The 50 Best American Poetry Books of the Decade so Far

No poem in the preceding decade captured the spirit of the times more than Frederick Seidel’s “December.” The product of a Faustian pact, it fixed itself in a fiendish dialectic, a self-canceling logic that likewise trapped the reader like a dying fly — in the politics of the War on Terror, in the axiomatic hell of the Bush presidency.

I don’t believe in anything, I do
Believe in you.
Down here in hell we do don’t.
I can’t think of anything I won’t.
I amputate your feet and I walk.
I excise your tongue and I talk.
You make me fly through the black sky.
I will kill you until I die.
Thank God for you, God.
I do.

Perhaps it was the financial crisis that forced American poetry to work its way out of its Seidelian bind. In any case, at the beginning of the new decade, we began to see the fuller, clearer expression of an anger stemming from the early 2000s, specifically from the fallout of Hurricane Katrina. Works like Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split and Thomas Sayers Ellis’ Skin Inc.: Identity Repair Poems, in different ways, began to reshape the possibilities of American poetry. The effect, I would argue, was to open up poetic discourse to new tonalities, textual associations, and an enlarged sense of performativity — things we too readily ascribe to the mediatization of culture. In reality, both things were happening, and at the end of the decade’s first half, as a result, we find ourself in a much more variegated American scene.

And it’s a welcome and necessary one. Below you’ll find an admittedly idiosyncratic cross section of American poetry from 2010 to today, one that should open an aperture onto the prospects of a cautiously flourishing community. There is no aim toward consensus. The rules: no chapbooks; no “new and selected” or “collected”; all books must be American — translated books or selections from the UK and Canada would have made this list far too unwieldy. Nor have I attempted any balance in weighting the years. If 2014 is the most represented year, it’s because I think it was the most fruitful year of the decade so far. Also: American poetry is still a hyperlocal if de-regionalized enterprise, and my selections probably represent a New York City bias. And, finally, I’ve included only books that have been published this year so far — so no Monica McClure or John Ashbery from 2015.

armantrout

Rae Armantrout, Money Shot (Wesleyan, 2011)

Armantrout’s follow-up to her celebrated Versed was one of American poetry’s first strong responses to the financial crisis. It’s also an underrated collection.

From “Spooks”:

The sense
that the flip side
can be read
instantaneously
is one kind
spookiness;

the other
is the sense
of an occluded bulk
or “mass”
beyond the surface
meaning