"The Best American Poetry 2021," Reviewed by Adrianna Ogando
The Best American Poetry series is dynamic, creative, and innovative. Since its inception in 1988 by founder and series editor David Lehman, the annual publication creates space for fresh, memorable voices that through their poetry, capture what it feels like to exist in this fascinating moment of time in our history. The Best American Poetry 2021 is a collection of poetry written by 75 amazing poets who address love, loss, friendship, consent, the Black Lives Matter movement, our history, and much more.
The underdog of the literary world, poetry struggles to stand against prose for many readers’ attention, as it has earned itself the reputation of being “too confusing” to really be given the appreciation it deserves. However, The Best American Poetry 2021 is a must-read, even for that one person who just "doesn’t get poetry." 2021 series editor Tracy K. Smith, who served as a United States Poet Laureate and is an award-winning author, has made the most inclusive addition to the collection yet. This edition spans across generations, with its work by well-known poetry-heavy hitters Billy Collins, Kevin Young, and Rita Dove, and more, along with up-and-coming fresh, important voices of writers of color such as DG Nanouk Okpik, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Darius Simpson. The Best American Poetry of 2021, with its efforts to amplify the experiences, work, and ideas of individuals across various generations, has generated a sense of intimacy that one gets when they feel connected to someone they love. The cover of this edition, a frame capturing the embrace of a couple dancing closely together in a warm embrace, captures this closeness one feels instantly upon reading this collection. The poetry between those boards, like falling in love or experiencing the world as a person of color, is raw, vulnerable, difficult, but above all beautifully unique.
I was one of those people that adamantly grouped myself with the individuals that just “don’t get poetry.” Admittedly, I was initially intimidated by the prospect of reading this collection of work. I wondered what I could even expect, but what I received exceeded my expectations. The book does not follow any particular format, as each poem differs from the other. However, this is what makes this collection satisfying to read; each poem is a new voice, perspective, and lesson. The creative ways in which poets present their ideas draw different emotions from the readers. In light of the most recent calls for political and social reform, many of the poems tackle these themes. Additionally, wrestling with the complexities of love, relationships, and finding identity are themes that carry on throughout this collection of poetry.
It is no secret that 2020 and 2021 have been challenging. In honor of these difficult times, The Best American Poetry of 2021 reads like a journal that captures the vast spectrum of feelings of the last year. It’s comforting. It captures that sense of intimacy we’ve been craving since the start of the pandemic; to be close to another, to tackle our solitude, and to grow as individuals. It shows that poetry isn’t all sad; despite the defiances, there are poems that simply state the positive, beautiful things we can all remember to appreciate every now and then. The poetry is just very beautifully written. “There is Only You,” by Lupe Mendez, is a gorgeous rendition of a father’s love for his newborn daughter. “What Is There to Do in Akron, Ohio,” by Darius Simpson, is a powerful reflection of cyclical marginalization. “Playing Dead,” written by Sally Wen Mao, uses shocking, powerful, graphic imagery to make bold connections to a traumatic moment. It is powerful.
We have seen through the radical injustices committed against people of color and other marginalized groups that we all have a duty to support, recognize, and appreciate their work and experiences. Whether you are a fan of poetry or not, like to read or rather just watch a movie instead, The Best American Poetry of 2021 is a short, worthy read. Through its commitment to inclusivity, this edition in the series guarantees that there is something for everyone. And if you find that there isn't, I encourage you to read between the lines, and give poetry another chance. This last year above all else has taught us to be patient, understanding, and compassionate. Regardless of your relationship to poetry, this edition of The Best American Poetry series has something to say, and has important messages across various subjects worth listening to.
The Best American Poetry 2021
Guest edited by Tracy K. Smith
Adrianna Ogando is a junior English major and Communication and Spanish double minor at Villanova University. Her time at Villanova has encouraged her to pursue her studies and passion for social justice and reform, to bring attention to the importance of representation in these fields, which are largely underrepresented by people of color.