I Am Big. It's the Pictures That Got Small

for those wonderful people out there in the dark

23 April 2006

Pulitzer Prize

Pretty appalling that the Pulitzer Prize in biography did not go to Joan Didion, but that's another matter.

About the Pulitzer in Poetry, the winner is a bit of a surprise, one that doesn't displease me entirely. The winning book is Late Wife by Claudia Emerson. The other two finalists were American Sublime by Elizabeth Alexander and Elegy on a Toy Piano by Dean Young.

What's a little unsettling for me is that all three poets are about my age (just a year or two older than I am). And what is pleasing is that none of their books is a selected or collected edition, which all too often the Pulitzer goes to, an easy way to offer a life-time achievement recognition rather than a serious consideration of individual books. Anyway, I've followed these three poets since their first books (in fact, I taught Alexander's The Venus Hottentot and Young's Design with X when they came out). So, on one hand, I'm very pleased with these nominations, especially with Dean Young. Of course, we were in the M.F.A. program at Indiana at the same time, took about three workshops together, etc., but at the time he was a goofy narrative poet, not quite yet discovering Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, and the whole New York School thing.

On the other hand, even though I admire these poets, I cannot quite think of Emerson's lovely, quiet book being the best of 2005. Her poetry is incredibly clean, and her subject matter very personal and arresting in this book (which might explain how Emerson could be attractive to judges Ted Kooser and Mary Karr--Kooser, though, has championed Emerson earlier this year, awarding her a Wittner Byner fellowship). Her poetry is precise, careful, perceptive, and measured. But these very strengths make the poems cold to me, and they represent what is wrong with the arguments made by Kooser, Collins, and Dana Gioia about contemporary poetry. It takes true genius for this kind of poetry to work, to have the harrowing skirting just above these well-trimmed gardens. Emily Dickinson, yes! Or even Philip Larkin's meanness will do. Or even Elizabeth Bishop's carnival beneath the formal veneer. I would, however, argue that Emerson's work exceeds Kooser, Collins, and Gioia, and she's far closer to that kind of genius than any of these smug men.

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