Close-reading the 2015 National Book Awards

Forecast: capricious poetry weather ahead.

Last year I tackled the National Book Award’s poetry long list in time for a new year’s post and learned a lot from the exercise. This year I was completing the same task, reading with admirable industry and dedication, when I picked up Sunday’s New York Times Book Review and found it dedicated to the year in verse. Out of seventeen volumes receiving substantial mention there, it turned out I had only read two–and those had been granted relatively brief notice. Further, one of those, by Rankine, was a 2014 collection that continues to sell briskly. Granted, a few of the reviewed collections were newish–I follow Kay Ryan and Major Jackson faithfully and I’ll get to their new work eventually. Still, what a crummy percentage!

Let me repeat, then, that I despair of ever being very well-read in US poetry, much less in the verse of the English-speaking world, and I am not well-versed at all in contemporary poetry’s full polyglot splendor. Seriously, anyone who claims her best-of list is authoritative is kidding you, or herself. Some books, like Citizen, really are big events, aesthetically complex achievements speaking to the historical moment. And a collection must be skilfully written, thoughtfully edited, and attractively published to get media attention; as I observed last year, a suspiciously large percentage of books on these lists were published by fancy NYC operations. I’m sending out Radioland to post-publication prizes and can testify that thorough engagement in the awards game takes serious resources. Most presses don’t have the staff or the dough, and most poets can’t personally pick up the slack.

According to my partial survey, not from a mountain-top but an overgrown hill surrounded by cellphone towers and other scenery-blockers, I can testify that many of the year’s most exciting collections do appear on the NBA list.  Robin Coste Lewis’ winning collection is stunning poetry of witness–the central collage is impressive but the framing lyrics really blew me away. I liked Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things so much I spent an afternoon just before Christmas reading bits aloud to my relatives. (I can’t find the title poem online, but look for it–it wowed my teenage daughter.) I’d characterize a good poetry collection as either deliciously crafty, or presenting a powerful take on urgent material, or both, but here’s another criterion: you want to share what you’re reading with loved ones. Limón’s book wasn’t perfect–a few weaker poems diluted the grand ones–but it hit me that way, as a collection I wanted to tell people about.

I also thought, however, that some books didn’t belong on the long list at all. They were, as I said, skilful, but there were a couple I wouldn’t have bothered to finish if I hadn’t committed myself to the task. And on the finalist list, I’m happy to see strong books by Terrance Hayes and Ross Gay, but the collection by Patrick Phillips just wasn’t especially engaging, even for a poet who’s been mining similar material (dead fathers). I found Marilyn Hacker’s entry more impressive–that title sonnet crown is amazing!–and the books by Jane Hirshfield and Lawrence Raab trumped Phillips–well, both Phillipses–in emotional power, at least for me.

Also, while I’d have to reread my year’s favorites to be sure which collection I’d personally choose for the laurels, it’s a shame Claudia Emerson’s Impossible Bottle wasn’t in the running. No 2015 book moved me more than that one. Other achievements that won’t get enough attention: the interdisciplinary ecofeminist gorgeousness of Bindle, an art and poetry collection by Elisabeth Frost and Dianne Kornberg; or the gender adventure of Stephen Burt’s All-Season Stephanie. Both have lingered in my mind, the way risky books do. Neither looks like an NBA book for various reasons–Burt’s, for instance, is a chapbook–but they and many other collections shouldn’t get blown away like so many autumn leaves.

Radioland wasn’t eligible for the 2015 NBA list, by the way, and won’t be for 2016, either. 2016 books have to be published on or after Dec. 1 2015; my book came out Oct. 1, but galleys weren’t ready in time for the NBA’s summer deadline. I don’t think these grapes are sour, therefore, but as I said, I don’t believe in the fiction of impartiality, either. I know I missed or misread good 2015 collections, and I would like to hear other people’s favorites, too. Seems to me the party could use some new refreshments.

In the meantime, I was floored to receive mention on Bill Manhire’s reading list–scroll down to see. Thanks to Emma Neale for pointing it out. And any NZ readers who are having trouble getting Radioland, please let me know. That’s another problem with small presses, of course; I have trouble reading widely in the poetries of other countries unless I can browse their bookstores in person, and I know many other poetry-readers, wherever they are, feel the same frustration.

Today I’m also looking back at 2015’s literary weather in general, my own capricious reading as compared to what I’m supposed to admire. Here’s my count: 48 books of poetry read or reread; 54 novels; and 16 books of nonfiction, not including a jillion articles as well as books in various genres I didn’t feel like finishing. I don’t see how a person with a needy family and a full-time job could read much more, yet I still feel behind–it’s crazy out there. 77 of those books on my personal list were authored by women, and my 2015 reading was diverse in many other ways, too, but I didn’t read very internationally in 2015, except for a pile of British, Scottish, and Irish poems in the summer, and a host of classic British mysteries that kept me sane through the year’s roughest patches.

I’d like to do better as a global poetry citizen in 2016, but given a daughter in college and sabbatical austerities and a looming dental implant, I don’t expect to be springing for plane tickets. Nor am I in a mood for resolutions, except to keep reading and writing. Mostly I follow literary whims (my novel draft is at 45,000 words and counting!)–I read what genuinely calls to me as much as possible–but I will perform the NBA short-list-reading exercise at least one more time. It’s good to study the company I aspire to keep, one of these days.2015 NBA

 

 

One thought on “Close-reading the 2015 National Book Awards

  1. “I don’t see how a person with a needy family and a full-time job could read much more, yet I still feel behind–” … ditto, Lesley, and by the way, you’ve achieved TONS!!
    Enjoy the new year!

    Like

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