We typically schedule the essays and reviews and lists we run at The Millions a week or two in advance. Before the U.S. election, I looked at what we had in the hopper and tried to arrange the posts for timeliness. This was basically a symbolic gesture since The Millions is a total literary miscellany, and mostly contributor-driven — we don’t have the budget to commission much work (see publisher Max Magee’s call for support here). Max and I conferred about what to run on election day itself; we agreed that a lovely, calm installment of Hannah Gersen’s Proust Diary was the thing. I asked him what we should run if Donald Trump won. “SHUT IT ALL DOWN,” he wrote, sort of joking.
It’s obvious now that our disbelief was a luxury — there were plenty of people who knew it could happen. But the shock was real, and so too was the subsequent urge to shut it down. It was unclear, in the days immediately following the election, how a literary site could possibly matter when Donald Trump was the President of the United States, when it felt that all efforts should henceforth be directed at subverting the new regime. (It’s still unclear.)
But then the Year in Reading entries started coming in, from more than 70 writers. This is the 13th year of the series, and it feels like the most necessary yet. The entries have a measure of fear and grief, yes. They are about reckoning with the past, and preparing for the future. They are also full of beauty, full of sensitivity, full of intelligence, full of curiosity and care. They are about dissolving in someone else’s consciousness. About sharing suffering. About taking a break. About falling in love.
Based on the entries this year, I can confirm that readers are still very into Elena Ferrante. But there are many other names to discover in this series — exciting debuts and forgotten classics and authors whose names were on the tip of your tongue. There are hundreds of books: novels, essays, works of nonfiction, and poems.
As in prior years, the names of our 2016 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run three or four per day. And if you look forward to the Year in Reading every year, please consider supporting the site and ensuring this December tradition continues for years to come.
There are difficult weeks and years ahead, but we hope you’ll be momentarily refreshed and heartened as you hear from an array of prodigious readers and writers. At the very least, you’ll find something good to read.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Chigozie Obioma, contributing editor at The Millions and author of The Fishermen.
Sofia Samatar, author of A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories.
Claire-Louise Bennett, author of Pond.
Tony Tulathimutte, author of Private Citizens.
Caille Millner, author of The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification.
Edan Lepucki, contributing editor at The Millions and author of California.
Matt Seidel, staff writer at The Millions.
Sonya Chung, contributing editor at The Millions and author of The Loved Ones.
Nick Moran, special projects editor at The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, staff writer at The Millions.
Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions.
Tess Malone, associate editor at The Millions.
Tana French, author of The Trespasser.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, author of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much.
Esmé Weijun Wang, author of The Border of Paradise.
Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of Here Comes the Sun.
Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls.
Annie Proulx, author of Barkskins.
Teddy Wayne, author of Loner.
Brandon Shimoda, author of Evening Oracle.
Basma Abdel Aziz, author of The Queue.
Imbolo Mbue, author of Behold the Dreamers.
Yuri Herrera, author of Signs Preceding the End of the World.
Sally Rooney, author of Conversations with Friends.
Bich Minh Nguyen, author of Pioneer Girl.
Jacqueline Woodson, author of Brown Girl Dreaming.
Megan Abbott, author of You Will Know Me.
Mauro Javier Cardenas, author of The Revolutionaries Try Again.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer at The Millions and author of Station Eleven.
Zoë Ruiz, staff writer at The Millions.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer at The Millions.
Kaulie Lewis, staff writer at The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer at The Millions and author of Home Field.
Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer at The Millions.
Claire Cameron, staff writer at The Millions and author of The Last Neanderthal.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer at The Millions.
Kiese Laymon, author of Long Division.
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest.
Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes.
Natashia Deón, author of Grace.
Bridgett M. Davis, author of Into the Go-Slow.
Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
Leila Aboulela, author of The Kindness of Enemies.
Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers.
Dimitry Elias Leger, author of God Loves Haiti.
Chloe Caldwell, author of I’ll Tell You in Person.
Natalie Baszile, author of Queen Sugar.
Danielle Dutton, author of Margaret the First.
Dan Chaon, author of Ill Will.
Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation.
Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
Anuradha Roy, author of Sleeping on Jupiter.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, staff writer for The Millions and author of Somebody’s Daughter.
Janet Potter, staff writer at The Millions.
Ismail Muhammad, staff writer at The Millions.
Lydia Kiesling, editor of The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer at The Millions.
Adam Boretz, web editor of The Millions.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor at The Millions, author of City on Fire.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer at The Millions, author of To Be a Machine.
Kevin Nguyen, digital deputy editor for GQ.
Nadja Spiegelman, author of I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This.
Chris Bachelder, author of The Throwback Special.
Álvaro Enrigue, author of Sudden Death.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of Lucky Fish.
Sylvia Whitman, owner of Shakespeare and Company bookstore.
Mensah Demary, editor for Catapult.
Jade Chang, author of The Wangs vs. the World.
Manuel Gonzales, author of The Regional Office is Under Attack!.
Hamilton Leithauser, rock star.
Lilliam Rivera, author of The Education of Margot Sanchez.
Jane Hu, writer; grad student; Canadian.
Chris McCormick, author of Desert Boys.
Michelle Dean, author of Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having an Opinion.
A Year in Reading: Outro
Novels might bore, and short stories can frustrate, but poetry is the only genre of literature that elicits consistent hate. People hate poetry because it is obscure, elitist, vague, complex, somber, trite, ornate, pretentious, out-of-touch, and dated.
William Shakespeare is blamed. Secondary school teachers are blamed. Contemporary poets are blamed. Poet voice is blamed. Tumblr is blamed. Greeting cards are blamed. James Franco is blamed.
Perhaps it is the way we talk about poetry that is to blame — we being those who have already been converted, who read and write and share poetry. Love is a private emotion; it risks withering when shown public light. We who love poetry think it will save the world. Why must it save the world? It should be enough to save a single minute. If a poem pauses someone, that is enough.
This list is an olive branch to the poetry skeptics. Prose is great for fiction, essays, and belabored introductions to lists, but poetry has its own place in this world. Poetry is the grand language of ceremony and spectacle, as well as the whispered language of secrets and fears. Many wonderful poems exist, but the following selections will appeal to readers of prose: work that is approachable, funny, smart, but still verse. Take a chance on these 10 poems.
“It’s not law but the sprawl / of our separate wills that keeps us all flowing.” Our world is a perfect mess: just when you think things could not get any worse, small miracles right the course for a few important moments. Poetry is a snapshot form, and Karr’s poem captures the feel of the city, the world unraveling in a million directions. The narrator watches the “unprecedented gall” of piano movers “shoving a roped-up baby grand / up Ninth Avenue before a thunderstorm.” Those movers “knew what was coming, / the instrument white lacquered, the sky bulging black / as a bad water balloon and in one pinprick instant / it burst.” They are saved by unlikely heroines. “A Perfect Mess” ends on an ellipsis, because, she says, “You only unplug from [the city], the current never stops …”
I might have chosen Olzmann’s hilarious and sweet “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem,” but there’s something extra special about his Isaac Newton poem. It has been said so often that poetry makes the ordinary extraordinary, and yet that transformation is often a romantic one (think a farmer standing in front of a field moved by wind, or someone looking down at Earth from an airplane). Yet equally appealing to me is how a great poet can make you appreciate stasis and even boredom. “Matthew Olzmann / is an object at rest, and will remain at rest, / reclining on the couch while drinking Guinness / and watching football.” I can’t trust a poet without a sense of humor. Olzmann has my trust, so I’m willing to follow his lines everywhere. Next time someone calls you lazy, share this poem and proclaim your leisure art.
If Jones wrote a two-line poem it would still hit me with the power of an epic. “Last night, the ceiling above me / ached with dance.” What brings me back to poetry are those single-word decisions: “ached,” how that one note pulses through the entire line. We’ve all known the feeling of longing, of being so close to joy and yet so far away, and Jones follows the emotion from that upstairs room to the empty bed of the narrator. There he “dreamed / the record’s needle / pointed into my back, spinning / me into no one’s song.”
“I’ve been told the internet is / an unholy place — an endless intangible / stumbling ground of false deities / dogma and loneliness.” I’m worried that a poetic traditionalist would make such a claim, but thankfully poetry has embraced the online world. Wicker packs so much material into his lines, modulating speed and pivots with care: “The camera pans to another / pocket of the room where six kids rocking holey / T-shirts etch aerosol lines on warehouse walls.” The beautiful thing about language is that it makes ugly action sing—in the right poet’s hands. This poem is an ode to sitting in front of a “holy streaming screen / of counterculture punks,” blinking the day away “without care for time or density.”
For years I’ve been sharing Nezhukumatathil’s poem “Baked Goods” as an example of a perfect love poem, and “Break-Ups” might be the perfect explanation of how poets must lie. In popular culture, poetry is often presented as the purgation of unfiltered feelings — a genre of writing where writers lose all self-control and bleed on the page. Catharsis without craft. Poetry is actually a space for play. If every love in Nezhukumatathil’s poems were real, “Can you imagine the number of bouquets, how many / slices of cake?” There would be husbands making a “great meal,” one could change the baby while another reads the newspaper, “and every single / one of them wonders what time I am coming home.”
When I read a poem, I expect a poet to surprise, shock, or confuse me with language. If you hate poetry, than you might have read poets who only confuse — or who don’t speak to your particular experience or anxieties in life. I have called Robbins “the most provocative Christian poet in America” with appreciation, but he is truly one of the most inventive writers working. For the uninitiated, it might take a Robbins poem or two before you get his style, but once it clicks, you feel as if you’re part of a very smart inside literary joke. Robbins is like a poetic machine who takes the entirety of popular culture, history, politics, music, and God, and then remixes them into poems with beats worthy of recording.
Often people who hate poetry hate the poems that served as their introduction to the form. Inevitably that poetry is “older:” formally staid, metered verse that feels antiquated. Of course older poetry is beautiful, the foundation of modern verse, but to the new eye, older poetry feels like a series of abstractions without contemporary reference. Say what you will about our embrace of free verse, but many contemporary poets mix detail and sound to create magic. Pardlo, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner, hails from the Garden State, and I haven’t found a better contemporary poet to capture the songs of my home state’s peculiar mix of asphalt and grass. Give “Double Dutch” to someone who has never studied poetry, but has spent hours on the blacktop like those girls “shadowing each other, / sparring across the slack cord / casting parabolas in the air.” Watch them nod when they recognize the truth of his lines: “she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish / as she flutter-floats into motion / like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos / thumbed alive.” Watch them smile at how a poet renews youth: “She makes jewelry of herself and garlands / the ground with shadows.”
If we share song lyrics to ease the pain of loss and distance, than why not great poetry? Limón’s short lines in “Before” arrive as a sequence of phrases and breaths. In poetry, so often honesty has become another word for brutality; a poet is only authentic if she is raw. Limón’s authenticity is on another level; it is like hearing the confession of a friend. She is able to capture the particular grief of separation experienced during youth. “Before the road / between us, there was the road / beneath us, and I was just / big enough not to let go.” A great poem brings us back to our own tenuous moments, to our own “hazardous bliss.”
McCadden, a fellow high school English teacher, knows how to offer poetry to a skeptical audience. There is an accepted narrative structure to prose. Sentences scaffold paragraphs, and paragraphs are the links for pages. Poetry is somewhere between a dream and a scream. “Intersection” moves in a surreal manner; first, there is that tedious interaction at the four-way stop. Then, love: “Your hands cup the wheel / at ten o’clock and two, then float / past my knee and only sometimes land.” How quickly, and yet how smoothly, McCadden moves us. If this were prose, we would ask: is this really happening? In poetry, we ask: why does this not happen more?
In many great poems, there is a space of absence. It might be a chasm or a pinhole, but it is a space of uncertainty, and it must not be so big as to swallow the rest of the poem. “Nothing is Haunted” is that type of poem. The first lines are surprising enough to invite us in: is it true that “Nothing is haunted / in quite the way small Midwestern farms / are haunted”? Longhorn convinces us. The source are these lithe girls who “lie awake through summer’s / liquid heat and listen to the rattling window screens.” We can hear the panting between the lines; this is horror in verse. “The girls throw off / their bleached sheets and untangle their legs.” Hot and uncomfortable, they want to run, but instead “huddle” while “quivering in one weak circle of light.” Are these girls or ghosts? Longhorn carries that absence, that confusion, on to the final lines, and then hands it off to us, to you.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.