Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Photo by John Tranter

It strikes me as bizarre that John Ashbery, of all people, never has received a National Medal for the Arts. The medal has been given out now for 21 years to 8 to 10 recipients per year, including both individuals and organizations. Of the more than 200 medal recipients, the entire list of poets ever to have received this honor is:

Anthony Hecht, 2004
Maya Angelou, 2000
Gwendolyn Brooks, 1995
Richard Wilbur, 1994
Stanley Kunitz, 1993
Robert Penn
Warren, 1987

Need I say just how pathetic that list is? Gwendolyn Brooks and the Five Dwarves represents the whole of poetry over, say, the last half century? It’s high time we rectify this nonsense.

The National Medal doesn’t need only to go to graybeards – Robert Duvall, Dolly Parton, Twyla Tharp, Ron (The Andy Griffith Show, Happy Days, The Da Vinci Code) Howard & Yo-Yo Ma have all received this acknowledgment of their lifetime achievement in recent years. Nor does it have to be only the most sclerotic practitioners – Wynton Marsalis has received one, tho Miles Davis never did. Nor did Anthony Braxton or Steve Lacy or Cecil Taylor. John Cage never received a medal, nor did Stan Brakhage, nor even Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. Nor, to come back to poetry, did Allen Ginsberg, Jackson Mac Low, Barbara Guest, Carl Rakosi or Robert Creeley. But Austin City Limits, Ralph Stanley, Buddy Guy, Rudolfo Anaya & Trisha Brown have all been named. Gregory Rabassa, the translator of Julio Cortázar, the great Oulipo fictioneer, was on the list in 2006. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott received one in 1998 in what was perhaps the medal’s single most interesting year, going also to Fats Domino, Agnes Martin, Frank Gehry, Philip Roth, Gregory Peck, Gwen Verdon, Steppenwolf Theatre Company and … Sara Lee Corporation (for its role as patron).

I believe that Ashbery would be among the first to acknowledge the hollowness of honors, as such, and there was a time – say, ten years ago when both Ginsberg & Creeley were still alive – when one could have had a rousing argument as to whom might be the most deserving of the New Americans to be the first to receive such an award. But time has settled that argument, and the social value of having any member of the New Americans – the single most significant generation of poets we have had over the past half century – acknowledged should not be under-estimated.

It may be worth noting that two-thirds of the poets named to date were chosen by Bill – “I had poets at both my inaugurals” – Clinton. Hecht’s appointment by George W. may seem pretty lame, but George H.W. managed to name exactly none.

All of the Objectivists are gone. There are at most a dozen of the 44 poets included in The New American Poetry still alive, half of whom one could argue are at least as deserving as any of the poets who have thus far received the medal. (Personally, I would love to see George Bush and Amiri Baraka together, but maybe that one’s not going to happen.) Poets from the generation after the New Americans – Joanne Kyger, Robert Kelly, Jerry Rothenberg – are now hitting their seventies. Recognition of America’s major literary tradition, the one that can trace its roots legitimately back not just to Pound but to Whitman, is overdue. Awarding John Ashbery this medal is an obvious first step. It’s long past time. Mr. Gioia, tear down this wall.

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