To all too many people, poetry is a dying art form. However upon studying the 2012 volume of Best American Poetry, Lilly and I discovered that great poetry is alive and well. After digging through all 75 of the poems in the volume, we discovered that not only is the poetic world still out there teeming with life, but that we as high school students have much to learn from it. In order to share what we learned, we chose the three poems that we believed were most deserving of attention from high school students and their teachers around the country. The three that we chose were “Collision” by Steven Heighton, “The Imagined” by Stephen Dunn, and “The Afterlife” by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. All three of these poems beautifully reflect the era we live in and the current state of contemporary poetry.
Steven Heighton’s poem “Collision” tells the story of a car hitting a deer from the perspective of the deer. Heighton strives to make sense of a real life experience that has haunted him ever since it happened many years ago. Upon reading the line: “Fawnlike eyes above in the eyefar closing small with the world,” the reader stumbles upon a strong level of complexity as the meaning becomes hidden behind confusing language. The wordplay on the repeated use of “eye” adds to the complexity because the reader has to digest two different meanings of the same sound. This challenges the reader and forces them to think in order to grasp the story as it unfolds. This poem invites an emotional response as well on the part of the reader primarily with its subject. Humans by nature are empathetic and will in this case feel for the deer. The speaker draws the reader in emotionally with dramatic language like, “creature squeals afraid?” which resonates with the reader. When first reading this poem, the reader can immediately tell that there is some sort of conflict resulting in some sort of suffering. This creates a high level of interest but because the poem is so complex, the reader is unable to clearly form a picture in their head of the events being described in the poem. This creates a sense of mystery and curiosity around the poem and leaves the reader thinking. The subject of the poem, a dying deer, reflects our era by describing an experience shared by many people of our time. If you’ve never hit a deer with your car, chances are you know someone who has. In the words of Steven Heighton, “It is an experience most people would prefer to forget”. Instead of forgetting this experience Heighton draws upon it to create this poem that many people can relate to.
The next poem in our selection, “The Imagined” by Stephen Dunn, discusses the imagination of a man and introduces the thought that the woman in his life has a similar imagination of her own that they both choose to keep to themselves for the better of the relationship. The man imagines a woman more beautiful and intelligent than his wife and forgets to realize that she too imagines a man possibly more handsome and wealthy than he. This poem demonstrates a unique element of disjunctiveness. It begins by discussing the man’s perspective and his imagined women. The poem switches subjects and focuses on the woman and her imagined man. The message of the poem is more easily portrayed thanks to the contradiction in subjects that allow the reader to see both perspectives. This poem invites an intellectual response from the reader by provoking thoughts that were perhaps not considered by most people before. This forces the reader into challenging themselves intellectually by gaining a perspective from the poem and applying it in their own lives. With the closing line “Hasn’t the time come, once again, not to talk about it?”, it leaves the reader wondering whether or not some things are better left unsaid. When the reader applies the concept from the poem to their own life, they may feel a bit of jealousy within their own relationships. For example, a man may read this poem and be reminded that his wife may have an “imagined man” that fulfills her in the ways he cannot. The thought to many people is unpleasant, however the emotional response in the first place demonstrates that the poem must be powerful. Perhaps most importantly, the subject of the poem reflects the era that marks our lives when the poem switches from the man’s imagined woman to the woman’s imagined man. In the contributor’s notes, Dunn states that when he reads this poem readings, “very solemn-faced women in the audience seem to be registering disapproval with the first half of this poem. Their demeanor changes in the second half – many seem delighted that their secret man has been acknowledged and identified”. This reflects our era because our time period largely focuses on equality for women.
The last poem we chose is “The Afterlife” by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. One of the more accessible poems in the volume, “The Afterlife” is the artistic summation of a dream that Schwartz had. In her dream, she was in the afterlife searching for her mother, and to her dismay the mother did not seem to be pleased to see Schwartz. The poem reflects on her dream and what she learned from it. This poem uses world play with the word dream to effectively convey the message. In the closing lines: “Or did I only dream that word, dream within a dream?”, it uses “dream” as a noun and a verb which challenges the reader to look at the dream in multiple different ways. The different possible meanings of the same word create for an added level of complexity as well. This poem demands an intellectual response to readers by forcing the reader to think about and possibly even reconsider their own beliefs about the afterlife. This poem triggers emotion with the line “Mothers, she said, fathers, families, lovers are for the place you came from. Here we’re on our own”. Schwartz’s interpretation of the afterlife creates a sense of loneliness for readers. The thought of losing all relationships after death forces an emotional response. They begin to think about the afterlife and if it is really how Schwartz describes it, how lonely they would be. This poem creates a giant feeling of mystery at the end in 2 ways. First, the reader is left wondering if the speaker dreamed the word in the dream or if it really happened. Also, the reader is left thinking about the afterlife which in reality is mysterious to all of us. The Afterlife and religion are hot topics in our world today as scientific advancements continue to investigate and challenge people’s long help beliefs. Because this poem deals with this topic, it is worth thinking about and spending time discussing in our world today.
All of the poems we selected are poems that we believe should be read and discussed by all high school students and teachers. They are all excellent poems and each reflect our era in their own unique way.