Anthologies for Crying and Laughing
by Weston Cutter
Let me first say this: I’d read anything by Kevin Young, edited or written. I had my copy of Jelly Roll the second it hit, and, though it was my first Kevin Young book, I (of course) traced backward from there, discovering he’d covered Basquiat (in To Repel Ghosts, which he a decade later remixed from the “double album” of the book he’d originally presented), and then watched and read, rapt, as he burned whole layers of bright, as he, like some one-man magician, kept building tendons, kept spinning things close. Make no mistake: among whatever other skills KYoung’s got (he’s got tons, not least the best ear and the ability to make some of the most musical lines in contemporary American poetry), his greatest talent might be his ability to join disparate things, to infuse poetry into, say, a film noir structure, or into a biographical look at Basquiat, or the blues, or whatever. Think I’m kidding? His For the Confederate Dead‘s working on so many levels (rebuttal/antithesis to R. Lowell’s For the Union Dead, reclamation of conflicted/troubling past) it’s a treasure before you even find your way into the poem.
Of course, while making his own poetry, he’s also editing like a madman, and the latest book he’s had a hand in is The Art of Losing, subtitled Poems of Grief and Healing. The book, just as an object, is gorgeous (well done as usual, Bloomsbury), but the poems within are staggering for all sorts of reasons, though here’s the biggest, for me. Say you’re interested in poetry, and someone asks what poetry is finally for (the someone can be yourself). What’s the answer? What’s poetry do or for? I’ve trotted answers out to students—to say the unsayable, to put a structure around an otherwise structure-less feeling/thought/idea—but of course the simplest answer, and the one Young’s maximizing in this book, is best: poetry makes you feel better.
I haven’t felt grief or needed much healing in the past year, but the real magic of the poetry contained in this book is that it will still make you feel better, make you feel fuller, larger. It’s a magic book. I feel like I’ve seen a few poetry anthologies recently that’d endeavored to make people feel better (like Poetry for Down Times or whatever—it was a Keillor thing, I think), but nothing will come close to this. Even if you’re for some reason anti-anthology, The Art of Losing is worth having shelved somewhere nearbye (if only for the E.Bishop poem whose lines supply the book’s title, though if you don’t already have that poem somewhere in your life you need way, way more than just this book).
Hm. I don’t quite know how to even approach reviewing this book: it’s great, and huge fun, and out-loud laugh-inducing in several parts, and I’m (mostly) all for anything remotely Believer-related. It’s a book in which absurd questions are asked to howlingly funny people, and those funny people give hilariously demented responses (and the dementia ranges, stylistically, from intense irony to mumbling deadpan to single-word brush-offs). It’s a book most of the people I know and like would want around. So what’s the hitch? What’s the hold-up?
That website Stuff White People Like? This book is like a perfectly calibrated text for the sorts of people he’s talking about on his website. It’s a hilarious book in lots of ways, and it does a (mostly) decent job of balancing clever/cutsey-ness. It’s actually a fascinating book if one’s looking for a good cross-section view of 80% of current humor in America: the contributors are people like Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter, David Cross, Amy Sedaris, Michael Cera, Judd Apatow, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Patton Oswalt, Jim Gaffigan…and the book will likely be entertaining in direct proportion to how much you like, say, Flight of the Conchords or Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis (which, if you haven’t seen, I’ll put video below: you will not believe how great it is).
I’m hemming and hawing all over the place on this one. I like the book, I do, and I’m glad to have it, glad to read it. It’s also, at times, a little uncomfortably targeting, or at least that what it feels like to this reader. Like Conan? You’ll like this book. Like Sarah Silverman? Ditto. Like Wonder Showzen, or Mr. Show, or The State/Stella, or Tim and Eric? You’ll love this book. In fact, this book was made for those of us who like such things, which means that, in fact, the book could be acting as a good litmus for how you view yourself. Who knows. Buy the thing. It’s funny, and god knows there’s nowhere near enough funny shit published.