Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Saturday, January 3, 2015


Lesley Wheeler
     On her "taking poetry personally" blog, the English Department Chair at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, Lesley Wheeler, asks:  "Do poets without connections or their own major taste-making powers, I wonder, really receive fair consideration?"

     I suspect that by "fair" she might be alluding obliquely to [artistic] "merit"--a taboo word within the educational community.  Frankly, if that were the criterion I doubt a winner could have been declared in this millennium.

     By "poets" Ms. Wheeler means "poetry graduates publishing books".  The "consideration" she mentions would come from  National Book Awards voters.  We shouldn't miss this irony:  Lesley is complaining about exclusion while ignoring the 98+% of poets who weren't English majors and whose poetry appears onstage, online, or in magazines rather than in books.  Those excluded include two of this century's top three 21st century poets.  Note the paucity of self-publishing high school graduates from Podunk, Missouri.  Even a cursory glance at the list of winning tomes (see Addendum A below), most of them anthologies, as well as the age and occupation of the authors, shows that this is not about singular publications;  it is a lifetime achievement award created by and for academics.  If Ms. Wheeler feels her own work (e.g. "Dressing Down, 1962") is being overlooked, perhaps she just needs to wait a few decades.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #68
     Lesley makes a number of good points, going to great pains detailing how she [along with the rest of humanity] finds reading poetry onerous, even volumes shortlisted for a prize she is blogging about.  Nobody Reads Poetry.  This is especially true for books, a technology that cannot compete with tablets.  To wit, among uncountable other advantages, the electronic tablet (or smart phone or computer) offers faster access (e.g. through web searching), a wider selection (e.g. nothing goes out of print), more convenience (e.g. backlighting), instantaneous interactivity (e.g. the comments section below), greater economy, and multimedia.  Book defenders cite the greater gravitas their medium enjoys but if that is the issue why not try stone tablets?  Or engravings beneath statues?  After all, what could be more monumental than a monument?

     Currently, these prizes constitute the only advantage offered by books.  What if forward-thinking patrons establish similar events for online or performed poetry?  Before you consider money, let's bear in mind that virtually all poetry print publication--book or magazine--today involves financial loss.  Why sponsor poetry that no one--not even other academics--will read when, for much less cash, one can fund honors mentioned far more often?  A websearch for "National Book Awards" reveals 487,000 hits, only a fraction of which are poetry related.  "Pushcart" gets 669,000 hits, of which a higher percentage are relevant.  "Best of the Net" gets 41,400,000 mentions and is mostly poetry.  That is more than the 29,900,000 for "Pulitzer".  Think about that for a moment.

Addendum A:  National Book Awards Winners for Poetry (1950-2013)

1950: Paterson: Book III and Selected Poems by William Carlos Williams
1951: The Auroras of Autumn by Wallace Stevens
1952: Collected Poems by Marianne Moore
1953: Collected Poems, 1917-1952 by Archibald MacLeish
1954: Collected Poems by Conrad Aiken
1955: The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens by Wallace Stevens
1956: The Shield of Achilles by W.H. Auden
1957: Things of the World by Richard Wilbur
1958: Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 by Robert Penn Warren
1959: Words for the Wind by Theodore Roethke
1960: Life Studies by Robert Lowell
1961: The Woman at the Washington Zoo by Randall Jarrell
1962: Poems by Alan Dugan
1963: Traveling Through the Dark by William Stafford
1964: Selected Poems by John Crowe Ransom
1965: The Far Field by Theodore Roethke
1966: Buckdancer's Choice: Poems by James Dickey
1967: Nights and Days by James Merrill
1968: The Light Around the Body by Robert Bly
1969: His Toy, His Dream, His Rest by John Berryman
1970: The Complete Poems by Elizabeth Bishop
1971: To See, To Take by Mona Van Duyn
1972: Selected Poems by Howard Moss; Frank O'Hara
1973: Collected Poems, 1951-1971 by A. R. Ammons
1974: The Fall of America: Poems of these States, 1965-1971 by Allen Ginsberg
Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich
1975: Presentation Piece by Marilyn Hacker
1976: Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery
1977: Collected Poems, 1930-1976 by Richard Eberhart
1978: The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov by Howard Nemerov
1979: Mirabell: Books of Number by James Merrill
1980: Ashes by Philip Levine
1981: The Need to Hold Still by Lisel Mueller
1982: Life Supports: New and Collected Poems by William Bronk
1983: Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell
Country Music: Selected Early Poems by Charles Wright

1991: What Work Is by Philip Levine
1992: New & Selected Poems by Mary Oliver
1993: Garbage by A.R. Ammons
1994: A Worshipful Company of Fletchers by James Tate
1995: Passing Through: The Later Poems by Stanley Kunitz
1996: Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, Poems 1991-1995 by Hayden Carruth
1997: Effort at Speech: New & Selected Poems by William Meredith
1998: This Time: New and Selected Poems by Gerald Stern
1999: Vice: New & Selected Poems by Ai
2000: Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 by Lucille Clifton
2001: Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry by Alan Dugan
2002: In the Next Galaxy by Ruth Stone
2003: The Singing by C.K. Williams
2004: Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003 by Jean Valentine
2005: Migration: New and Selected Poems by W.S. Merwin
2006: Splay Anthem by Nathaniel Mackey
2007: Time and Materials by Robert Hass
2008: Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems by Mark Doty
2009: Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy by Keith Waldrop
2010: Lighthead by Terrance Hayes
2011: Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney
2012: Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations by David Ferry
2013: Incarnadine by Mary Szybist

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