Back in the summer of 2009, the National Book Foundation started a countdown of its 79 Fiction winners since the awards began in 1950. The series ran through September, with notes on each book by National Book Award board members, writers, editors, agents, and critics; pertinent links; trivia; the original cover images; and information on that year’s nominees and judges. This time around they’re blogging the Poetry winners, all 51 of them (from 1984 through 1990, the only categories were Fiction and Nonfiction). The format is much the same, but—it’s poetry, with potentially greater, and maybe more compelling, ratio of unknowns to knowns:
The list of National Book Award Poetry Winners includes poets who have fallen out of fashion but may again become touchstones for emerging writers, as well as others who remain highly influential in their field. In writing these essays, the bloggers discovered poets whose work they would not be reading otherwise, looked back at work which was not their favorite and found new ways to appreciate or skewer it, and praised the words of their longtime heroes.
The countdown kicked off, appropriately enough, on Valentine’s Day, with William Carlos Williams’ collection Paterson: Book III and Selected Poems. Poet Ross Gay writes:
Kind of astonishing that the first prize landed on someone so right, so important, as Williams, a poet whose innovations, theories, and poems are an undeniable part of our poetry’s genetic material. If you check, you’ll find his photo (you know the one, the sun lighting up his grey and thinning hair, the left hand holding the right above the typewriter, like he’s using every ounce of self-control not to start hammering away at another poem) sitting on your mantle—whether it’s behind the urn or under the picture of your other grandpa is irrelevant. He’s there.
This is definitely a series worth going through in its entirety. And it that doesn’t keep you busy, the National Book Critics Circle is blogging its 31 finalists over 31 days, leading up to the March 10 announcement of the 2010 NBCC award winners. The series kicked off at the beginning of February with, as a matter of fact, some poetry—last year’s National Book Award Poetry winner, Terrance Hayes’ Lighthead, with Stephen Burt celebrating the ambiguity that makes poetry so tantalizing:
[T]he poet has much to run toward: not only the delights of rearranged language but the promise of family, of marital love, the pleasures of a complicated kiss, as in “The Elegant Tongue.” That poem starts as Hayes kisses his wife and digresses into a magnificent description of (believe it or not) the trunks, tusks, and rooting behavior of elephants. It works as a love poem, but no summary can say why.
Critical Mass shakes up the contenders, with Yunte Huang’s Charlie Chan on the heels of Anne Carson’s Nox following up Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s Hiroshima in the Morning. Again, it’s worth starting at the beginning and reading straight through, if just to get an overview of a strong set of contemporary recommended reading. Not to mention a good way to lose yourself on a drab mid-February Monday which may or may not be a holiday, depending on the prevailing attitude toward old dead white guys.