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.

8 thoughts on “On the 2014 National Book Award for poetry

  1. Thanks for putting all the work you do into these blog entries – I just locked myself in my room so I could read it uninterrupted by school holiday merri-jinx… The Gluck was on my Christmas list, but those of us with early January birthdays sometimes have to wait that much longer… Remind me to revisit this entry once I’ve read the Gluck: I’ll be reading it with these thoughts as a lens….and shopping for the Hirsch and the Rankine if the birthday fairies forget me…

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      • Hmmm. Have now read it but only once, and I did find the style sometimes too muted, flatly declarative; the persona is often deliberately stilted, I guess, to show the anomie, the falling away of intense youthful feeling, but cumulatively it was a bit stifling. I thought the prose poems were tauter, springier; less brooding perhaps, more aware of surprise and the propulsion of narrative? I used to re-read her early books obsessively: there was an oxymoronic fire and restraint there that used to both entrance and mystify me – as in, how does she speak so powerfully through that reserve? There’s a numbness to this book, which is part of what it’s trying to convey, of course, but which means it’s also a little harder to feel really pulled along… perhaps that, too, is part of its point? Arguing for the role of the critical, cerebral, philosophical (portentous?) voice, not the seduced ingenue? I think it’s probably a book that needs multiple re-readings, and at different life stages, for some of its pianissimo notes to get through. So really, I shouldn’t be typing up my thoughts yet, other than, perhaps, as a way of getting to a clearer series of thoughts later….

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  2. After reading 316 books (and rereading a fair portion) for one of the NBA awards a few years ago, I was left feeling that many not-so-good books are automatically nominated by large houses with deep pockets, while many better books go without a nomination because they are at a small press, a university press, or are at a big house but by someone whose name is not much known.

    I wish that there could be a better system where the larger houses gave more funding (they do, but only in support of their own books) and smaller ones gave much less–and everybody had the chance to nominate at least one book. Ideally, there would be an endowment, no or modest fees, and a limited percentage of books nominated by each publisher, so that even the largest publishers would have a reason to try and distinguish what is best, rather than just throwing boxes of books at the judges.

    But I will say that the five of us worked well together, and that I enjoyed the experience of talking about a lot of books with four smart people.

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      • I don’t think that happens often. The onslaught is overwhelming, and the time frame is tight. The books start as a trickle; then suddenly you’re getting multiple boxes, and you must read your eyes out every day…

        Our group was fun. I’ve heard about others that were not. The NBA staff seemed to think we were unusually congenial. And we decided on our slate and final pick well before the traditional luncheon, so we just had a lovely lunch together and then met up again at the ceremony.

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