National Book Award Poetry Finalists

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LAST WEEK the National Book Foundation in New York, at the center of establishment arts culture, announced their nominees for this year’s Poetry award. Each one of the five finalists has been highly awarded by the current literary system– by foundations, universities and/or governments. One would expect this to be the best of the best.

We did a quick perusal of bios, then examined one poem from each poet. Our grades follow.

***

Daniel Borzutzky. P.C. factor: Of Chilean heritage. The poem: “Sentence”

We found Borzutzky to be a cross between an Allen Ginsberg wannabe and a flarf poet who jams random words and sentence fragments together. The result is pretentious nonsense. We give him a point or two for being tongue-in-cheek, and to be fair, he’s called what he does “Non-Writing.” We won’t disagree. (And, he’s making quite a living from minimal artistic investment, so kudos for that.)

Grade: D.

***

Rita Dove. P.C. factor: African-American woman. The poem: “Heart to Heart”

A short, simple poem which expresses clarity and emotion.

Grade: B.

***

Peter Gizzi. P.C. factor: Token white guy. The poem: “In Defense of Nothing”

Before Gizzi became part of the official literary game, he was a Do-It-Yourselfer. We’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt– but in this case his poem is aptly titled.

Grade: D+.

***

Jay Hopler. P.C. factor: Born in Puerto Rico. The poem: “So Many Birds to Kill and So Few Stones”

We like Hopler’s use of alliteration. Here’s a poet who’s given at least some thought to craft. Still, the title and content are a tad too sober-serious for our taste– as is Hopler’s bio photo. Hopler’s clearly going for the “Poetry is serious business!” crowd.

Grade: C.

***

Solmaz Sharif. P.C. factor: Turkish-born woman. The poem: “Vulnerability Study”

A very simple poem– but we like the juxtapositions. Easy seriousness.

Grade: C.

***

Conclusion: The poems are a tad better then we expected– we’ve seen far worse come out of the academy. But we’re still left saying, “Is that all there is?” Is this all we’re competing against, in our fledgling campaign to remake and renew the art form? At their best, the poems are unexceptional. Not one is going to be remembered and quoted by readers– in the way people quote Poe, or Dylan Thomas, or Shakespeare. Not one will cause a person to sit up in shock or surprise– or outrage– or roar with laughter.

We want better poems!

 

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