The 2011 Rhysling Anthology is one of four books I came home with from Readercon 22. As per the usual when I read an anthology of poetry, I have my favorites, which I'm going to list here, with my favorite lines:
"Dogstar Men" by C.S.E. Cooney - "O Sirius, your houses are made/Of bougainvillea leaves/Your rain is pink and balsamic"
"Tonight the Character of Death Will Be Played by Brad Pitt" by Jaimee Hills - "That facial expression that Brad Pitt makes/is the same one you made today. In fact/you share many muscles with Brad Pitt/though his are bigger and more chiseled..."
"Domovoi, I Came Back!" by Sonya Taaffe - "that boy who wore his suicide like a rose/stuck in his lapel, winking from the bottom of every glass."
"Tertiary" by Mary Alexandra Agner - "my body is my body is my body/when I was born, first bled/and bled again, even the day/I took off my breasts."
"Bubba" by Robert Borski. I consider this a perfect poem because I can't take out one single line that means as much as the poem itself. Must be read in its entirety.
"The Sea King's Second Bride" by C.S.E. Cooney. Luckily, the entire text of this poem is available online here. I'm given to understand there's a podcast of it somewhere, but I can't find it. Help?
"Eight Top Vampire Hobbies" by James S. Dorr - "1. Breaking crosses/It takes an axe with/an especially long handle/but once they're in pieces/they make great firewood/After all, vampires get cold/on winter-fogged nights too/and castles are drafty."
"Courting Song for Selkies" by Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica P. Wick - "I'll kiss you, little bee/when you smell of laundry/when you smell of juniper, of moss/of wine, of wonder, of longing/of coffee, but beneath it all you'll smell of brine."
"Ravens" by Theodora Goss - "Once, I fell in love with a raven man/I knew that to keep him I had to take his skin/his skin of feathers, long and black as night/like e ebony, tarmac, licorice, black holes." Really, I have no favorite line. Again, I think this is a perfect poem, but I wanted to make note of at least one line so you'll go find the poem and read it.
"The Gabriel Hound" by Samantha Henderson. Samantha Henderson is one of my favorite speculate poets, and I hesitate to take a line from "The Gabriel Hound" because it tells a story, and therefore, my favorite line is the last line. Giving you the last line would ruin the joy of discovery, and so I just can't provide an excerpt. (Note: I realize that I've already broken this rule, but I'm not going to tell you where, so in this way I hope not to ruin the first reading of any of these poems.)
Consider putting your hands on a copy of the anthology and read it for yourself.
One thing I can't help noticing about speculative poetry is how much I love the poems I love, how utterly indifferent I am to many of them. I suppose that's not shocking; isn't it wonderful that there's something out there for every taste? I'm tempted to do the safe thing and say "to each his own," and withhold even anonymous criticism of something for which I have no academic, critical language. I can't rightly say why I think one poem is superior to another poem. I feel crass and stupid when I say, "I don't know anything about art, except that I like what I like," but there it is. I do like what I like, and I have no theory to prove that my opinion has merit.
All I can do is make a list of things I enjoy in a good speculative poem, and things I don't like. Things that make me want to hand a poem around, and things that lead me to read a few stanzas and then skip on to the next without having the feeling that I'm just too dumb to get it, and the poem is fine. I like emotional poems, whether they tell a story, or just illustrate a pregnant moment of epiphany. Poems that only tell a story, or exist only to paint a pretty picture with fancy words just don't do it for me. I want to know what hurts in that poem. If the poem is funny/satirical, I still want to know what hurts. "The Sea King's Second Bride" is tremendously funny especially performed, and yet it hurts too, especially if you've ever BEEN a second wife or a rebound girlfriend and been treated to the special joy of unfinished grief. Poems about spaceships that depend on an interesting image, or poems with fancy type, artistic repetitions, and other formal tricks often leave me cold and bored. This is a taste thing; I get that. Some folks like the formal fireworks, and think emotional poems are overwrought. Or perhaps there is one reader out there (the editor!) who's taste is eclectic enough to put a collection like this together. Thank goodness, I guess.
And yet. And yet. There are over 90 poems in this anthology, and I'll go back and read 10 of them again, probably dozens of times. At least 10 more I actively dislike and will not read again. The rest I'm unlikely to read again, although some had nice language, interesting images, and a pleasing enough shape. I wish I could do better than this, but I can't. I don't have the tools to explain "the perfect poem." I'm a gut reader, and I eat the words rather than parse them. I can feel the rhyme or lack thereof, bob my head to the alliteration and rhythms, leap with surprise when there are surprising leaps, follow an evocative metaphor into a particular pain, envision an arresting image(such as a woman sleeping in the bole of an old oak tree for love of a raven man) and let it uplift me, or shock me, frighten me, seduce me, or what have you. I love good poetry, and yet I find it so hard to read sometimes! Hard to quantify and explain to myself.
I suppose I'm trying too hard to keep poetry, when perhaps it's not to be kept. And yet, there are poems that once I've read them stay with me forever, and I don't know why, and would like to. Perhaps so I can do more than people do when they see a work of surrealist art and say, "Oh, I could do at least as well as that; it's just a few dribs of paint with chicken feathers crushed in. I could do at least as well as that."
So, I'll keep turning those 10 poems around, perhaps write them out by hand and feel them in my pen, and see if I can just will myself to understand what I'm seeing. Not demand I go forth and read 10 books on criticism so I can learn the grownup words for "I so like this poem."