Friday
Feb182011

1954

Collected Poems

by Conrad Aiken

Original and Current Publisher: Oxford University Press

Evie Shockley writes:

Prior to my taking on this blog assignment, Conrad Aiken was to me just a name in the list of people who held the U. S. Poet Laureate position before it bore that title, back when it was the less glamorous-sounding job of Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.  I had never, to my knowledge, read a single poem of his, though I’m sure he is included in more than one of the anthologies on my shelves.  Moreover, I had never had or even overheard a conversation about his work, such that would give me a sense of what his poetry was like.

Most readers and critics of poetry and, of course, most poets themselves can name a poet whom they admire deeply and who, nonetheless, goes unread, untaught, unwritten about—quite unjustly, they would argue.  I certainly could!  But it is much less often that I encounter a twentieth-century American poet who was so highly and repeatedly recognized in his day, only to have fallen almost entirely out of circulation.  Aiken not only served as Poetry Consultant and won the National Book Award (for his Collected Poems in 1954), he won a Pulitzer Prize (Selected Poems, 1930), the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Gold Medal in Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a National Medal for Literature.  All this—and around thirty collections of poetry to his name—and yet his work is not noticeably a part of the critical (or popular) conversation about American modernist poetry.

It should be said that his fiction has fared better over time.  But my perusal of his Collected Poems does not inspire me to challenge the tacit consensus on his poetry.  One of the brief biographies of Aiken available online included the comment that his work remained too indebted to Romanticism to rival the popularity or importance of the major modernists.  I found that assessment really illuminating as I contemplated the 800+ pages of Aiken’s poetic oeuvre.

It is composed significantly of long poems and book-length or multi-book projects: for example, The Divine Pilgrim, a work concerned with representing the sound and structure of (classical) music, is composed of six “symphonies,” five of which were published in book form serially over a period of seven years.  Across his numerous books, he works primarily in vers libre lines, blank verse, and rhyming iambic pentameter and tetrameter couplets.  He uses meter loosely, but unmistakably.  In one poem I spent some time with, “The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones,” he reviews Jones’s life, from birth to death, by listing the places, things, people, words, and moments that characterize the man.  For example, in the section called “The Costumes,” we find this passage:

Item: a pair of moccasins

Item: a tweed hat bought in England, green,
goloshes, silk shirts, collars of increasing sizes,
and assorted neckties, mostly blue

Item: pyjamas, linen for summer, woolen for winter
with tassled cords and pockets in the jackets

I’d hoped the formal device of the list, which has enjoyed some popularity in recent years, would make this poem more compelling to me than some of the others, but ultimately it didn’t.  Then I realized that all the specificity of the lists Aiken compiled, rather than individuating Jones, constructed him as an “everyman”—which is precisely the character Aiken is presenting in each of the books of The Divine Pilgrim (as he says explicitly in the notes in the back of the book) and, apparently, in many of the other poems as well.  His works being also quite autobiographical, by his own admission, we arrive at one of the qualities that prevented me from enjoying his poetry more.  That is, Aiken’s “everyman” is a very particular specimen of humanity, but neither the character nor the poet shows any consciousness of the limited ability of this particular existence to stand in for the rest of humankind in the poems’ metaphysical quests.

I hardly knew whether to be surprised or not to learn that Aiken was a friend of T. S. Eliot’s beginning during their college years at Harvard, where the two edited the university’s literary magazine together, as well as a friend of Pound’s.  He strikes me as having all of their writerly bombast, without Eliot’s eye and ear for image or the cosmopolitanism or sense of scope that mark Pound’s work.  But it may be that I’m too close to speaking of the man, rather than the poet, here.  Maybe this is the moment for me to conclude, hoping that, despite my own lack of enthusiasm, I’ve gestured toward something in Aiken’s work that might move other readers to seek it out and, perhaps, to become the ones to insist on its importance for the tradition, in the face of its current neglect.

Evie Shockley’s collections of poetry include the new black (Wesleyan University Press, forthcoming 2011), a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006), and two chapbooks. She is also author of the forthcoming critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011). Poems have recently appeared or will soon appear in such journals and anthologies as Callaloo, A Broken Thing: Contemporary Poets on the Line, Iron Horse Literary Review, esque, Talisman, Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, and Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Shockley co-edits jubilat and is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. (Photo credit: Stéphane Robolin)

Poetry Finalists that Year: Not Announced

Poetry Judges that Year: Katherine Garrison Chapin, Norman Holmes Pearson,
John Crowe Ransom, Delmore Schwartz, Richard Wilbur

The Year in Literature: The Waking by Theodore Roethke won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Conrad Aiken (1889-1973) was born in Savannah, GA.
  • In 1901, Aiken’s father murdered his mother and then killed himself. Aiken, who was eleven years old at the time, heard the gunshots and discovered their bodies.  

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Thursday
Feb172011

1953

Collected Poems, 1917-1952

By Archibald MacLeish

Original Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Current Publisher: Out of Print

John Murillo writes:

Reading Archibald MacLeish's Collected Poems brought a new favorite poet into my life. It also gave me even more reason to question the criteria by which some poets are canonized while others go ignored for years. With three Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award to his name, MacLeish was clearly celebrated in his day. But how is it that after a four-year undergraduate liberal arts education, an MFA in creative writing, and countless conversations with other poets about influences and issues of craft—some insanely erudite poets, I might add—I'm only now learning about this important poet and his contribution to American letters? Someone should have pulled my coat a long time ago. Archibald MacLeish is the truth!

I'll let you in on a little secret: When we poets were asked to blog and assigned our NBA winners, we damn near shut down the internet with all the backchannel trading that went on. “Hey, can I get William Matthews from you?” “Sure, only if you give up Lucille Clifton.” “Damn. Okay, but how about...” For the life of me, I couldn't get anyone to take Archibald MacLeish off my hands no matter who I offered up in exchange. Good thing. Had I not read him, I'd have missed out on so so much, both as reader and writer. The old dude has a lot he can teach us.

MacLeish is often referred to as an imagist poet, albeit a latecomer to the movement. He's also been linked with the Modernists, due in part to a few of his long poems, which some consider derivative of Pound and Eliot. I'm not sure I'd group him with either. For me, he's more modern than Modern. There is such a fresh, even contemporary, feel to so many of his poems that he seems out of step with most in his cohort. His mastery of the line, his often subtle, always lively rhythms, give one the sense that one is reading what could have been written as recently as the eighties or nineties. 

In the poem, “Eleven,” for instance, MacLeish works a non-metered, mostly ten-syllable line as well as anything one might find in the best of Philip Levine or Henry Taylor. This line is perfect for his narrative because while it forces some compression—essential for the poem's image-driven muscularity—it also allows a little bit of swing, some room for the natural rhythms inherent in American speech, allows the poem to flow almost conversationally, the language almost transparent:

ELEVEN

And summer mornings the mute child, rebellious,

Stupid, hating the words, the meanings, hating

The Think now, Think, the Oh but Think! would leave

On tiptoe the three chairs on the verandah

And crossing tree by tree the empty lawn

Push back the shed door and upon the sill

Stand pressing out the sunlight from his eyes

And enter and with outstretched fingers feel

The grindstone and behind it the bare wall

And turn and in the corner on the cool

Hard earth sit listening. And one by one,

Out of the dazzled shadow in the room,

The shapes would gather, the brown plowshare, spades,

Mattocks, the polished helves of picks, a scythe

Hung from the rafters, shovels, slender tines

Glinting across the curve of sickles—shapes

Older than men were, the wise tools, the iron

Friendly with earth. And sit there, quiet, breathing

The harsh dry smell of withered bulbs, the faint

Odor of dung, the silence. And outside

Beyond the half-shut door the blind leaves

And the corn moving. And at noon would come,

Up from the garden, his hard crooked hands

Gentle with earth, his knees still earth-stained, smelling

Of sun, of summer, the old gardener, like

A priest, like an interpreter, and bend

Over his baskets.

                             And they would not speak:

They would say nothing. And the child would sit there

Happy as though he had no name, as though

He had been no one: like a leaf, a stem,

Like a root growing—

I never get the sense, reading MacLeish, that he's forcing anything. He understands pitch, volume, when to foreground technique, when to pull back. He sings, whispers, and shuts the hell up at the right times, all with the intention not to call attention to himself as an artist, but to the work. Here is a serious craftsman. By the time the poems reach the reader, much of the work's been done. All that's left for one is to enjoy. And to learn.

One of my teachers, Kimiko Hahn, suggested that apprentice poets always read like thieves. When poring over the work of masters—or even lesser-known poets, including contemporaries—one should always be asking oneself, “What can I steal from this poet?  How can I take what they're doing and use it in my own work?” I came late to the work of Archibald MacLeish. But here is a storehouse of riches I can pillage for years to come.  And while most of my peers are looking elsewhere, I'll have it almost to myself. Watch me rob this old man blind.

John Murillo is the author of the poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher Books, 2010). A graduate of New York University's MFA program in creative writing, he has received fellowships from the New York Times, Cave Canem, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, among others. He is a founding member of the collective, The Symphony, and is currently visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Cornell University. (Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Stanley Burnshaw for Early and Late Testament
  • Thomas H. Ferril for New and Selected Poems
  • Robert Hillyer for The Suburb by the Sea
  • Ernest Kroll for Cape Horn and Other Poems
  • W.S. Merwin for A Mask for Janus
  • Byron H. Reece for A Song of Joy
  • Naomi Replansky for Ring Song
  • Kenneth Rexroth for The Dragon and the Unicorn
  • Jesse Stuart for Kentucky Is My Land
  • Ridgely Torrence for Poems
  • Peter Viereck for The First Morning

Poetry Judges that Year: Leonie Adams, John Malcolm Brinnin, Howard Moss,
Oscar Williams, William Carlos Williams

The Year in Literature: Collected Poems, 1917-1952 by Archibald MacLeish also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) was born in Glencoe, IL.
  • In 1959 MacLeish won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play J.B.

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Wednesday
Feb162011

1952

Collected Poems

By Marianne Moore

Original Publisher: Macmillan
Current Publisher:
Out of Print 

Lee Felice Pinkas writes:

A cat flattening itself in the sun is like seaweed; a strawberry with its many seeds is a hedgehog; the sea is a giant grave. These are among the unique juxtapositions of Marianne Moore, who at every turn displays a dogged commitment to precision, not just of language, but of syllable and image. Traveling where she wishes in her work, Moore expects her readers to come along. In all her poems, she is an adept observer of things, be they in museums, in nature, or within the spaces of her mind. The objective is always to observe, to heap metaphor upon metaphor until the image or idea is realized.

Moore’s 1951 Collected Poems features poems from her Selected Poems (1935), What Are Years (1941), Nevertheless (1944), and nine “hitherto uncollected” poems. The collection shows that Moore can create subject matter from anything. She finds grace in the compression abilities of a snail; in “The Jerboa” she spends a long poem praising an African rodent that has long hind legs. “Don’t laugh,” she implores in “Wood-weasel” before describing a skunk dressed in “sylvan black and white chipmunk regalia.” No creature is too small, no idea too insignificant for Moore to applaud or discover.

 “When I Buy Pictures” displays Moore’s appreciation of details and even says something about her approach to art. “Or what is closer to the truth,” she admits in her first line (most of her first lines continue from the titles), “when I look at that of which I may regard myself as the imaginary possessor, / I fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments...” I love the humor of Moore’s admission that she’s not actually purchasing the paintings, only dreaming of doing so. Creating an intimacy with her readers, Moore mimics the style of real conversation, qualifying her initial statement with a more honest admission of the truth. She proceeds to tell us how small a detail can draw her in to a painting. “It may be no more than a square of parquetry; the literal / biography perhaps, / in letters standing well apart upon a parchment-like expanse; an artichoke in six varieties of blue; the snipe-legged hiero- / glyphic in three parts…” Moore is careful, both in her appreciation of art and her making of it.

I wouldn’t use the word accessible to describe Moore’s poetry, yet there is a welcoming humor to her tone.  Even her more serious poems, or those that are laden with learnedness, invite us to partake in their enjoyment. She doesn’t ask us to adopt her beliefs, nor does she ask that we see things the way she does, but she asks us to bear with her. In “Marriage,” she writes, “This institution...requiring public promises / of one’s intention / to fulfill a private obligation...” Such clever lines are what make Moore the philosopher of life so appealing.

At the end of Collected Poems, Moore says that an artist who relies too heavily on her audience’s desires risks becoming the “donkey that finally found itself being carried by its masters.” She uses this phrase as a justification for including notes about her poems at the end of her books. It is, she feels, the more honest thing to do. Moore wrote about what she liked, carefully and deliberately, allowing herself to be moved by the images of her life, allowing her poems to be driven by their own logic systems.

Lee Felice Pinkas' poetry and translations have been published in the Crab Orchard Review, Diagram, Witness, and Denver Quarterly, among other places. She is a teacher of English and government at a private girls' high school in New York City.


Poetry Finalists that Year: 

  • W.H. Auden for Nones
  • William Rose Benèt for The Spirit of the Scene
  • Richard Eberhart for Selected Poems
  • Horace Gregory for Selected Poems of Horace Gregory
  • Randall Jarrell for The Seven-League Crutches
  • Theodore Roethke for Praise to the End
  • Muriel Rukeyser for Selected Poems
  • William Carlos Williams for Collected Earlier Poems
  • William Carlos Williams for Paterson

Poetry Judges that Year: Conrad Aiken, Winfield Scott, Wallace Stevens,
Selden Rodman, Peter Viereck

The Year in Literature:  

  • Collected Poems by Marianne Moore also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • William Carlos Williams was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • Marianne Moore (1887-1972) was born in Kirkwood, MO.
  • In 1955 Moore was hired by the Ford Motor Company to come up with a name for the newest model car.  Among the names she gave them were, “Intelligent Whale,” “Varsity Stroke,” and “Utopian Turtletop.” Read more about this story here: http://www.todayinliterature.com/today.asp?Search_Date=12/9/2010 

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Tuesday
Feb152011

1951

The Auroras of Autumn

By Wallace Stevens

Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Current Publisher:
Out of Print

Wallace Stevens also won the National Book Award in Poetry in 1955 for Collected Poems.

Katie Peterson writes:

All great poets gather myths around them, and Wallace Stevens, recognized as a giant of American Modernism, is no exception. The most persistent, in Stevens’ case, is that of his life as a “regular” person. This is, of course, itself a myth: Stevens was well educated, with social position; he was on the prosperous side of regular. A law school graduate, Stevens made his living as a Vice President for the Hartford Insurance Company; when offered an appointment in English Literature at Harvard University after he had become respected as a poet, he declined because he would have had to resign his day job. In 1950, he was quoted in an interview as saying, “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job.” Autobiographical accounts and memoirs alike relate how Stevens wrote poems on the daily walk to the office, but he wasn’t exactly a character from “The Office.”

Stevens’ work has, on the surface, everything to do with ordinary life. His mediations often arise from moments of domestic leisure, which, however luxurious, are decidedly imaginable: “Complacencies of the peignoir and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,” (“Sunday Morning”); “The house was quiet and the world was calm,” (“The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm”). One of his richest long poems (and the third-to-last poem in the NBA-winning The Auroras of Autumn) is called “An Ordinary Evening at New Haven.” Deep in that poem he writes, “We keep coming back and coming back / to the real…” There’s a purpose to this activity past the celebration of the quotidian—the renewal of our perceptions, and of language. The Auroras of Autumn closes with “Angel Surrounded by Paysans,” a poem in which the inhabitants of a village are visited by a supernatural creature whose non-dramatic descent (the angel comes to the door) reveals a purpose that confounds profound and ordinary:

Yet I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,

Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set,
And in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone

Rise liquidly in liquid lingerings,
Like watery words awash; like meanings said

By repetitions of half-meanings.

Stevens’ work, situated in ordinary life, doesn’t assume ordinary life’s dignity. The poems of The Auroras of Autumn and the entire Collected Poems recognize the effort that must be made to refresh our love of what is mortal and perishable. Stevens makes that effort through an almost unbearable density of language, those “liquid lingerings” that remain with the reader for days. Phrases from the poems begin to seem like mantras because of their sonority. I have muttered one line from the long poem “Sunday Morning” everywhere from the dentist (try it when you’re getting a filling—it’s really distracting in a good way) to moments before a first date: “gusty / emotions on wet roads on autumn nights.”

But I have heard another myth of Wallace Stevens: that he used to carry cinnamon buns around in his pockets. Strangely, I think this myth is more complicated. Ultimately Stevens’ poems delight because they show indulgence to be a kind of virtue—they claim indulgence in sensation as the way to recover the dead meanings in language overused by a culture of buying and selling, transaction and loss. Indeed, the indulgences in sensation in the language (what makes the language so memorable) are confrontations with the possibility of divinity, of order, and even of justice. The cinnamon bun in the pocket is more than comforting: it’s necessary. For Stevens, appetite and imagination have everything to do with each other. Stevens’ imagination doesn’t just elevate daily life—it makes deeper questions stranger, more comic, and more vocal. I would argue that some of the sections of “An Ordinary Evening At New Haven” that seem the most obscure are actually the most immediate, because of their lush sound—because of the cinnamon buns hiding in their pockets. Consider this passage:

The dry eucalyptus seeks god in the rainy cloud.
Professor Eucalyptus of New Haven seeks him
In New Haven with an eye that does not look

Beyond the object. He sits in his room, beside
The window, close to the ramshackle spout in which
The rain falls with a ramshackle sound. He seeks

God in the object itself, without much choice.
It is a choice of the commodious adjective
For what he sees, it comes in the end to that:

The description that makes it divinity, still speech
As it touches the point of reverberation—not grim
Reality but reality grimly seen

And spoken in paradisal parlance new
And in any case never grim, the human grim
That is a part of the indifference of the eye

Indifferent to what it sees. The tink-tonk
Of the rain in the spout is not a substitute.
It is of the essence not yet well perceived.

Stevens imagines a dramatis persona, Professor Eucalyptus, out of a natural desire, the desire for a tree to have rain. There is a tenderness to this act of mind: are we witnessing a self-portrait? “Seeking god,” the poem proceeds into a script of thinking that is nothing short of aria, full of repetitions and qualifications that come to no conclusion save that a conclusion cannot be reached. It is, instead, “the description that makes it divinity.” “It is a choice of the commodious adjective.” It is being in language itself that leads us towards “paradisal parlance new.” 2010 National Book Award Winner Terrance Hayes agrees. In his beautiful poem for and against the very white Stevens (who doesn’t shy from referencing “negresses” and using a “Nigger cemetery” as the base of some of his philosophical investigations) African-American Hayes, born in 1971, writes: “I too, having lost faith / in language, have placed my faith in language.”

The Auroras of Autumn was published relatively late in the poet’s career—in 1950, the poet was seventy-one. Stevens started “late” by poets’ standards, publishing his first book, Harmonium, at forty-four. Perhaps this explains why the playfulness of the poet is indulgent without being full of self-regard: energetic, but never trivial. In “The Planet on the Table,” a poem from the final collection, The Rock, Stevens concludes: “Ariel was glad he had written his poems.” Some conclusion—it’s the first line of the poem, which pursues again, the nature of the pursuit of the world through language. He goes on, “It was not important that they survive.” I can only conclude that part of the reason why they have is that the poet knew this: the poems give to the future the ability to renew and understand happiness in the moment of thinking, the joy of thinking itself. Bad poems are self-satisfied; Stevens’ are “glad.” His work reminds us that satisfaction may be hard to come by, but happiness is a necessity.

Katie Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree (New Issues, 2006). She has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Her reviews have appeared in the Boston Review and the Chicago Tribune. She teaches literature at Bennington College.
(Photo credit: Ariana Ervin)

Poetry Finalists that Year: Not Announced

Poetry Judges that Year: Gwendolyn Brooks, Marianne Moore, Lloyd Frankenberg,
Padraic Colum, and Karl Shapiro

The Year in Literature: Complete Poems by Carl Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was born in Reading, PA.
  • Marianne Moore’s and Stevens’ work was published in the same journals, such as Others and Poetry, for years. Moore mentioned Stevens in her first major essay, “The Accented Syllable.” Of Stevens’ work, she wrote, “I am inclined to think that the meaning has little to do with the pleasure the words give us.” Stevens and Moore did not meet until 1943, but of their relationship he later wrote, “The web of friendship between poets is the most delicate thing in the world—and the most precious.”

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Monday
Feb142011

1950

Paterson: Book III and 

Selected Poems

By William Carlos Williams

Original Publisher: New Directions (Paterson: Book III)
Current Publisher:
Out of Print

Ross Gay writes:

It wasn’t until researching these blog posts that I realized William Carlos Williams was the first recipient of the National Book Award in 1950.  Kind of astonishing that the first prize landed on someone so right, so important, as Williams, a poet whose innovations, theories, and poems are an undeniable part of our poetry’s genetic material.  If you check, you’ll find his photo (you know the one, the sun lighting up his grey and thinning hair, the left hand holding the right above the typewriter, like he’s using every ounce of self-control not to start hammering away at another poem) sitting on your mantle—whether it’s behind the urn or under the picture of your other grandpa is irrelevant.  He’s there.  Many of the subsequent “schools” seem to be connected to him: the Beats, the New York School, Black Mountain, Black Arts, the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, and so on.  And part of this is due to the fact that Williams is our great theorist and practitioner and advocate of The American Voice.  In his introduction to The Wedge (1941) he writes:

“Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship.  But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy.  As in all machines its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.  In a poem this movement is distinguished in each case by the character of the speech from which it arises.

            Therefore, each speech having its own character, the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own form.”

How beautiful and affirming, the possibility that our real American voices (complex and varied as they are) might “drive” the ship of language.  The fuel, in other words, is how we talk.  Which is where we come from.  Which is who we come from.  Which is our home.  And further, that the forms we imagine and invent must necessarily emerge from those same places and bodies and mouths and lives—not Europe, because America is not Europe—but Youngstown and Lubbock and North Jersey.  He writes in his essay, “Caviar and Bread Again: A Warning to the New Writer,” “The older poetry is worn out for us along with all new work which follows the older line.  No amount of reinflation after Eliot’s fashion can help it.”  That’s clear enough.  And good music.

And while this search for an American Idiom and the perfect form to express it is evident as a motivating tension or aspiration throughout the bulk of Williams’ career, Paterson provides readers a map of what may have been his most thorough search for that idiom.  A poem in which the newspaper article and the letter and the historical document are all the poem.  Many voices, many stories, many layers.  Maybe Paterson is Williams’ dream of democracy, of freedom.  His attempt at being free.  Can a poem be that?

In addition to Paterson (he won the prize in 1950 for both Paterson: Book III and Selected Poems), Williams worked things out in the shorter poems that he produced at a furious pace (anyone I talk to who loves Williams has read about an eighth of his collected writings, which includes about a million poems, an autobiography, novels, stories, essays, etc).  And every time I return to the work I’m astonished not only by the “things” from which his “ideas” allegedly emerged, and not only by the technical innovations of line and syntax, and not only by his noble visioning of the adequate and accurate form for his poetry.  I’m deeply moved by the heart of the poems.  Some of those are the familiar poems like “Dance Russe,” “This is Just to Say,” and “To a Poor Old Woman.”  But I also admire and turn to Williams for the intense vision of his poems which is at turns compassionate, at turns terrifying, and sometimes both.  Here’s one I love: 

At the Ball Game

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them—

all the exciting detail
of the chase

and the escape, the error
the flash of genius—

all to no end save beauty
the eternal—

So in detail they, the crowd,
are beautiful

for this
to be warned against

saluted and defied—
It is alive, venomous

it smiles grimly
its words cut—

The flashy female with her
mother, gets it—

The Jew gets it straight—it
is deadly, terrifying—

It is the Inquisition, the
Revolution

It is beauty itself
that lives

day by day in them
idly—

This is
the power of their faces

it is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is

cheering, the crowd is laughing
in detail

permanently, seriously
without thought

Ross Gay’s books of poems include Against Which (CavanKerry Press, 2006) and Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, forthcoming January 2011). His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, MARGIE, Ploughshares, and many other magazines. He has also, with the artist Kimberly Thomas, collaborated on several artists’ books, including The Cold Loop, BRN2HNT, and The Bullet. He is an editor with the chapbook press Q Avenue. Gay received his MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and his PhD in American Literature from Temple University. He teaches in the low-residency MFA program in poetry at Drew University, and in Indiana University’s English department. (Photo credit: Zach Hetrick)

Poetry Finalists that Year: Not Announced

Poetry Judges that Year: W.H. Auden, Louise Bogan, Babette Deutsch, Louis Untermeyer

The Year in Literature:

  • Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Conrad Aiken was named the Consultant in Poetry of the United States.

Other Information:

  • William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was born in Rutherford, NJ.
  • Williams is the only poet to win a National Book Award for two books in the same year.
  • In addition to a prize-winning poet, Williams was also a practicing physician.

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