Monday, November 23, 2009

She was the youngest winner ever of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and the first one born in the 20th century. Just 24, it wasn’t even her first book, coming seven years after The House of Silk. He was older and more established, holding the post that is now called Poet Laureate of the United States. Not only were they husband & wife, but she was also the great-great granddaughter of Percy Bysshe Shelley. They were, in short, as close to a pure power couple the field of verse in America has had. Today, however, few people remember Audrey Wurdemann & Joseph Auslander. I think of them not just as an index of exactly how quiet the School of Quietude can be – here is the title poem of Ms. Wurdemann’s prize-winning volume, published 11 years after William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All, twenty years after Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons¹ – but as a symbol of just how significant prizes & titles prove to be.

If you are going to have a life with any sort of impact in poetry, prizes are entirely unimportant. The absence of a top award had no perceptible negative impact on the work of Stein, nor Ezra Pound, nor H.D. nor Hart Crane. More recently Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson & Jack Spicer demonstrated this all over again. And as if to underscore the point that the opposite is true as well – having a major award or title will not ensure a lasting legacy – Ms. Wurdemann’s 1935 prize was bracketed by Pulitzers given to Robert Silliman Hillyer in 1934 & Robert P. Tristram Coffin in 1936, two names that don’t much resonate some 70-plus years after they were judged to be the very best there was in American poetry. Folks who remember Hillyer do so for his contributions to the anti-communist hysteria of the postwar period, not his verse.

Still, awards & prizes must mean something. How else explain the joy one saw on literary listservs, in this blog’s comments stream or in various conversations & emails Thursday morning as word got out that Keith Waldrop had received the National Book Award for 2009? Mairead Byrne’s 3-line missive is a haiku-like example that pretty much captures the spirit of it all:

oh keith waldrop
keith waldrop!

Keith Waldrop indeed. I think the reason for all this exuberance is pretty simple. Hundreds & perhaps thousands of people around the world of poetry know that

(a)   Keith Waldrop is a wonderful writer & that Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy is a better-than-excellent book, and

(b)   Keith Waldrop is a beautiful human being, one of the true good guys of poetry, who has spent a lifetime building resources for the poem in every way conceivable, both on his own & with his partner Rosmarie Waldrop.

It makes people happy when the good guys win. And it makes people happy when somebody who is genuinely humble & likewise terrific at what he does gets public acknowledgement for being the great force for good that he is. Giving Keith Waldrop the National Book Award accomplishes all of the above. Ultimately it is Keith Waldrop who honors the National Book Award far more than the other way around. He lets the prize achieve its full potential, which is perhaps the very most you can ask for in giving an award.

The funny thing is, perhaps as many as four of the five finalists for the National Book Award would have led to similar reactions, the judges for this award having done as good a job as I’ve ever seen in coming up with a roster of fine work from which to choose. This seems to be possible with the National Book Award far more than is the case with the other major award for verse, the Pulitzer Prize. Since the NBA began in 1950, there has not been a single case in which the award went to somebody who disappeared as completely from the annals of poetry as that trio of mid-1930s Pulitzer bards has. Looking over the list of Pulitzer winners from the past 25 years suggests, I think, that a couple of these folks are destined to be remembered just about as well as Ms. Wurdemann or Mr. Coffin.

It could be worse: the once important Yale Younger Poets award has fallen on such hard times that winning the prize appears to be worse for one’s career than not having published a book at all. Until he disappeared on an island trek earlier this year, I had never even heard of Craig Arnold. Fady Joudah’s award has, I would wager, had but a fraction of the impact of his translations of Mahmoud Darwish’s work in spreading his own reputation. The Wikipedia page for the prize – like the one at Yale itself – tacitly acknowledges all this by not even bothering to print a complete list of previous winners. I once saw Jack Gilbert read a list of the early winners just to underscore the point that it was a great predictor of mediocrity. Gilbert himself was a recent winner at the time.

In looking at awards, it is always useful to pay attention to what is being promoted by the event. The Pulitzer exists to promote the credibility of newspapers, in this instance as reviewers of poetry. Or more accurately, as a site for advertising books of poems. I think we all know just how credible that is. Do an advanced search on “Keith Waldrop” on the New York Times web site and you will find that the one-sentence paragraph in the Times’ story on the National Book Award is only the third mention ever made of his existence in The Times. The first is a review of Waldrop’s translation of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil by Joshua Clover in 2006, the second a pair of letters noting what a great review it was. The Times apparently didn’t take the hint. In contrast, the Times has had 30 pieces over the years that mention or review the work of Frederick Seidel. If that doesn’t give you a sense of the Times’ scale of value, nothing will.

The purpose of the National Book Award is more direct: to promote the legitimacy of books, or at least of trade publishing, publishing as an industrialized activity. The Times piece on this year’s NBA openly wonders about the relevancy of the award, given that none of the finalists in any category have sold more than 19,000 copies. This in a world in which trade publishers plow their energy into the wall-to-wall promotion of a ghost-written memoir of Sarah Palin. A world in which there are over 200,000 titles published each year, compared with the 8,000 or so that were the norm in the years right after World War 2. Is it any wonder that serious writing seems lost in the blather of how much I’m going to have to pay Barnes & Noble to have my cardboard display of this week’s vampire novel up towards the front door?

At least the NBA has panels of active participants in the various disciplines decide on which books to include as finalists and on which to award prizes. Poetry judges Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, A. Van Jordan, Cole Swensen, & Kevin Young can take a lot of credit for this year’s result. And whoever selected them can do likewise.

The NBA began in 1950 & its first three recipients were William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens & Marianne Moore, all then in their sixties. The award has been given to Allen Ginsberg (The Fall of America), Frank O’Hara (The Collected Works), William Bronk (Life Supports), Nate Mackey (Splay Anthem), Adrienne Rich (Diving into the Wreck) & A.R. Ammons (Collected Poems). That sort of aesthetic diversity shows up far less often with the Pulitzer – George Oppen & a posthumous award to Williams in the 1960s, Gary Snyder & John Ashbery in the 1970s, Jimmy Schuyler in the 1980s, & then a solid wall of quietism now for 28 straight years.²

The positioning of the two awards in Williams’ life is telling. The NBA came just three years before his nomination to the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress – the “Poet Laureate of the United States” slot – was derailed partly because of concerns for his leftist politics & modernist sympathies. The Pulitzer arrived when he was safely dead, no longer able to embarrass anyone. That wasn’t necessarily a new stance for the Pulitzer. In its first seven years, back in the 1920s, the Pulitzer was awarded three times to Edwin Arlington Robinson, about as militant a rejection of modernism, indeed of modernity itself, as one can imagine. Today, a glance at the Pulitzer’s board – which must approve the work of any nominating committee – suggests that current situation there has not changed. Is there any individual on that list whom you would consider a reliable authority of poetry? And where is a board clueless about poetry but dedicated to the legitimization of newspapers mostly to turn for direction?

Happily, where The New York Times offered us just one frail sentence about Waldrop’s triumph, CBS News was able to do more & the Providence Journal went whole hog with a real story. Siglio Press, which recently published Waldrop’s collection of collages, Several Gravities, has an excerpt from editor Robert Seydel’s essay on the art works, an interview with Keith done by Peter Gizzi, and even a mini-slide show from the book up on its website. You can check out Waldrop’s sites at the Electronic Poetry Center and PennSound. And SPD lists 19 of his books – many with fewer than 10 copies available – for sale.


¹ Tender Buttons was written in 1911, the same year Ms. Wurdemann was born.

² Eat your heart out, George Steinbrenner. This is one record the Yankees will never touch.