Tuesday, August 09, 2005


More than a few folks have written to note that the following characterization of the participants of Breathing Fire 2 stuck in their craw:

The third is that many appear to be “contest submitters,” which in poetry is almost always a bad sign. Take away John Ashbery’s Some Trees in the Yale Younger Poets contest many decades back (Auden asked Ashbery for the manuscript, but did make a contest out of it by asking Frank O’Hara for one also) & the number of major works produced in relationship to contests is exactly nil. That’s the dirty little secret even Foetry won’t tell you: “award-winning poetry” and significant poetry are mutually exclusive categories.

What about Rukeyser, Tate, etc.? Haven’t I myself favorably reviewed some books that won awards? Doesn’t participating in the contest world serve a valuable function for poetry? What about poets living at a great remove from any literary scene? (That question came from inside the People’s Republic of China.)

I of course had made a point of specifying works, not poets, in my little summation above – indeed, some of the most recent Yale winners have been among that series’ strongest. Tho I would probably argue that, next to Some Trees, Tate’s The Lost Pilot is the best overall book in that entire series, the proposition that it is an important book would have to demonstrate its relationship to the evolution of soft surrealism and likewise argue that soft surrealism itself constitutes an important moment in literary history, rather than just a hiccup of internationalism within the School of Quietude. One would probably also have to address why The Lost Pilot is such a realized work, while the books that would follow would prove to be relatively ragged.

But the more difficult problem than whether or not this or that counter-example might be stellar or not is what the actual function of the contest world is: to substitute an administrative social context for poetry in the place of a community one.

Communities need not be geographic – for every New York School or Spicer Circle, something like the Projectivists exists, poets who never found themselves all in one place until, some 13 years after Olson’s major essay, “Projective Verse,” they all turned up at the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963.¹ But communities are based on actual relationships. In place of this, the contest realm substitutes administrative form. (And if it does not, Foetry will be the first to let us know.)

The very first thing that is sacrificed in this transfer from community to administrative context is an actual audience. Contests have no consistent audiences, save maybe for the winners and people who want to win it next year. Name the last five Yale winners. Or any award, for that matter. Unless you’ve been plotting out your own submission, I’ll wager that it can’t be done.

On the other hand, if you should happen to be a part of a scene, whether it’s geographically based like the Lucipoets of North Carolina, ethnically constructed like new Filipino-American poetry, or coalescing around some sense of shared aesthetics like the New Brutalists out of Mills & Santa Cruz, think about the other people you actually know in your scene. What was their most recent book? If they don’t have one yet, is one on the way? Do you have a sense of their work, of who they are as person & poet? The depth of the context of such circumstances is so grounded compared with the proposition that the last five winners of the Frederick Morgan (or Agnes Starrett Lynch, or New Criterion or whatever) poetry prize constitutes a grouping of anything, even new formalists.

What makes Some Trees important is its role as the first major publication of the New York School. As such, it played a foundational role in the creation of one of major social contexts for poetry over the past 60 years. No other Yale volume has come close to doing anything half so dramatic.

Or consider the Pulitzer, an unusual case in that its winners have not necessarily set out to participate in the prize. Would Of Being Numerous been half so important a volume had it not been a part of the larger context of Objectivism? It certainly would have been a good book, but as part of the larger social context, it reverberates not only within George Oppen’s work, but in what it can show the wise reader about such disparate others as Louis Zukofsky & Basil Bunting, Carl Rakosi & Charles Reznikoff. One might go so far as to say that it is the book that demonstrates the importance of ethics as a bedrock element of all Objectivism, that which determines how those poets partook of the Pound-Williams tradition, and what makes them so different from others who came from of the same roots. This makes Of Being Numerous a far more important work than any other Pulitzer winner you can name, even those by William Carlos Williams, Gary Snyder or John Ashbery. Snyder’s Turtle Island, on the other hand, is interesting precisely because it represents the last moment, really, when his own writing was part of a larger literary community, beyond which he has become an isolato, a singularity. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is important principally in that it initiated the series of volumes through which Ashbery parodied – humiliatingly so – the dynamics of the School of Quietude. That they loved & celebrated him for this made it a brilliant act of SM, perhaps, but hardly as significant a volume as The Tennis Court Oath, Rivers and Mountains or Three Poems.

At least one can say of the Pulitzer that it does have some volumes that can be spoken of on such terms. Save for Some Trees, the same is not true for any of the contest series anywhere. Indeed, to win a contest generally is to announce that one as a poet does not come from any community, that one is floundering around in search of one. But lacking any real audience of its own, how precisely does a winning volume help in this process? Maybe it will make a magazine editor think twice before sending work back unread (or, rather, read without sufficient attention) & maybe it gives one some copies to send around to the poets one wishes to construct a readership around. It’s conceivable that it could help with getting an interview for a teaching job, tho that has nothing to do with writing one’s poetry.

On top of this, for every “winner” there are many “losers” – that’s a role communities seldom have. Adding insult to injury, in many contests losers get to finance publication of the winner as well.

So, yes, I will happily concede that many decent poets have won awards, tho seldom for their best work. If they’re good and they are fortunate, these writers will go on to find the communities & contexts they are seeking – one could list Tate, Margaret Walker, Olga Broumas, Jack Gilbert & Muriel Rukeyser precisely as examples of poets who have done so. But most do not. And the question that haunts me is: has the contest process made it any easier for any of these poets? I see no evidence for that conclusion at all.


¹ There is a history of the poetry conference as a form begging to be written, and it may well be that this event was the first such occasion.

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