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The Best American Poetry 2011

This collection of 2011 poetry offers both consolation and honest assessment in the face of a difficult year. 

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The Best American Poetry 2011
Guest Editor Kevin Young
Series Editor David Lehman
Scribner Poetry
211 pages

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As the year draws to a close, many Americans will watch year-end reviews and assess where they and the country stand. The Best American Poetry 2011 provides a slower, more in-depth look at our difficult economic times. Yet as guest editor Kevin Young suggests in his preface, the poems are not just “pieces of time,” they are evidence that “poetry, our most lamented yet longest standing of the arts, has hit back – often by taking the recession head on.”

In some poems, “hitting back” means tackling timely subjects, such as technology, the financial world, or blatant materialism. More often, the writing explores the constant unease and insecurity many Americans feel these days. In “Valediction,” the second poem, Sherman Alexie gives voice to both private and public concerns in these opening lines:

I know, I know, I know, I know, I know
That I could not have convinced you of this,
 
But these dark times are just like those dark times.
Yes, my sad acquaintance, each dark time is
 
Indistinguishable from the other dark times.
Yesterday is as relentless as tomorrow.
 
The poem ends, five couplets later, with: “You were a stranger. You were dark and brief./ And I am humbled by the size of your grief.”

The lingering sense of loss – which colors so much of the collection – reflects both the culture and the concept of writer as witness, where poets feel and report on suffering, but they don’t try to offer consolation, because the times themselves don’t provide much comfort.

Instead, readers are propelled through a kaleidoscope of subjects that typify the contemporary American experience: a decadent, meaningless party in New York City, the ever-changing shape of slang, the complex journey of coffee (and some who drink it), the end of intimate relationships, and the fine line between imagination and reality, to name a few. The writing is edgy and sometimes feels like reality TV.

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