National Book Award Finalists

Before I go into the poetry nominees, I must first say that if Joan Didion doesn't win for nonfiction with her magnificient The Year of Magical Thinking, there's something irrevocably wrong with the entire literary scene in the United States. She's pound for pound the best writer we have.

Okay. This year's nominees:

W.S. Merwin for Migration: New and Selected Poems
Frank Bidart for Star Dust
Brendan Galvin for Habitat: New and Selected Poems
John Ashbery for Where I Shall Wonder
Vern Rutsala for The Moment's Equation

First, I think Mark Doty's School of the Arts and Denise Duhamel's Two and Two were two books, just to name two, worthy of being an NBA finalist.

Here, you have two heavyweights in Merwin and Ashbery, and three finely establish poets, with Rutsala being probably the least known (outside of the Pacific Northwest). Then you have two books that are "new and selected" editions, which is often the easy choice to make. About my own biases, first would be for Rutsala, since he is also a native Idahoan; second for Galvin, since he has written the most positive review of any of my books of poetry; third for Merwin, since he was an early influence and since he once complimented me on how well I rolled a joint for him (this was way back in 1982); fourth for Bidart, since I think he's been one of our least appreciated and most ambitious of poets.

I would vote for Merwin. His latest poetry, as I have been following in the New Yorker (which has been terrible in selecting poetry beyond the established poets), has been supremely lyrical and meditative. Sentimentally, though, I would opt for Rutsala, but honestly I find much of his work, well, flat in a William Stafford kind of way (and I know that that's an unfair and obvious comparison, since both have taught at Lewis and Clark). I would not be upset, though, if Galvin got it.

As for Ashbery, I'm a little tired of the enthrallment for his work (Helen Vendler's main man), which I know has nothing to do with his poetry--my real problem with his work is that it makes an argument for poetry's own inadequacy, that painting or music are really higher art forms (they may be), as his poetry strains for that kind of opaqueness (at its worse) or whimsy (at its best).