect with personal experience. They achieve the universality demanded by Lerner.
Several distinctive long narratives show that poetry can tell stories with drama, excitement and reading pleasure as compelling as novels, short stories, or plays. The 2017 book also shows an engagement with current issues such as the police killings of young black men.
Two poems of narrative power and historic awareness stand out among a strong gathering.
R.T. Smith, a longtime stalwart of the Southern literary scene at Auburn and Washington & Lee, in "Maricon" looks at the 1962 death of boxer Benny "Kid" Paret in a bout with Emile Griffith and how the televised event related to Smith's personal adolescent experience with boxing and the trials of growing into manhood.
"Maricon" was the homosexual slur that Paret uttered to the effeminate Griffith, which led to the enraged Griffith beating Paret to death in the ring. The poem's charged language brings together issues of masculinity, father-son relationships, the brutal appeal of boxing and the narcotic effects of TV sports and mass culture.
Kevin Young, like Trethewey a former Emory professor now gaining increased attention on the national stage, in "Money Road" fuses the Emmett Till murder, the blues and local black culture with his personal memory of a road trip through the Mississippi Delta.
The title refers to Money, Miss., the town where Till, a teen visiting from Chicago, was killed after a white woman claimed he made a lewd remark to her. The woman recently admitted that she had lied. More tightly focused than Smith's poem, "Money Road" also displays vivid language and metaphorical mastery.
The anthology shows the vitality and variety of today's poetry. Along with writers long prominent in the poetry world, the anthology offers a number of fresh voices. There are a few clunkers, but overall the anthology gives a strong defense of poetry and its universal relevance against Lerner and other detractors.