Elaine Equi on Poetry as a Spiritual Practice and a Universal Language
"In poems, we converse and commune with the zeitgeist or spirit of the age."
Poetry, for me, is a spiritual practice. Reading and writing it puts me in touch with something much bigger than myself, something intangible yet quite real. Because poems can be read in the context of other poems, it puts me in touch with the tradition—with writers of the past and also with writers of the present. I know some people have an aversion to the word “spiritual” because it has religious connotations, but the realm of the spirit is vaster than orthodoxies and institutions. Even if you’re a total materialist, you can think of spirit as the unknown—an uncharted realm of possibility. In poems, we converse and commune with the zeitgeist or spirit of the age. Another word to substitute for “spirit” might be “silence”—the nourishing interiority from which thoughts and ideas emerge. Or as French philosopher Jean Wahl put it: “Perhaps poetry is only our way of coloring and making vibrate the silence that succeeds us, or which is contemporary with us.” Similarly, we can equate spirit with the Buddhist quality of space or emptiness. I’ll avoid the word “void,” which seems to imply a lack, and I think of poetry as the opposite. One of my favorite definitions of poetry is an aphorism by Joe Brainard, evincing his characteristic simplicity and elegance: “Poetry is that certain something we so often find missing.” What I like best in this statement is the sense of discovery it points to. You read a poem you love, and it’s as if once again you’ve discovered what poetry means to you. I must admit, I also like the vagueness of a “certain something.” You won’t know what it is until you find it—and you won’t find it unless you look.For my purposes, “best” would be a mutable word, not a canonical one.
For the past year, I’ve spent a good deal of my time looking for poems. I normally read a lot of poetry, but I haven’t read so extensively outside my own comfort zone and interests in a long time. And I don’t usually focus exclusively on what’s going on right now in American poetry. It’s been a tremendously rewarding and exciting experience. As someone who has taught for many years, I’m accustomed to the agrarian model of planting seeds and nurturing slow growth. It’s been a delightful change to switch roles and become more of a hunter. In fact, the task became addictive—I couldn’t stop looking for poems. It turns out I like “shopping” for poems (to use a less spiritual metaphor) better than I like shopping for gourmet snacks, designer bags, or just about anything else, poetry being the one luxury I can’t do without. As Audre Lorde says, “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.” Baudelaire is even more emphatic, insisting “You can live three days without bread—without poetry, never.”
A great perk of editing Best American Poetry is that it comes with a lot of magazine subscriptions. I started to look forward to the mail again, which instead of mostly bills and flyers, brought a steady stream of interesting publications my way. Even so, I worried that there was a lot I wasn’t seeing. I began scouring bookstores, both chains and indie ones. Some do better than others at stocking a small selection of poetry magazines, but not surprisingly, literary journals are not a high priority, especially since the decline of print. Of course, I looked online, too. I already knew of many cool digital magazines and found a lot more by constantly refining my searches. Among my biggest allies were people who shared their recently published poems, along with links to the site on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Whatever you may think of social media, there’s a wonderful quickness to the way it allows us to sample a wide variety of magazines we might otherwise be unaware of. No matter their format, magazines still help define poetry. They are more than just a place to publish—although that alone is a pretty good reason to support them. Often, they also feature commentary, reviews, and essays on the latest aesthetic debates. Magazines are where one discovers the poems people are talking about and why. Publishing a magazine requires a serious commitment and investment of time and resources. The challenge is intense in light of ongoing budget cuts at universities and in nationally funded arts programs. That’s why I’d like to encourage everyone reading this, anyone who cares about poetry, to find one or two journals that speak to you and subscribe. Forgive the sales pitch; this is something I feel passionate about. We need to take care of our literary environment, just as we need to take care of our physical environment. You might also consider making a donation to Poetry Daily or the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, two excellent free services that deliver a poem to your inbox each day. I’m sure many of you are already familiar with them. I was, too, but it was only during the past year that I made a special point of reading them both every day. It became a pleasant ritual that I looked forward to and provided a welcome counterpoint to the sinking feeling that often accompanies scanning the day’s headlines. But this anthology is not called Best American Magazines, so now let me get back to the poems. The idea that I was looking for the “best” created a powerful focal point. I understood best to mean the most engaging, most original, most stimulating work I came across. I didn’t overthink it. For my purposes, “best” would be a mutable word, not a canonical one. I wasn’t looking for the best poetry of all time. What was best one day might change in a month or two as I continually sifted through a calendar year’s worth of literary journals (fall 2021 to fall 2022 to be exact). Perhaps I shouldn’t admit to being surprised by how much amazing writing I found. I could easily have filled another volume. But there being only seventy-five slots in this format, I had to make some difficult choices.
In many spiritual traditions there is the notion of crazy wisdom—outrageous and unexpected utterances designed to short-circuit our usual thought patterns. One of the reasons I read poems is precisely to be jolted awake by such “crazy” talk. As the German Romantic poet Novalis writes: “Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.” I know people often read bestsellers, murder mysteries, and celebrity biographies to escape. I do that, too, but I also read poetry to escape—not to escape what’s going on in the world, but to escape conventional ways of looking at it. I love how in poetry you can encounter statements that you would never otherwise come across, unthinkable often hilarious things that expand our idea of what can and cannot be expressed. Consider these curious lines from Shelley Jackson’s “Best Original Enigma in Verse.” Are they not a striking way to suggest a social landscape?
It was the morning, and it was putting on airs
like a derby with a white geranium in its band.
The gentleman was in his handsome marble bath;
the poorer people were ironing their money,
having learned how nicely it keeps when it behaves
I feel every deck needs a few wild cards and I made sure to include some in this anthology. They are a reminder that the spirit of poetry need not be pious.
One thing I noticed in many of the magazines I looked at, large or small, print or digital, was a real effort to be more global in their perspective. I was impressed to see many translations included everywhere, as well as whole issues featuring only poems in translation, or devoted entirely to work by poets of a specific country. While translations are not eligible for inclusion in The Best American Poetry, this movement toward representing more cultural and ethnic diversity allowed me to find numerous exceptional poems written by poets born in other countries who have emigrated to the United States. Included in this anthology are works authored by people originally from Argentina, Ghana, Japan, Iraq, Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, as well as poems by the children of immigrants from all around the world. These voices enrich this collection immeasurably.At a time of toxic nationalism, it’s refreshing that in the world of poetry the tradition of cosmopolitanism remains strong.
Both of my parents came to America from Italy when they were children in the early part of the twentieth century. I grew up hearing Italian spoken (mostly from my grandparents) as well as English and enjoyed the way the two languages blurred and blended together in my home life. I liked discovering how each language had its own music and temperament, its own curse words and colloquial expressions. During my teenage years, the first poet to have a tremendous influence on me was Lorca by way of the New Directions paperback of his selected poems. I’m sure whole legions of poets sprang up inspired by that book. I think I was attracted not only by the work, but by the fact that it was in translation—that I knew different languages were involved in the making of it. It encouraged me to form the notion of Poetry as a universal language made to cross borders.
At a time of toxic nationalism, it’s refreshing that in the world of poetry the tradition of cosmopolitanism remains strong. Lest we forget, the United States is historically a place where people from all over the world could not only find a home but enrich American culture by contributing their creativity. Poetry reminds us of the value and excitement of such cross-cultural collaboration. Like scientists who share ideas through the language of mathematics, poets are relentless in their own willingness to join forces in the pursuit of their art.
Every year since it began in 1988 with John Ashbery as its first guest editor, I’ve looked forward to The Best American Poetry. As a reader, I know it’s a great place to discover a new poet or magazine. As a teacher, I’ve used it many times in the classroom to spark discussions, and since there are usually a wide variety of forms represented, it’s also a wonderful source of prompts and possibilities. Plus, it’s always interesting to get each editor’s take on the previous year. Past guest editors have included luminaries as distinctive in their poetic vision as Robert Creeley, Rita Dove, Lyn Hejinian, Robert Pinsky, Charles Simic, and Terrance Hayes, to name a few. Thanks to David Lehman’s eclectic and truly democratic taste, The Best American Poetry continues to surprise us. I’m deeply grateful to David for entrusting me with this edition.
We had a blast collaborating on it. His enthusiasm is contagious; his knowledge of poetry, music, and film—prodigious. And now, I’ve seen firsthand the tremendous amount of work he does to keep the series coming year after year.
One of the things I find most remarkable about Best American is the way it positions poetry in the midst of popular culture without sacrificing the idea of high literary standards of excellence. After all, “best of” formats are familiar to everybody and hopefully appeal to a wide audience. In this way, the anthology establishes a context where fine writing can enjoy a broader appreciation. That’s why this book aligns well with my own taste for serious fun, for mixing high and low, the sacred and the mundane. Our collection begins with the music of spectral mathematics and ends with the empty grave of Zsa Zsa Gabor. Along the way, it resurrects a previously unpublished poem by W. H. Auden, as well as a lost poem of Jesus. What other anthology can offer you that?
Excerpted from The Best American Poetry 2023, ed. Elaine Equi and David Lehman. Copyright © 2023 by David Lehman. Introduction copyright © 2023 by Elaine Equi. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, Inc.