Monday, April 14, 2008

I emptied the three cartons of books sent to me by the Poetry Society of America onto a blue chest we keep in our foyer to contain a household’s worth of backpacks & canvas bags (and, on a more impromptu basis, one of my kid’s bass guitar). Piled into about eight stacks of not-quite-twenty books each, several other things became immediately apparent to me.

First, my own The Age of Huts (compleat) was not the only volume in which I felt too close to the author to make a dispassionate judgment about the work. There were several books, for example, by contributors to my anthology, In the American Tree. There were other books by poets whom I’ve known well for decades, know the spouse, maybe knew the last spouse as well, even in one case a parent, have lunch with them whenever we’re in the same region. Further, some of the books involved are terrific. I can think of two that are better than any volume that has received a Pulitzer in the last quarter century. Since, say, Jimmy Schuyler’s Morning of the Poem in 1981, the last completely great book to receive that award. With a fairly deep (and fairly literal) sigh, I set about a dozen books aside. I tell myself that if nothing else proves worthy, I can return to these and rethink this if I need to do so later.

Second, it becomes almost immediately apparent that some very obvious contenders are absent. Where is, for example, Joanne Kyger’s collected poems, About Now? While I have known Kyger slightly for forty years, I’ve been to her home in Bolinas exactly once (about 35 years ago) and have never really had a correspondence, save when David Melnick & I selected her work for a feature in The Chicago Review in 1970, which consisted of maybe three notes (one of them an apology on our part for the Review’s first attempt at computer typesetting screwing up her contributor’s note – it declared that Gary Snyder was her second volume). Plus, About Now is one of the volumes that came out last year comparable in quality to something like Morning of the Poem. But it’s not here at all. Since I’m not W.H. Auden, I don’t see any value gained by my changing the rules as I go along, so I don’t feel I can merely toss About Now into the pile, knowing that it would almost certainly have been at least a finalist. Instead, I give another heavy sigh at the idea of a university press series that does less promotion than

Third, I also realize that of the remaining books, maybe 136 in all, I’ve already read at least a quarter, perhaps a third, one of the consequences of doing this blog. This is probably the first moment when I think that, hey, maybe reading all these books in such a concentrated fashion won’t seem so bad. I know that I like quite a few of these. I have a second thought almost as quickly as the first – oh dear, I’m going to have to select from several volumes I really like. There are several volumes I already know to be terrific. This is not going to be easy. I realize that I never will return to those books I originally pulled out of the process.

My plan is this. I’m going to read everything all the way through – or until utter incompetence stops me – at least once. I’m going to segregate the books as I go along into a number of different piles:

Books that are terrific and really deserve a prize

Books I need to reread to make sure I shouldn’t be giving them the prize instead

Books that seem mostly competent, but don’t do anything of great import one way or another.

Books that are not competent at all.

I anticipate that this last category is going to be fairly large. The first one I expect to be quite small, and the second one likewise. Most of what I have here I believe will divide pretty naturally into the final two groups.

Fat lot I know.