While there have been many lists made of 2014’s notable poetry books, what has been most notable is a lack of focus on the poems themselves. If you set aside the reputations and the awards, which poems threaten to become unforgettable?
This list is one answer to that question, roaming through many kinds of poetry from lyric to conceptual, literary to spoken word, structured metre to sound poetry. It is, however, by no means definitive nor comprehensive. It’s simply the poems that – in our utterly subjective judgment – are the most likely to be discussed for years to come. We almost called it “The 10 Most Fascinating Poems of 2014”, but what we always meant by most fascinating, of course, was best. Plus, calling it “The 10 Best Poems” ensured there would be something for everyone to disagree with.
The real purpose of such a list is not to crown a champion but to prod you into thinking about which poems you value and what criteria you would use to pick your ten best. Our rankings valued layers of meaning, formal innovation, musicality, wit, and linguistic complexity. We’ve also thought of the ordering of poems here as a playlist with each selection building on the next. You could make a strong case for any of these being the top poem of the year – or perhaps we’ve missed the very best completely. Go ahead and argue with us.
“The Diorama of our Future Break Up”
by Jeramy Dodds
Each line seems to hold so much meaning, but the first word of the next line insists on confusing what you thought the last line meant. The poem takes you on a tilt-a-whirl as you try to catch hold of a meaning and then are forced to flip your perspective again and again. The diorama shows us scenes in quick succession but the story keeps changing. Finally, the last few lines pull the experience together. The only thing that makes sense in this poem is that the speaker’s lover has left. As with so many heartbreaks, we look back to try to make sense of the story: it’s all there, it just doesn’t quite make sense. When it comes to love, Dodds seems to want us to know, “broccoli hedges / my bets with Realism.”
by Clive James
Structured rhyme and metre provide an elegant solemnity for this up close view of the final days of a life. The “[y]our death, near now” is the speaker referring to their own situation. From the outside, they reconcile themselves with the sensations of dying. In the second half of the poem, the perspective shifts as the speaker adopts the “I”, retreating further into their inner life with the tree standing as a beacon of nature’s cycles and of all that “will turn to flame”. The short middle line in each stanza conveys both a halting shortness of breath and a spreading silence. The couplet that follows each time brings an expanding acceptance of what must come while expertly navigating a brinkmanship with sentimentality.
“Ghost of Blowjobs Past”
by Billeh Nickerson
The title reads like a punch line, but the poem is much more than a bar joke. Nickerson’s deft humour takes us through a story that describes a sweet and lonely kind of seediness, the need for connection, and the strangeness of a memory that hits you when you least expect it. There’s an ironic intimacy in the memory of one’s “first anonymous blowjob,” and the feeling that a Christmas party in a new building in a cosmopolitan city can be a much lonelier place that the nightclubs of a bygone era. Ghosts, here, haunt with tiny pieces of belonging that can reappear even “in a city you’ll never know.”
by Scott Woods
These assurances pile upon each other in a way that pretends to offer comfort but their cumulative effect is quite the opposite. Not only do they add up to a terrifying portrait of police arrest where the threat of murder is ever-present, they lead the listener ask themselves: why would you need to be assured that a black person behaved nicely in such a situation? In what sense are these expectations complicit in the more obvious oppression of police brutality? The spectre of Ferguson makes these questions resonant with extra force in 2014, but the implications extend beyond any single news event. The final section of the poem draws connections between the non-violent survival tactics of the speaker and a kind of religious submission, a similarity that is stripped of any romanticization by the surprising last line.
“The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics”
by Patricia Lockwood
The premise is ridiculous and irreverent: Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman have come back from the dead to exchange pictures of their breasts. What follows is a winding, surrealistic romp where “metaphors are dangerous” and, instead of creating significance, they create comedy and misdirection in lyrical flourishes juxtaposed with crass one-liners. There’s an endless mirth in the mockery and also a defiance against the traditional modes of meaning-making. By refusing to resolve itself, this poem asks the reader to step beyond their expectations of ‘getting it’ into a shared imaginative space where every premise – no matter how outrageous – holds potential for poetic adventure.
“There’s No Fuckin’ Time to Fuckin’ Live”
by RC Weslowski
At one point, amid his neurotic ranting, Weslowski asks “Is this even a poem?” The stream-of-consciousness text seems intent on breaking the basic rules of poetry, making references to random bits of pop culture, friends, and the immediate situation of its performance while eschewing lyricism completely. Instead, it succeeds on its own terms as an antipoem by parodying the panic and emptiness of an accelerated modern age. Self-conflict becomes fertile ground for comedy as all assumptions are questioned relentlessly. By doubting doubt, and rejecting the shackles of reputation, the speaker momentarily breaks free from their own cycles of worry, just as this antipoem casts off the requirements of poetic device charging into uncharted territory.
“Coyote Medicine / Medicine Coyote”
by Alessandra Naccarato
Coyotes appear in fragmented but connected vignettes: a pack suspending plane traffic, a wanderer dipping its snout to the woman who watches it, in a tarot card in Vancouver, and as the beneficiaries of the grandfather, who seems to walk with both his own and the coyote’s bones in his hands. The coyote becomes a symbol for the fragmentation and isolation of First Nations histories, including in the missing “quarter” of the speaker’s own blood, the part her family has “whited out like a misspelling.” The second part of the poem is its own isolated piece, further fragmenting the coyote into strips of fur on modern-day winter coat hoods. Coyote is a trickster figure in many North American indigenous cultures and here he plays a trick on our memories. We can appropriate the animal for fashion in a colonial context, but as we do, we have to face what we are trying so hard – like the pilots at Pearson airport and the teenagers in treeless Forest Hill – to “manage to forget.”
by Kaie Kellough
Sound poetry often intends to remove or confuse the assumed meaning of words and bring the experience back to the physical, bodily experience of speech and sound. This allows the listener to feel and understand the poetry in a way that becomes very personal and emotional rather than following the prescribed narrative of a more standard form. Perhaps the arduous spelling of the words “do you read me?” feels like the long, difficult, sometimes joyful and playful experience of trying to express your “me” to another person, or perhaps to an audience, as well as the experience of trying to read and understand the other. In the jumble of sounds at the end of the piece, the “me” is covered over and displaced, which begs the question: how much of “me” do I lose when I try to offer myself to you?
by Franny Choi
In this poem, Choi deconstructs a rap song and reorganizes the words by order of frequency, which shifts the piece away from grammar and sense, but reveals hidden meanings. The infrequent words at the beginning read like a found poem that almost rhymes and has a flicker of beauty and sweetness to it. As the words gain frequency, the poem devolves into an overabundant mess of words like “you,” “me,” “monster,” and, of course, “pussy.” We watch as poetry, emotion, and meaning are overshadowed by the misogynistic insistence on the word “pussy,” which becomes monstrous in its ridiculous plenty.
“Dinosaurs in the Hood”
by Danez Smith
The imaginative exercise is proposed to the reader as a shared one: together with the speaker of the poem, we will create a movie about dinosaurs rampaging through “a neighborhood of royal folks / – children of slaves & immigrants & addicts & exiles”. This element of play allows the poem to transcend the polemical and become a vision of a community united in defiance. The fantasy strains against the ways in which such a movie could be framed by critics or used to perpetuate stereotypes, but, in the end, the value of imagination is reasserted. The final image of the boy playing with a dinosaur and then seeing one becomes less a moment of action movie terror and more about the possibility of the most pure potential of childhood becoming fully actualized in all its world-altering glory, if only for a moment.
This article was first published by VancouverPoetryHouse.com on January 1st, 2015.