'Hell of a Year, Isn't It?'

"Hell of a year, isn't it--Mr. Frost, Ted [Roethke], & now Louis [MacNiece], whom I loved. Keep well, be good, the devil roams." This sentence, also appropriate for 2020, opens a letter in 1963 to Robert Lowell that is included in The Selected Letters of John Berryman, edited by Philip Coleman & Calista McRae (Belknap Press). Sylvia Plath and William Carlos Williams also died in '63. Hell of a year indeed.

clearingI first read Berryman in college for a Contemporary American Poetry class. He had just won the National Book Award for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, which was one of the course's textbooks; a Roethke collection was another. Talk about contemporary. I was 20 reading what I thought of as old men. Now I'm 70 and, well, I'm reading younger poets. That seems as it should be.

"What if this year the scrawny splinters of winter refuse/ spring's reckless flesh...," Allison Adair writes in "Fable," from her Max Ritvo Poetry Prize-winning collection The Clearing (Milkweed Editions), adding later: "Reader, every year we get this moment wrong. Do we/ know each other, our own bodies, our annual flex and bloom?"

Blending the story of a seventh-century monk with contemporary themes, Karen Solie's The Caiplie Caves (FSG) is perfectly strange and beautiful: "We could as soon move/ south as rise above it. Are sympathies/ inseparable from what one does/ to stay alive? What is a self/ but that which fights the cold?"

Be Holding: A Poem by Ross Gay (University of Pittsburgh Press), is a timely meditation on the world as encompassed in a single and singular move under the basket by NBA legend Julius (Dr. J) Erving, who "simply decided in the air/ to knock on other doors/ by soaring more/ --have you ever decided anything in the air?"

Although it seems like everything is up in the air right now, poetry still offers wings, even in a hell of a year. --Robert Gray, editor