The 10 Best Poems of 2016

by Julie Peters & C.R. Gilpin

It’s that time again when we look back at past year and gather together the ten poems that have stood out to us as the most remarkable.

All we require for a poem to be eligible for consideration is that it made its public debut in 2016, and is immediately accessible on the web. That’s so you can read them, or listen to them, or watch them right away. This list doesn’t celebrate books or albums. It turns the focus back on what matters: the poem itself and all its aural, textual – and sometimes even visual – experience.

In a year when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature, we thought a lot about what a poem could be and how much the way we experience it matters. Chris sticks with the definition of poetry as “language at its most distilled and most powerful” (as Rita Dove succinctly put it), while Julie believes (with the Four Horsemen) that “What is a pome is inside of your body (body body body body).” Read on to decide for yourself.

We’ve written short introductory statements for each poem to make our arguments for the choice and, hopefully, to help you read it in an interesting way. We’ve also ranked the poems, but that’s mostly so you can sit down with a hot cup of something and enjoy the sequence from beginning to end.

10.) “Daylight Saving Time Flies Like an Instagram of a Weasel Riding a Woodpecker & You Feel Everything Will Be Alright” by Regie Cabico

This poem swerves and veers, much like a woodpecker in such a situation would have. The scenes and seasons fly by, from bar to hospice, spring to winter. The poem alternates between quick-witted irony and pangs of doubt, refusing to rest in either mode. It becomes a tribute to the lover that never was as – after the kitchen interlude – the beloved is no longer remembered as ‘he’ but addressed as ‘you’.

The final stanza zigzags with each line angled against the previous one: what the beloved would do tomorrow (if he were alive); the absurdity of the funeral sermon; the totalizing pull of racial tension and romantic idealization; and the release of that love in all its complexity, the holy ashes echoing (and making sense of) the “hooded / sweaters that make / me look like I’m searching / for the Holy Grail” from the beginning of the poem. The romantic quest, like the Instagram photo, may be bizarre, and the participants within it may be mismatched, but that is what makes the experience, and this poem, unique and wondrous.

9.) “The Sound of Settling” by Kelsey Savage

Mashed Poetics is a Vancouver-based show where poets are commissioned (weeks or months ahead of time) to write new work inspired by, or in response to, a song. The song and poem are then presented live side-by-side. It’s based on an Australian show called Liner Notes. This poem takes a song by Death Cab for Cutie of the same name as its starting point but develops the idea far more extensively and eloquently than the original lyrics. The rejection of “some perfect fiction I haven’t yet met” is a gentle one, a turning away. The idealization that “young meant gold and risk” retains its lustre in a reframed outlook where instead “love is a series of gold frames / sweeping off screen”. The everyday-ness of real intimacy is championed but the boldness of the poem’s language (“the endless hallways of adolescence”) gives the quotidian its own kind of glory in the grand drama of growing up. Appropriately, the poem progresses at a stately pace, giving the idea of settling a rightful dignity.

8.) “A well-stocked pantry” by Bob Hicok

This poem is funny, unexpected, and delightful, but it has a dark heart: it thumbs its nose at the ambivalent wonder and horror of the mundane reality of creating new life. There are so few good poems about something as common and complex as the everyday reality of family, and this poem does what only the best poems do: it makes us see something in a new way without telling us how we should feel about it.

The poem barrels along in one sentence without a period to let us catch our breath, insisting on keeping our attention – perhaps just the way new babies tend to, without any regard for whatever we might have been doing a moment ago. The speaker is shocked that he and his wife “gave up hang gliding / for making the nummy sound against the belly / of the beast who showed up and took over —.” The speaker is complicit too, though, having come into his mother’s life and “destroyed / every other future she might have lived / but one–.” Tiny and cruel, his existence was a devastation: “for a few seconds, / I let my mother believe I was everything / she ever wanted–.” The poem shakes its head at how susceptible we are to the oppression of making babies, but it also stands in awe of how much fun it can be to get “hoodwinked” into it anyway. With its quick wit, its breathtaking rhythm, its peaches and its swamp-gas, this poem certainly hoodwinked us. And we liked it.

7.) “26 Things Emotionally Strong People Do” by Jeremy Radin

This poem manages to be funny, innovative, timely, gorgeous, and cutting all at once. It skewers the clickbait-y how-to article, the common spoken word “list poem,” and our neoliberal culture of self-improvement that insists the solution to all our problems is to pull ourselves up by our emotional bootstraps. The poem sarcastically names the subtext of these kinds of articles: if you ever feel sad or weak, it’s your fault and there’s something wrong with you.

Explicitly, circular logic prevails: food is for “people who don’t know how to control their minds with their brains” and “Emotionally Strong people affirm themselves daily, utilizing the tool of daily affirmations.” Dark, surrealist moments seep through the cheerful rhetoric, highlighting its ridiculousness and pointing up its dangers, often in the strange punctuation of so much superficial internet conversation: step 23 is “have u ever hunted……………………………………………………………………………… Man.”

The poem trundles forward, picking up speed and intensity as the self-hatred that self-improvement culture can engender becomes more and more powerful, shifting to all-caps and lines like “HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE A WHOLE SECTION OF FAILURE’S VISION BOARD YOU THICK MOULDERING SORROW POTATO?” The to-do list has been effectively vanquished.

6.) “The American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act” by Lucie Brock-Broido

The title of this poem is a real piece of proposed legislation that would require extra background investigation on immigrants from war-torn regions of the Middle East. What we find fascinating here is not just the topical nature of the poem but its deft shifts of tone, each unanswerable non-question is absurd in a slightly different way. Some satirize ideas of American-ness (“Who / Was Frank Sinatra”), some are inescapable traps (“To whom do you / Pray”), others are riddles (“How much freedom / Does the First Amendment cost”). The potential questions in the poem are presented as statements, perhaps because nothing is being asked in such an interrogation; to the speaker here, all the answers – and their implications – have already been assumed.

5.) @sosadtoday’s 2016 tweets by Melissa Broder

Of all Twitter’s brilliant epigrammists (shout out to @tinynietzsche), Melissa Broder is perhaps the wittiest and most endlessly inventive. Samuel Beckett wrote, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” @sosadtoday takes this idea to new extremes. Broder’s persona of @sosadtoday is simultaneously an investigation into the landscape of depression and a satire of its bleakness. These tweets parody the flimsiness of self-help language and relentlessly mock the unrelenting nature self-defeating neuroses. The 2016 tweets of @sosadtoday deserve recognition for their poetic achievement, not only because they embody language in its most compressed form, but also because each one chisels a new facet onto the theme that unites them.

4.) “Cake | Fish Counter” by Emily Sanford

This poem holds a mundane, all too common moment – that one when you realize someone is looking at you like a piece of meat – in a series of concentric parentheses. The poem is short and incredibly powerful, turning suddenly dark in the series of related, interrupted thoughts. The parentheses reflect the way your experience of the outside world (“a rapist had just gotten off”) can slip into your everyday reactions (“my soul went from zero to furious in a flash”). The fact that the whole poem in parentheses makes it appear to be bitterly apologizing for its own existence – an instinct many women know well. The cake (“if that matters, which it does”) calls to the common phrase “Let them eat cake!”, a euphemism for trying to get the people to forget how political realities affect their lived experiences. Not all of us have the luxury of forgetting the bodies we are in. The speaker drops her cake.

3.) Lemonade: The Visual Album with Beyonce and Warsan Shire (transcript)

We know – it’s not a traditional poem, but for a long time neither was the spoken word poem (nor the music of an artist like Bob Dylan). Here, Somali-British poet Warsan Shire adapts some of her previous work and provides new writing to interweave with Beyonce’s music on the visual album. This is not a string of music videos, like so many other visual albums, and it does not simply sample from Shire’s works. The poetry of Lemonade is absent from Beyonce’s musical album of the same name, and you can’t read it in any of Shire’s books. Lemonade is something else altogether.

The visual album presents a narrative that sits the intimacy of romantic love side by side with social, political, and racial realities. Histories of violence and betrayal must be acknowledged before forgiveness and hope can be possible. Black bodies and voices are forefronted, including the faces of the mothers of black men killed by police this year, staring clearly (if tearfully) into the camera’s gaze. White artists are involved as singers or co-writers, but their faces are never shown. Older black women’s words come through in their own voices.

The chapter titled “Denial” expresses the intimate frustrations that can happen in a relationship but also the way women’s bodies are so often erased and silenced in our culture: “I tried to change. Closed my mouth more. […] I bathed in bleach, and plugged my menses with pages from the holy book.” In “Accountability,” fathers stand in for history and generations of mistreatment: “Did you get on your knees daily? Do his eyes close like doors? Are you a slave to the back of his head? Am I talking about your husband or your father?” Later, in the chapter called “Hope,” a child is created from a woman’s body, but here from the same source as her voice: she “crawls headfirst up my throat, a flower blossoming out of the hole in my face.”

There is so much happening in Lemonade but, perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the conversation it generated was rumours about Beyonce’s husband cheating on her. That’s what happens when we let the truth get in the way of a good story. It doesn’t matter what Lemonade says about Beyonce’s personal life. Let’s read it for what it is: a fascinating, innovative, collaborative, visual, musical, and spoken word poem.

2.) “Description for Police” by Sam Sax

This arresting poem (pun intended) takes the structure of a police interrogation with its simple questions and confuses it with vividly surreal, dreamlike answers. The suspect looked like “the sound of a shadow,” the suspect’s gender was “the word – brick – buried in books.” The questions are straightforward, but the gorgeous, carefully crafted answers are elusive. It’s as if the questioner and the person answering are speaking different languages or across some barrier that obscures our ability to understand what happened and why, while also suggesting – but not revealing – some deeper meaning.

We crave the simplicity of an answer to why these things keep happening, we want to be able to separate the good guys from the bad guys, but the truth is that race and gender and all kinds of other things impact our decisions in ways that are not always easy to understand.

There is a lot happening in the last lines of the poem, where we are asked to “smash the microscope,” to stop looking at something big and complex as if it were small and decipherable. The “blood / it makes of your hands” is asking us to consider how we may be complicit in these larger social realities. The last line of the poem, “how simple & red the light” could be read as a keening desire for simplicity in a complex world, or perhaps a sarcastic refusal to offer that simplicity, insisting instead that we acknowledge our own confusion.

1.) “Treaty” by Leonard Cohen

What appears to be a simple poem about the failure of a relationship unfurls into a great deal more through the bold and stunning deployment of historical and religious references. The speaker is not asking for a truce between the warring factions, but a treaty, one in which each love may find some permanence within a shared territory. The poem could be looking at love through a political lens or presenting a new perspective on colonialism as lovers in a failed romance, or both. After all, “the fields are calling out – it’s Jubilee” and Jubilee, in ancient Hebrew law, refers to the 50-year celebration that includes the freeing of slaves and the return of lands to their rightful owners. When the speaker declares “I do not care who takes this bloody hill”, he acknowledges the history of the landscape, be it relationship or nation, at the same time as he relinquishes any further claim to control it.

This poem finds its completion in the final song on the album entitled “String Reprise – Treaty” where there is, perhaps, a rapprochement between the two sides (“we were broken then, but now we’re borderline”). This poem brings us into contact with a bittersweet longing to make amends, even when there is no easy solution within grasp. It’s not the fake cure-all of a quick redemption (“born again is born without a skin”). The urgency of this poem comes through in its rejection of all previous solutions and fantasies. There may be impasse today, but there is also a fierce commitment not to repeat the mistakes of the past.