Best poetry I read in 2018

I continue to have no idea how to talk about poetry, but here are the collections of poems I liked best in 2018.

Stag's Leap: Poems

1: Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds

Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey

2: Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, Hayden Carruth

Plainwater: Essays and Poetry

3: Plainwater: Essays and Poetry, Anne Carson

New Collected Poems

4: New Collected Poems, Tomas Tranströmer

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

5: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay

Leaves of Grass

6: Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Grace Notes: Poems

7: Grace Notes, Rita Dove

Worshipful Company of Fletchers

8: Worshipful Company of Fletchers, James Tate

Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected

9: Passing Through, Stanley Kunitz

Our Andromeda

10: Our Andromeda, Brenda Shaughnessy

Up next: Best nonfiction and fiction that I read in 2018.

Best poetry I read in 2017

The best books of poems I read this past year, presented without commentary, because I still don’t know how to talk about poetry without sounding like an idiot.

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996

1: Opened Ground, Selected Poems 1966-1996, Seamus Heaney

Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems

2: Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems, Charles Wright

Later Poems Selected and New: 1971-2012

3: Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012, Adrienne Rich

Late Wife

4: Late Wife, Claudia Emerson

Digest

5: Digest, Gregory Pardlo

Up next: Best nonfiction and fiction I read in 2017. For more in this series over the years, see my Best Books pages.

Dark though it is

W.S. Merwin published this poem back in 2005, but it is so beautifully fitting for the beginning of 2017, a year for which I feel a strong sense of dread for America. Savor his words and feel some solace and strength.

First night in the Lake District

Thanks

W.S. Merwin

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

Best poetry I read in 2016

This is all the poetry I read in 2016 (make a sad face), but all of it was good. In order of delight:

Autobiography of Red

1. Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson

Black Zodiac

2. Black Zodiac, Charles Wright

The Father

3. The Father, Sharon Olds

4. The Collected Poems, Czeslaw Milosz

Head Off & Split

5. Head Off & Split, Nikky Finney

New Selected Poems

6. New Selected Poems, Philip Levine

Thrall

7. Thrall, Natasha Trethewey

What poetry did you read and enjoy this past year?

Coming soon: Best nonfiction and fiction I read in 2016. Stay tuned.

Best poetry I read in 2015

To kick off my annual lists of the best things I read in the past year, here are the best 10 books of poems I read in 2015.

Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems

1. The Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin Coste Lewis

Selected Poems

2. Selected Poems, Rita Dove

Electric Light: Poems

3. Electric Light, Seamus Heaney

Life on Mars

4. Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

Almanac: Poems: Poems

5. Almanac, Austin Smith

Elephant Rocks: Poems

6. Elephant Rocks, Kay Ryan

The Long Approach

7. The Long Approach, Maxine Kumin

[Out of print; I seem to have the only copy in the world.]

8. House, Bridge, Fountain, Maxine Kumin

Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations

9. Of No Country I Know, David Ferry

What Goes On: Selected and New Poems, 1995-2009

10. What Goes On, Stephen Dunn

Up next: Top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2015. Any favorite books of poems you read this year?

I am alive—I guess—

I am alive—I guess—
The Branches on my Hand
Are full of Morning Glory—
And at my finger’s end—

The Carmine—tingles warm—
And if I hold a Glass
Across my Mouth—it blurs it—
Physician’s—proof of Breath—

I am alive—because
I am not in a Room—
The Parlor—Commonly—it is—
So Visitors may come—

And lean—and view it sidewise—
And add “How cold—it grew”—
And “Was it conscious—when it stepped
In Immortality?”

I am alive—because
I do not own a House—
Entitled to myself—precise—
And fitting no one else—

And marked my Girlhood’s name—
So Visitors may know
Which Door is mine—and not mistake—
And try another key—

How good—to be alive!
How infinite—to be
Alive—two-fold—the birth I had—
And this—besides, in Thee!

Emily Dickinson

Lately

I am so eager for spring. I saw a photo of what our garden looked like last June and was nearly weeping with anticipation and desire. The sun dappling the barely fuzzed zucchini leaves! The warm earth! The gnats! The sweat beading your legs as you toil in the dirt! Today, I feel like spring will never come (we’re due for more snow this Thursday). But we spring the clocks forward this Sunday and that makes me feel the faintest stirrings of hope.

Tulips
Tulips, circa April 2013.

Today, to tempt myself in the 45 degrees, which now feels practically tropical, I stood out on the back porch in the sun, in my coat, and read Rita Dove on my lunch break. The dogs wrestled in the half-snow/half-mud slush. A blue jay dive-bombed into boughs of the giant spruce tree. I thought about Dove and her childhood, about her dancing with Fred, about her mystical economy of language.

My year-old orchid rebloomed over the weekend and I feel so VICTORIOUS about it. I want someone to congratulate me.

This past week, I was introduced to Penelope Fitzgerald, via her delightful and tiny novel Offshore, and I am going to call myself a fan. I am eager to read more. I was inspired by a recommendation from our lay preacher/the New Yorker‘s coverage of her recently published biography. Read her before? Any favorites?

Playful Edie
Eden in play stance; swipe of mud on the nose.

I am trying to love and understand Eden more. She is still a baby with a ton of energy, which is why she is often so annoying. She also just has one speed: RUNNING. I’ve never seen her walk anywhere. (Except for when you call her in from the backyard, where she is patiently waiting by the shed for someone to come out and play with her. Then she really drags her feet. She slowly, slowly tiptoes to the door, looking so terribly disappointed in life and in you, especially.) Remembering that all she wants is to play with someone is helpful in moderating my patience levels. Also, she is quite sweet when she wants to be. And she adores us. Last night, two episodes of House of Cards were watched with her little shepherd head in my lap. So that helps.

Best Poetry I Read in 2014

For 2014, a new category in my top 10 book lists: Poetry! I seem to be reading more and more poetry each year, which is a trend that I enjoy, but I also don’t think I have the slightest idea how to write about poetry. So, here’s my top 10 for the year, sans review.

1. Every Riven Thing, by Christian Wiman

Every Riven Thing: Poems

2: Some Ether, Nick Flynn

Some Ether

3: The Shadow of Sirius, W.S. Merwin

The Shadow of Sirius

4: Once in the West: Poems, Christian Wiman

Once in the West: Poems

5: Collected Poems, Philip Larkin

Collected Poems

 

6: Actual Air, David Berman

Actual Air

7: Astonishments, Anna Kamieńska

Astonishments: Selected Poems

8: Stay, Illusion, Lucie Brock-Broido

Stay, Illusion: Poems

9: Incarnadine: Poems, Mary Szybist

Incarnadine: Poems

10: Against Which, Ross Gay

Against Which

Honorable Mentions

  1. Delights and Shadows, Ted Kooser
  2. Faithful and Virtuous Night, Louise Glück
  3. The Wingless, Cecilia Llompart
  4. Metaphysical Dog, Frank Bidart

What books of poetry did you enjoy this year?

Coming up next: Top 10 books of nonfiction and fiction I read in 2014.

In the thick of winter

Lately…

Kitchen pups

Having two dogs makes me really disinclined to have children. They exhaust me, especially the little one. I know kids are, like, 100x more difficult than dogs, I know, just don’t talk to me about having babies any time soon. The pervading feeling in my brain, regarding child-bearing and -rearing: Women have it rough, and mothers probably have it roughest of all. Maybe I’ll join their ranks one day. Not now.

Truthfully, the dogs are good 85% of the time. They have their on days and they have their off days. I have to intervene in squabbles and mini-fights from time to time, which ratchets my anxiety up to seriously unfun levels. They never fight when Guion is around. Could be that he’s scarier (which we know he is to Pyrrha), could be that he’s a calming presence.

Last night, I spent an hour making a frittata from this fancy Hudson Valley cookbook from Aunt Jane. I don’t cook much anymore, because Guion is way better at it, but when he gets home late from work, I will attempt to make a meal. Sometimes I am successful. So, anyway, I’m spending an hour making this frittata. I get the old skillet in the oven, pull it out, taste a bit, and promptly spit it out. The whole thing tastes like it’s been seasoned with metals and chemicals. I blame the skillet. I throw it all in the trash. The dogs start fighting. I start to cry. I send Guion to get takeout from the faux-Japanese place in the strip mall while I watch the first 15 minutes of “The Bachelor” and feel — if not better about my cooking abilities — a little better about the state of my moral compass. Nothing like some self-righteous TV viewing to improve one’s mental state.

Guion likes to tease me for my inability to read labels on products that I buy. For a detail-obsessed copy editor, I am curiously unable to focus on labels or make good decisions while shopping. Shopping induces this weird paranoia in me that I’ve never been able to adequately label; somehow I feel panicky, like I need to make a quick decision. I’m never relaxed when shopping. I made one of my greatest lapses in label-reading yesterday. I was at Target and I needed a new bra. On the fly. Just wanted it to be nude and inexpensive. So I bought one that advertised it was wireless (I daily thank the Lord for such inconsequential breasts). Came home. Pulled it out of the bag. Realized I’d brought a nursing bra.

I used to read my Bible every day. I was a pious kid and a super-pious (read: unbearably vain) teenager, and I think I read my Bible every day for five or six years. I’ve read the whole thing several times now, and it’s engraved in my memory. But over the past few years, I felt burned out by the Bible. I’m not sure why, but I couldn’t make myself read it on a regular basis.

One of my goals this year is to read the whole thing again. To my delight, I’m enjoying myself. Specifically, I’m enjoying remembering all of the things I’d forgotten. There are, for instance, so many cryptic things that Jesus says, sayings that I’ve never heard a pastor try to explicate. Like this:

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

— Matthew 18:18 (ESV)

How curious! I’m in Exodus and Matthew now, and they’ve been simultaneously revelatory and familiar, old news and new inspiration.

A standout line from Lucie Brock-Broido’s recent collection of poems, Stay, Illusion:

The less the light the more the discontent in the dark.

Top 10 books I read in 2013

And here are the top 10 best books I read in 2013 (comprising novels, short stories, poetry, and plays).

1. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina

This is my second time with Anna Karenina but my first time with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s lauded translation — and my first time to read this novel as an adult. I was pleased to discover that I love this novel as much now as I did when I first read it, when I was probably 16 or 17. And I feel that I love it in a deeper, sincerer way now. Because this is not a novel about an adulterous woman or about rich Russian people from the mid-19th-century. No. This is a novel about what it’s like to be human. That’s why it will never wither or fade, and that’s why I will always love it.

2. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest

This book broke me. After I finished it, closing the back cover on the 1,079th page, I felt like weeping — and like running away. I didn’t read any fiction for months after I finished Infinite Jest. In a creepy way, it was almost as if the film of its title produced a similar effect on me as a reader as it did on its fictional viewers: I was so completely engrossed by the pleasure and complexity of Infinite Jest that I was dead to everything else thereafter. I don’t really know what to say about it, except two things: 1) This is a book for people in their twenties, and it could be utterly meaningless to you if you’re not, and 2) This is one of the most important novels I’ve ever read.

I won’t say anything more, except to close with the words of John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing about David Foster Wallace in GQ:

When they say that he was a generational writer, that he “spoke for a generation,” there’s a sense in which it’s almost scientifically true. Everything we know about the way literature gets made suggests there’s some connection between the individual talent and the society that produces it, the social organism. Cultures extrude geniuses the way a beehive will make a new queen when its old one dies, and it’s possible now to see Wallace as one of those. I remember well enough to know it’s not a trick of hindsight, hearing about and reading Infinite Jest for the first time, as a 20-year-old, and the immediate sense of: This is it. One of us is going to try it. The “it” being all of it, to capture the sensation of being alive in a fractured superpower at the end of the twentieth century. Someone had come along with an intellect potentially strong enough to mirror the spectacle and a moral seriousness deep enough to want to in the first place. About none of his contemporaries—even those who in terms of ability could compete with him—can one say that they risked as great a failure as Wallace did.

It’s important. And I think I will still consider Infinite Jest important, even when I’m no longer young and have neither the spirit nor the energy to re-read it.

3. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury

2013 was a year of re-reading greats for me, because this was my second visit with The Sound and the Fury. I first read it as a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I rushed through it and ended up deciding that I just couldn’t ever get into Faulkner. Then, last year, Absalom, Absalom! changed my life and the way I looked at literature, and I became a Faulkner fan. And so I decided a reattempt of The Sound and the Fury was in order. Faulkner wrote, in a later introduction to the novel, that he was always writing “to escape and to indict” the South and that in The Sound and the Fury, he felt that he had finally accomplished both. Quentin’s section was still my favorite, but this time around, I was especially struck by the women in the novel. Faulkner is sensitive to them, and shows you how horribly, horribly trapped they are, and how their lives are shown such scant mercy. It’s moving and dark and beautiful, and I am thankful that I returned to it.

4. Time Regained, by Marcel Proust

Time Regained (In Search of Lost Time, #7)

2013 was also an important year in reading for me, because this was the year that I finished my beloved In Search of Lost Time. It’s hard to believe I’ve been reading Proust for six years now and hard to believe that he has passed from my life — but never completely. Because once you’ve gotten into Proust, he never really leaves you. His words and descriptions and incomparable insights haunt your life — your real life, your life with dirty cereal bowls and Twitter and road rage — like a joyful specter. I did actually cry when I finished Time Regained, because I am very emotional about books, one, and two, because Proust had become a companion, an annual visitor I looked forward to every summer. But enough of that. I’ll let Proust tell you what this 6,000-page novel was about:

And then a new light, less dazzling, no doubt, than that other illumination which had made me perceive that the work of art was the sole means of rediscovering Lost Time, shone suddenly within me. And I understood that all these materials for a work of literature were simply my past life; I understood that they had come to me, in frivolous pleasures, in indolence, in tenderness, in unhappiness, and that I had stored them up without divining the purpose for which they were destined or even their continued existence any more than a seed does when it forms within itself a reserve of all the nutritious substances from which it will feed a plant. Like the seed, I should be able to die once the plant had developed and I began to perceive that I had lived for the sake of the plant without knowing it, without ever realising that my life needed to come into contact with those books which I had wanted to write and for which, when in the past I had sat down at my table to begin, I had been unable to find a subject. And thus my whole life up to the present day might and yet might not have been summed up under the title: A Vocation.

And what a good and true and inspiring vocation, indeed. I’ll always love you, Marcel.

5. Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar

Memoirs of Hadrian

I begin to discern the profile of my death.

I’m flabbergasted by this novel — mainly that more people don’t talk about it or haven’t read it. Marguerite Yourcenar spent nearly 30 years writing this quiet masterpiece. It is serious, pitch perfect, and exquisitely researched. The Emperor Hadrian is nearing death, and here he reflects on his life, his accomplishments, and all that he has seen and learned in a letter of sorts to his successor. Her writing! Oh, it is gorgeous. Like this passage from Hadrian:

Keep one’s own shadow out of the picture; leave the mirror clean of the mist of one’s own breath; take only what is most essential and durable in us, in the emotions aroused by the senses or in the operations of the mind, as our point of contact with those men who, like us, nibbled olives and drank wine, or gummed their fingers with honey, who fought bitter winds and blinding rain, or in summer sought the plane tree’s shade; who took their pleasures, thought their own thoughts, grew old, and died.

I particularly enjoyed the appendices, especially Yourcenar’s collection of notes and asides from while she was writing and organizing the book. As Yourcenar writes about the novel and the challenge of good historical fiction (in a subtle compliment to herself for her laborious work), “Whatever one does, one always rebuilds the monument in his own way. But it is already something gained to have used only the original stones.”

6. Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Tenth of December

People are not kidding when they talk about how wonderful George Saunders is. This collection of short stories is the first thing I’d read from him (aside from a totally amazing/obscene rip on Ayn Rand in the New Yorker; I love anything that mercilessly mocks Rand), and it just blew me away. The stories are deeply funny and weird, and each one is wholly unlike the next. In some ways, Saunders made me think of a modern Mark Twain, but somehow a touch darker and touch closer to the specific strangeness that permeates all of our lives. It’s so good. I want to re-read these stories all over again right now.

7. Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky

Suite Francaise

Irène Némirovsky died at Auschwitz before she could finish this novel, but the book that she left us is beautiful. In general, I dislike war novels, but this book is about people — not war. Suite Française does not dwell on the violence and trauma of war but rather on the lives of the people who had to endure such violence and trauma in their daily lives. The book is filled with complex, engaging characters who deal with WWII in their own ways during the German occupation of Paris. It’s gorgeously written and enchanting. I hope to revisit it in the years to come.

8. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

You have to read this play. You just have to. Even if you’ve seen the excellent film adaptation with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. You have to read it. Tennessee Williams is an incomparable master, and one of the few playwrights whose work is as deeply enjoyable to read as it is to see performed. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is thrilling to read, and it sizzles with heat, emotional treachery, and complexity. It’s heart-rending and complicated in all of the right ways. You put it down and still wonder, With whom does my allegiance lie?

9. The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Idiot

God knows what’s locked away in these drunken and weak hearts.

During my summer Colorado, I went hiking with a guy who was reading The Idiot. On our lunch break on an icy boulder, he read aloud to my friend Sonya and me, and I remember saying, “This is surprisingly hilarious.” And it is. I finally got around to reading The Idiot this year, my second book of 2013 that was translated by the great Pevear and Volokhonsky. In his introduction to the novel, Pevear writes: “The Idiot is built on that eschatological sense of time. It is the desolate time of Holy Saturday, when Christ is buried, the disciples are scattered — and worse than that — abandoned.” Yes, it is a dark book, maybe one of Dostoyevsky’s darkest, and it is also a funny book. Dostoyevsky wonders what it would be like if we knew a person who was as pure of heart, noble, and good as Jesus Christ. How would he live in the modern world? How would we regard him? Like Prince Myshkin, we would probably just call him an Idiot.

10. The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton

The Complete Poems

These are not poems for the faint of heart. Anne Sexton is the real deal. I went through this phase last year in which her name kept popping up everywhere, and I felt that I finally had to commit and get to know her, and so I went and bought her complete works. I appreciated reading this giant volume, as it provided a fuller picture of the artist and her transformation over time. The anger and darkness grow as the years pass, but Sexton never loses her focus and courage. And for that she is remembered and cherished.

Honorable Mentions

  1. On Love, Alain de Botton
  2. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  3. The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov
  4. The Aleph and Other Stories, Jorge Luis Borges
  5. The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley
  6. Totem, Gregory Pardlo
  7. Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson
  8. Eugénie Grandet, Honoré de Balzac
  9. The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
  10. The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa
  11. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
  12. Laughter in the Dark, Vladimir Nabokov

Previously: The top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2013.

What about you? What were your favorite books you read this year? I’m always looking for hearty recommendations.