I could rail all day about first-book awards for poetry, but I’d mostly be railing against the fact that poetry doesn’t make enough money for publishers just to search out books, which I can’t care all that much about and would just make me tired. However, major poetry awards (book awards like the Pulitzer, NBA, Marshall, not lifetime achievement awards like the Stevens or Lilly) have been fueling my ire lately in a much more direct way (through their own fault and not society’s or what have you).
Here’s the bind that major book awards find themselves in: To “matter” as a major poetry award they have to go to recipients with name recognition, but to actually matter to the recipient’s career or the readership they should go to the actual best book of the year, which I would posit almost never ever actually happens.
Kay Ryan won the pulitzer this year for her “new and selected” poems. I’m a fan of Kay Ryan more for how she speaks about poetry than her actual work (she’s sharp as a razor, but I find her work slight, which is what she does, so it’s all just a matter of taste there…) She’s also funny as hell and kind of doesn’t seem to care about the mainstream, although if I hear one more time that she’s out of the mainstream in an introduction to a panel at a major poetry conference where she’s sitting next to Pinsky or in an article talking about her stint as poet laureate again I might vomit into my own nostrils.
Here’s the deal, the books that made up Ryan’s new and selected (minus the new) all came out at least 5 years before that book. In the intervening years she served as poet laureate and got poetry famous. If she had received the pulitzer for any of her books that wasn’t made in direct reaction to being the poet laureate I would have lauded the choice, but giving the award to a book that was wholly created to capitalize on her newfound notoriety is, well, lazy as hell.
And this is the problem with the Pulitzer (and, to a lesser degree, the other book awards, although the NBCC has a tendency to be pretty solid, and the Marshall’s system of having judges makes it quirky (sometimes awesome and sometimes just, um, quirky) which is at least better than lazy). It is consistently given not to the best book of poems that comes out, but serves as a de-facto recognition of a poet’s recognition elsewhere. That’s why it’s often joked that the pulitzer is given to the book that follows a poet’s best book—how could the Pulitzer committee know that the best book would be the best book if they hadn’t already read that it was the best book everywhere else? Besides, you know, reading the book and making an informed decision based on content.
I know there’s no way to actually fix ths, it’s how we humans work, but I think it’s a shame that when I see the Pulitzer results each year my response is “Yup, that’s about right”. Nothing more exciting than that. You know what would have been exciting? Giving the Pulitzer to Rae Armantrout or Kay Ryan ten years ago, or W.S. Merwin or Robert Hass twenty years ago. The Pulitzer tells me that people I already know are great are great, which doesn’t interest me in the least.