On the 2014 National Book Award for poetry

I try to be generous, really I do, but I have been known to nurse cynical and petty feelings about the poetry business. I watch various prizes dealt out and sigh inwardly. So many honors go to people who have already won the other honors as if in an endless feedback loop of being-lauded-because-they’re-lauded. Do poets without connections or their own major taste-making powers, I wonder, really receive fair consideration? Any serious reader sees good books regularly overlooked and knows that the system can be unjust.

Of course, all systems are unjust. Reading is a subjective business. Even fiercely democratic readers can be influenced by book design or by buzz. No one can read everything, much less encounter every poem in a fresh, open state of mind. And at some level I must remain optimistic, because I keep submitting poems to editors of elite magazines and presses who have never shown the slightest interest in me: my poems have been plucked out of slush piles by strangers before, and I hope they will again. It’s not like poetry’s arbiters are sitting around plotting about how to keep vast pots of publicity lucre and intense international prestige distributed among their cronies. Just about everyone in the po-biz has to be motivated by crazy passion for an undervalued art, because there is little lucre or prestige in it. Sensible people would invest in other enterprises. Right?

With these questions in mind, I’ve embarked on a project. I asked my college library to purchase the National Book Award poetry long list every year as a way to keep our US poetry catalog current. And for the next few rounds, at least, I’m determined to read those books and make my own judgments about their quality. Ideally I would evaluate the long-listed volumes relative to the pool of most US poetry books also published that year, but I can’t pretend to such scope. I read a lot of verse, but much of it is in magazines and/ or from other years, decades, or centuries, and, of course, much of it isn’t American. I sometimes seek out new books that seem to be attracting attention, but more often I choose a title because it floats through my line of vision for some other reason—it’s authored by an acquaintance, for example, or assigned to me for review, or I liked previous work by that person or press. In any case, my to-be-read pile is always ridiculous, and I am always behind.

And that’s true in 2014 as well, when I failed to even begin my long-list-reading project until the month of December. Here are the verse titles recognized in 2014 by the National Book Awards:

WINNER:

Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

FINALISTS:

Fanny Howe, Second Childhood (Graywolf Press)
Maureen N. McLane, This Blue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Fred Moten, The Feel Trio (Letter Machine Editions)
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press)

LONG LIST:

Linda Bierds, Roget’s Illusion (G. P. Putnam’s Sons/ Penguin Group (USA))
Brian Blanchfield, A Several World (Nightboat Books)
Edward Hirsch, Gabriel: A Poem (Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House)
Spencer Reece, The Road to Emmaus(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Mark Strand, Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House)

I confess to starting two of these books, finding myself unable to keep my attention on the words, putting them down after ten pages, looking up some information about the author hoping for a means of access, trying again, and finally releasing these poor fish back to the river in a life-is-too-short frame of mind. I admit I am probably to blame; very smart judges found them worthy, after all. Worse, I haven’t even gotten to Mark Strand yet, whose Collected Poems is surely a major achievement but of a different kind than the rest (and likely to need more than an afternoon’s concentration). I read the other seven volumes fully, liking them all to various degrees.

It’s not a bad list. I saw reasons for admiring all the selections, even the ones I personally found unreadable. The roster contains diversity of style and identity: senior stars and authors of just one or two books; writers of different races, genders, and sexual orientations; experimental poets, talky poets, lyric poets. And while the majority of titles were published by major New York houses, I’m glad to see little presses in the mix.

As I said, these are good books, accomplished, admirable. Most of the long-listers, however, are simply not better books than other 2014 collections. I’ll put together a New Year’s blog post shortly in which I’ll recommend some alternatives.

Nonetheless, while some of the list seems random, here’s an argument that the National Book Awards in poetry is NOT a broken, corrupt enterprise: the two 2014 collections that most astounded me were selected by these judges. One of them was a book I would have read anyway. The other, maybe not, so the NBA team deserves my gratitude.

I loved Claudia Rankine’s first book and was bowled over by her recent work in Poetry, so I put her new collection, Citizen: A Lyric, on my winter African-American Poetry syllabus before I even acquired a copy. It’s one of the year’s most powerful accomplishments in any genre, I think. It often feels more essayistic than poetic, though Rankine certainly works in relation to the lyric. However, it’s a terrifically urgent book, balancing personal meditation against public debates about race, gender, image, and language. Unlike briefer books by McLane or Howe, you can’t consume Rankine’s book in one sitting—it’s intellectually and emotionally overwhelming. But you should read it.

I was also moved and amazed by Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel. This long poem in tercets chronicles the life and death of Hirsch’s young son. In some ways it couldn’t be more unlike Rankine’s political prose poetry, and yet both these collections burn with strong feeling controlled by skillful, allusive language. Gabriel is also unusual in its formal and narrative continuity: like Citizen, it is fully a book, not a puzzle-box of lyric jigsaw pieces. Perhaps this unity explains why these volumes stood apart for me, but it also makes them risky and atypical.

There’s plenty of power, intelligence, wit, and skill in all the long-listed books, and Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night deserves the honor it has received, although I would rank it third. This dreamlike riff on quest narratives begins with several stirring reflections about aging, memory, and self-doubt. By the middle of the volume, however, I wanted some kind of turn, a deepening, and not finding it, I disembarked from the journey feeling a bit disappointed. It’s a thoroughly impressive and beautiful book, and if you’re interested theoretically in the functions of lyric poetry, it’s fascinating. But it didn’t strike me as full-hearted.

Is it a problem that the NBA winner probably isn’t a book to attract literate non-poetry-insiders, the way I believe Hirsch and Rankine both could? Maybe, although finding a consensus candidate among several opinionated judges must be murder. It does strike me as crazy that FSG published three books of the ten; they’re just not better curators than Graywolf or Copper Canyon or the Pittsburgh Poetry Series, to name a few. But O Award Gods, I still thank you for Gabriel.

Loaded with mysterious cargo and about to launch

Mad sleepingAt first she slept in a bassinet by our bed, keeping us awake with weird barnyard noises: grunts, squawks, clicks, snorts. After a couple of weeks we started pushing the bassinet across the room, and even into the hall outside our door, just so we could catch a little rest between feedings. Our tiny baby, after all, was quickly growing fat and happy—newborn jaundice fading into a golden Buddha sweetness. Five weeks after the birth, somewhere in late April 1997, we pushed that bassinet right into her own bedroom and all three of us, relieved by the peace, slept our first seven-and-a-half hour stretch. A talented sleeper, Madeleine dreamed through the night from then on in.

And now she’s been accepted early-decision to Wesleyan.

We’re sad at the prospect of pushing the bassinet all the way to Connecticut in late August 2015, but it’s what you’re working for all along, right? One minute she’s playing school with stuffed animals, then she’s challenging the ridiculously early bedtime you got away with imposing for a surprisingly long time, then it’s boyfriends and a school trip to Italy and AP Physics and boom, you’re ordering college sweatshirts for Christmas.Mad and me

After a fall season of application-essay-writing, sleeplessness, and intense suspense, we’re pretty happy here. Madeleine has recommitted herself to watching as many shows and movies directed by Wesleyan alum Joss Whedon as possible between massive homework sessions. Chris is reading over a book contract from Iowa University Press for a prehistory of superheroes based on his blog. My workload for exam week is ridiculous, and grading is the least of it; there’s a ton of department-head-work to do as well as miscellaneous meetings. Some of them are tiresome, like weighing in on new registration software; some are hard but important, like search committee work; some are even kind of fun, like meeting with the head of Special Collections about resources for my winter African-American Poetry course, and presenting on a panel in honor of a new essay collection, Forging a Rewarding Career in the Humanities (that’s 8:30 this Thursday morning in Hillel 101, if you’re local).

But you mind the busy-ness less when your family is cheerful and your fall 2015 sabbatical has advanced one term closer. Here’s hoping peace is contagious this season. The poem below will be in my next collection, Radioland. Warm thanks to The Southeast Review for publishing it early this year.

Cells All Ringing

It was not the sick shudder of a small plane, windshield
scratched, scenery blurred, or the snarl of a finger sliding
beneath an envelope flap. It was more like waking up
after a doze on a plastic raft, noticing the shore is far off
and the sky deep plum—not terrifying yet, just enough time
to paddle in, pack up blankets and slowly rusting chairs,
children who are no longer small. Or it was like not
hearing a toddler babble about toy sharks beyond
a half-closed door, realizing you’ve been not hearing her
for a few minutes now. She suddenly became fourteen
and it’s dinner and she’s describing the pregnant girl in Earth
Science as she doesn’t eat her page of cod, scribbled with herbs
and strips of wine-poached pepper. I sort of admire
her, she says. She’s getting really fat now. You correct her,
stupidly: Not fat. A seven-month-belly is hard and full
of baby. And then rising tones behind her fully-closed
door. Daughter and friend emerge to ask, How far along
until you start to show? It turns out to be another
teenager, not your sensible girl whose slender left hip buzzes
with texts until stars vibrate in a perfectly dark,
dry night sky like messages, like fish in deep
water or the unnecessarily frightened passengers
on a small plane about to land. A shell’s secretive
murmur reminds you of the sea but is really your own
blood echoing through nearby coils. Sound reflected,
not by a mirror. By the whorls of your daughter,
loaded with mysterious cargo and about to launch.

Poetry and injustice

I don’t have anything wise and insightful to say about our epidemic  losses of African-Americans to police violence. At the “Black Lives Matter” rally at Washington & Lee on Friday—yes, a rally here, and the crowd was big!—I didn’t speak. African-American undergrads, law students, and community members bore witness to fear and humiliation that are offensively common in their lives: being pulled over without cause, followed around department stores by security guards, challenged in their right to walk their own neighborhood streets. Their testimony was more moving and convincing than anything I could contribute.

I don’t know how much of my slowness to chime in is my scholarly training (don’t speak unless you’ve read EVERYTHING) versus an ethics of carefulness or just personal insecurity—but I tend to keep my strong political opinions on the quiet side. When you speak, you risk being stupid, wrong, even hurtful. I have certainly said my share of seriously dumb things over the years. Not speaking, though, has a huge social cost. The difficulty/ urgency of speaking for others has been a contentious topic in my mid-century U.S. poetry seminar lately, as one of my students reflects in a recent blog post for Shenandoah. I’ve been attracted to Adrienne Rich’s work for decades—I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis partly on her work—because of poems like “Frame,” in which she negotiates between her responsibility to bear witness and the dangers of using others’ trauma as material. Many privileged poets don’t get the balance right, in my opinion, or if they do, they don’t manage to transform the balancing act into poetry. On the whole, though, it seems better to try and fail than not to try at all.

There’s also the perennial question of what poetry can do to help in any case. So many people are talking and writing, and yet so little changes. I am deeply moved by Gwendolyn Brooks’ strategies in “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” She imagines the white woman with whom Emmett Till was supposed to have flirted changing her mind—recognizing the links between the brutalities white women and African-Americans of all genders endure. Brooks had such a generous imagination and such amazing skill at inspiring others, but we still live in a world where African-American boys are murdered without legal consequence. When I read Danez Smith’s recent and much more fiery call to arms, and to song, I remember: art is a powerful answer to the stupidity of the world. Poets see. It gives me hope, as heated classroom debates give me hope. Hope is small and personal, though, and while it does save lives, violence and suffering still rages in the world around the reader.

“How can a person make poems out of anger?” a student poet asked me recently. He’s hurt and furious and he craves practical advice on how to turn his experience into something positive. I don’t know, I said, but practicing compassion helps me, because it generates complicated language to match a complicated world. When I think compassionately, I know children of any race are seldom loved well enough and may grow up broken; our schools and communities are full of damaging injustice and rarely teach us how difficult it is to be good, how much hard thinking it requires; our biggest decisions are often made in the blink of an eye but can have terrifyingly wide implications; and intensely hierarchical institutions bring out the worst in people.

Recognizing how those forces may act on police officers as well as kids on the street doesn’t mean the abusers shouldn’t be held responsible. I think even fierce, polarizing language can have positive uses. Ultimately, though, I’m on the side of breaking down “us” and “them” into messy complexity. The fact that nothing is simple, though, is cause for another kind of sadness. When the causes are so manifold, where do you start?

So, it was a hard week. I’m grieving, too, for my long-ago colleague Claudia Emerson, killed by cancer. One poison in the early years of that friendship was an institutional one: I had the privilege of being tenure-track while she was hired year-to-year as an “adjunct” professor, a disparity that definitely did not map onto merit, even though in those early days her greatest accomplishments were still ahead of her. She was one of the most important role models in my poetic and teaching life, but our relationship suffered strains because of systemic injustice. Several people told me last week that W&L treated her badly. I know individuals did, and I’m sure in my own panicky obliviousness I missed a lot, but W&L’s badness, if you can describe it that way, is common and persistent. She was undervalued as other contingent professors, here and elsewhere, remain undervalued. W&L hasn’t risen above the deeply unfair system that permeates U.S. academia, but our version is not unique or especially egregious. Even twenty years later, as a department head, I can’t see any fix except to keep saying “the system isn’t right and it damages all of us.” I have an essay to write, I think, but I’m trying not to get too far in until I have time to reread Claudia’s first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh—the one she finished in an office downstairs from me, with fewer resources than those I enjoyed.

Really, I don’t have to try very hard as far as not-writing is concerned! This will be the last week of classes, followed by a week of exams and meetings, and my schedule is chock-full of student conferences and other obligations like reading job applications and oh, maybe decorating a tree or two. This Wednesday my class will put on a Haiku Death Match in the Elrod Commons Living Room at 11:15 a.m.—if you’re local, stop by. I don’t expect any of the students’ little poems to rock the world, but there will be coffee and good cheer. Poetry is a good church in which to worship, even if when you step out again, the streets are as messed-up as ever.