By A.R. Ammons

Original and Current Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

A.R. Ammons first won the National Book Award in Poetry in 1973 for Collected Poems: 1951-1971.

An appreciation of Ammon’s work may be found here. >

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Mark Doty for My Alexandria
  • Margaret Gibson for The Vigil: A Poem in Four Voices
  • Donald Hall for The Museum of Clear Ideas
  • Lawrence Raab for What We Don't Know about Each Other

Poetry Judges that Year: Stephen Berg, Alice Fulton, John Frederick Nims, Louis Simpson, Susan Wood

The Year in Literature: Rita Dove was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Other Information:

  • A.R. Ammons (1926-2001) was born in Whiteville, NC.
  • Ammons’ Garbage is actually one poem consisting of a single, extended sentence.

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New and Selected Poems

By Mary Oliver 

Original and Current Publisher: Beacon Press

Kiki Petrosino writes:

Some poems feel like enemy encampments. You snap on your flak jacket and helmet, backing into spiny thickets of adverbs, or struggling for purchase on a jagged field of enjambment. But reading Mary Oliver is like sheltering in a beautiful tree-house at dusk. It’s like sitting, cross-legged, on the plain wooden floor with your best friend from childhood. It becomes possible, in Oliver’s world, to understand nature as a passageway to a place enchanted by inquiry. The surfaces of leaves might be treasure maps; a wasp’s nest, “the porch of [a] paper castle.”

That’s not quite right, of course. I can’t really imagine being allowed inside a tree-house with the speaker of Oliver’s poems. This is a poet of solitude, of lonely walks, and the poignancy of her verse derives from her incredible gift for introspection. Many of the pieces in New and Selected Poems (for which Oliver won the National Book Award) read like monologues or soliloquies, but this is not drama that belongs on any stage. Instead, to read Oliver is to experience what thought feels like—to feel how observation and contemplation come together to make an inner shape in the mind, something like water in a cup.

In the systems of nature, Oliver finds ever more proof of humanity’s fallenness, but there’s still room for joyful, even ecstatic, speech. We’re privy to the great intimacy of Oliver’s discourse, the personal lexicon that lights her way to the revelation at the heart of each poem. Take this section of “Whelks,” for example:

When I find oneI hold it in my hand,
I look out over that shaking fire,
I shut my eyes. Not often,
but now and again there’s a moment
when the heart cries aloud:
yes, I am willing to be
that wild darkness,
that long, blue body of light.

Like a musical composition, Oliver’s language rivets us not because it corresponds to the concrete realities of the everyday world, but because it points so powerfully to things that can’t be named. Does “shaking fire” refer to the reddish-brown lines that decorate the shell of a sea snail, or is Oliver “look[ing] out over” the shell, toward some barely-glimpsed image of the divine? Does the “wild darkness” come from inside the whelk, or from within the poet, who now transforms into “that long, blue body of light?” The demonstrative adjective “that,” repeated in quick succession here, suggests that the state Oliver enters is a known one, that which pulses just beneath our ordinary reality. We can’t exactly name it, but we feel it: like being pushed through a wall of water, or heat, to briefly occupy the space beyond. 

Open to any page of New and Selected Poems, and you’ll find moments of language that have entered the lifeblood of American poetry. Her poems are our songbook. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” she asks in “The Summer Day.” One collection earlier, she had seemed to give us the answer: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves” (“Wild Geese”). This work is a primer, not only for writing, but for a certain way of paying attention to the world. I can’t get enough of Oliver’s plainspoken, precise diction. When she talks about the world, she makes me feel like I’ve been only glancing at it through car windows. More than the others I’ve quoted, it’s the short poem, “At Blackwater Pond,” that makes me want to be a better poet, a better watcher, a better human:

            At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
            after a night of rain.
            I dip my cupped hands. I drink
            a long time. It tastes
            like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
            into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
            deep inside me, whispering
            oh what is that beautiful thing
            that just happened?

Kiki Petrosino
is the author of Fort Red Border (Sarabande, 2009). She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her poems have appeared in FENCE, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Louisville. (Photo credit: Philip Miller)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Hayden Carruth for Collected Shorter Poems
  • Louise Gluck for The Wild Iris
  • Susan Mitchell for Rapture
  • Gary Snyder for No Nature

Poetry Judges that Year: Lucile Clifton, Donald Hall, Lisel Mueller, Linda Pastan, Charles Wright

The Year in Literature:

  • Selected Poems by James Tate won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.          
  • Mona Van Duyn was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Other Information:

  • Mary Oliver (1935- ) was born in Maple Heights, OH.
  • At the age of seventeen Oliver visited Steepletop, the home of the late poet Edna St. Vincent Milay. Oliver became friends with Milay’s sister, Norma, and spent the majority of the next seven years living with her and organizing Milay’s papers.

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What Work Is     

By Philip Levine

Original and Current Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Philip Levine first won the National Book Award in Poetry in 1980 for Ashes.

An appreciation of Levine’s work
may be found here. >

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Andrew Hudgins for The Never-Ending
  • Linda McCarriston for Eva-Mary
  • Adrienne Rich for An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991
  • Marilyn Nelson Waniek for The Homeplace

Poetry Judges that Year: Edward Hirsch, Rita Dove, Michael Harper, Jean Valentine, Richard Wilbur

The Year in Literature:

  • Near Changes by Mona Van Duyn won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Joseph Brodsky was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Other Information:

  • Philip Levine (1928- ) was born in Detroit, MI.
  • Levine has been the recipient of many awards and fellowships, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

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Poetry Everywhere: "Belle Isle, 1949" by Philip Levine
Produced by David Grubin Productions and WGBH Boston, in association with the Poetry Foundation.

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Country Music: Selected Early Poems

By Charles Wright

Original and Current Publisher: Wesleyan University Press

Eric Smith writes:

I wonder if Charles Wright bought the new Kanye West album. I imagine him pausing for a moment on the posse cut “Monster,” in which Kanye flicks his Auto-Tune to the Halloween setting, and out rumbles

I shoot the lights out
Hide till it’s bright out

before dissolving into a clatter of even darker drums. I wonder, because I think of Wright’s “Death” a poem from China Trace, included in Country Music: Selected Early Poems. That poem, in full:

I take you as I take the moon rising,
Darkness, black moth the light burns up in.

He’d pause, I think, seeing a connection between his work and that of this young artist who knows not only the “darkness visible” (Milton being the obvious touchstone), but who also knows that this inversion—the illuminating, even obliterating, power of the dark, and the tendency of light to obscure—presents the author with an opportunity to somehow pin the world down and better see its workings, and how it works on him.

In Country Music, one sees the fascination with this inversion play across Wright’s four earliest books. The first, The Grave of the Right Hand, is represented by a handful of mostly unremarkable prose poems. Each has its moments (it would be difficult to ignore the musical oratory of “The Voyage”—“O my stunted puppets!”). But it is only in “Nocturne,” which details across three finely-tuned sentences a night in which an outraged Bacchus appears, and “all is unshingled by the moon,” that something almost visionary occurs in the balance between the breathlessness of the prose and the lyric intensity of the vocabulary. But even then it sounds like a shorter fiction one would easily find (and find more satisfying) among Julio Cortázar’s works, rather than the Wright that emerges in Hard Freight.

In the second book, the subjects—a looser assortment of places (many near water, or water themselves), things (angels and pillow-cases, photo negatives and bougainvillea), and occasionally the living (Wright’s son Luke is the center of the stupifyingly good “Firstborn”)—are more varied, as is the music that accompanies them. What serves Wright best in this collection, other than embracing that illuminating darkness, is the democratic lack of hierarchies among the poems’ objects of attention. In some of the poems, one gets the impression of a painstakingly arranged collage. Other poems assemble their meanings in the way one rummages through a kitchen junk drawer. In either mode, there is an intentionality that is missing from the first book’s selections. The poems, too, are more participatory, depending on the reader to help puzzle out these associations. The arrangements here reflect a need to see how these things function in concert, rather than as isolated objects, which is compounded by a reverence for those discoveries. In doing so, Wright makes us welcome in those discoveries and rediscoveries of places, as in “Dog Creek Mainline” and “Blackwater Mountain,” or aware of the fragility of fatherhood in “Firstborn.”

There is plenty to say about the good in Bloodlines. These poems are almost all worth reading, and in some cases more finely-tuned than those in Hard Freight. This tuning comes from more relaxed compositions that depend less on lists and associations, and embrace more fully the lyric intensity an uninterrupted line can build. He doesn’t get it right every time (some sections of “Tattoos” sag into inscrutability), but those missteps are more than made up for in “Virgo Descending,” perhaps the best poem in this selected, and on the short list of Wright’s best overall. In it, the speaker navigates a half-finished house, inhabited by a grandmother who “stands / like a door ajar on her soft bed.” The speaker’s own room is overrun by “jasmine, / White-gummed and anxious, their mouths sucking the air dry.” The last stanza offers something like an aphorism (something a younger Wright often avoided):

Home is what you lie in, or hang above, the house
Your father made, or keeps on making,
The dirt you moisten, the sap you push up and nourish . . .

Any surprise that this clarity comes only after a descent “down / Where the worm and the mole will not go”?

The final volume, China Trace, is in many ways a synthesis of the previous two books. It carries its name well, offering in many of the poems only outlines of things, depending again on the associative, list-driven poems of Hard Freight and the almost conversational tone of the best of Bloodlines. The poems are again much shorter, and the real pleasure in these poems is the attention to the weight of individual lines. It is difficult not to love “Sleep, in its burning garden, sets out the small plants,” or “The plum tree breaks out in bees,” and this, the last line of one of my favorites: “I live in the one world, the moth and rust in my arms.”

Although Trace sometimes dawdles in the quotidian (though “Quotidiana,” with its “necktie of ice” is one of the better pieces), it more than makes up for this by shaping from the mundane poems that are at once spiritual and full of longing for something more concrete “rooted half under the earth,” as in this poem, “Noon”:

The dirt is a comforting, and the night drafts from the sucker vines.
The grass is a warm thing, and the hollyhocks, and the bright bursts from the weeds.
But best of all is the noon, and its tiny horns,
When shadows imprint, and start
                                              their gradual exhalation of the past. 

Again, as in “Death,” and many of the poems in the two books that came before, we see a darkness that has exposed and consumed all that catches Wright’s attention. But it is also here we notice a shift toward a part of day that bears its own music, one that allows this darkness a release; a promising threshold for a poet who continues to stun his readers with each successive volume. Here, the Wright I imagine clutching the new Kanye skips back to track three, where Rihanna, accompanied by her own tiny horns, offers simply this:

Turn up the lights in here, baby.
Extra bright. I want y’all to see this.

Eric Smith
is a managing editor of Cellpoems. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, Five Points, and Best New Poets 2010. He teaches at Marshall University.

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Jack Gilbert for Monolithos
  • Linda Pastan for PM/AM
  • Mona Van Duyn for Letters from a Father and Other Poems

Poetry Judges that Year: Not Available

Other Information:

  • Charles Wright (1935- ) was born in Pickwick Dam, TN.
  • In addition to a prolific poet, Wright is also the author of two books of criticism: Halflife (1988) and Quarter Notes (1995).

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Selected Poems          

By Galway Kinnell 

Original and Current Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Katie Peterson writes: 

Galway Kinnell’s poems keep telling us to get as close as possible to experience. Kinnell wants us to “press our frontal bones to the madrone,” he makes us watch him stick his nose into bear excrement, to “know / the chilly, enduring odor of bear.” He’s a nature poet, but he gravitates towards human experiences with nature rather than pure descriptions of animals and landscapes. He’s a spiritual poet, but he’s earthy rather than lofty. In a later poem he writes, “The human brain may be the brightest place on earth,” (“Sheffield Ghazal 5: Passing the Cemetery”). So it seems in the Selected Poems, in which the speaker’s experiences transform him, but do so on earth, in the flesh, and in time. It all feels, quite frankly, terribly out of fashion: these poems are about refusing to pick up the phone and being willing to spend hours in nature without talking to anyone and believing sex (actual sex, you know, with two bodies, not the kind on music videos) is actually the most significant spiritual experience a person can have in this life. Since one hundred percent of people die, the point becomes to live as intensely as possible. Before there was reality television, there was reality.

But reading these poems I feel the same sense of desperation I feel watching reality television: the desire to be proximate. And proximate Kinnell gets. One of the most widely anthologized poems in the Selected Poems is “The Bear.” In it, the speaker undergoes an act of identification with a dying animal so intense as to leave him utterly changed: 

On the seventh day,
living now by bear blood alone,
I can see his upturned carcass far out ahead, a scraggled,
steamy hulk,
the heavy fur riffling in the wind.

I come up to him
and stare at the narrow-spaced, petty eyes,
the dismayed
face laid back on the shoulder, the nostrils
flared, catching

perhaps the first taint of me as he

I hack
a ravine in his thigh, and eat and drink,
and tear him down his whole length
and open him and climb in
and close him up after me, against the wind,
and sleep.

Whether or not the ravine was actually hacked in the bear’s leg is clearly not the point. The point is that Kinnell has answered some insistent human challenge not by inventing a cultural structure to contain it (like war or racism) but by submitting to an imaginative experience in the nature that opens up curiosity and the senses. The result is, the poet hopes, a more profoundly ignorant form of self-reflection: “what, anyway, / was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that / poetry, by which I lived?” (“The Bear”)

Kinnell is a great student of those two love starved sweethearts of American poetry, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, who both also spent a lot of time alone thinking about not being alone. Like Dickinson and Whitman, he loves vows. He’s intoxicated by the idea of being faithful to something—anything—real. Though vows seem like they’re about making a commitment to a lifetime, they’re really, usually, about the intensity of the moment. In the intense, lived moment, Kinnell finds what seems to him the only beautiful struggle against death. To see that struggle as a vow, made and necessarily broken, sacramentalizes it. My favorite poems in the 1983 Selected are from The Book of Nightmares, a book-length sequence addressed to his daughter Maud. The actual fire Kinnell lights in the first poem takes on great symbolic weight when the elements threaten it:

The black
wood reddens, the deathwatches inside
begin running out of time, I can see
the dead, crossed limbs
longing again for the universe, I can hear
in the wet wood the snap
and re-snap of the same embrace being torn.

The raindrops trying
to put the fire out
fall into it and are
changed: the oath broken,
the oath sworn between earth and water, flesh and spirit, broken
to be sworn again,
over and over, in the clouds, and to be broken again,
over and over, on earth.

(“Under the Maud Moon”)

As the poems continue, there is a wonderful description of Maud’s emergence from her mother’s body and the cutting of the umbilical cord; there is a moving address to an older Maud in the distant year of 2009. Kinnell’s love for, and interest in, his child’s somatic existence and unruly autonomy are daring and fearless and puriently curious in all the best ways. But most moving are Kinnell’s desperate but forceful vows to Maud, doomed to undergo the same trials as her father and the rest of us:

And in the days
when you find yourself orphaned,
of all wind-singing, of light,
the pieces of cursed bread on your tongue,

may there come back to you
a voice,
spectral, calling you
from everything that dies.

And then
you shall open
this book, even if it is the book of nightmares.

Kinnell has other oaths for himself, and for us, and they are equally intent on turning us back towards the actual world as a balm for metaphysical quandary. A New Selected Poems, which was a Finalist for the National Book Award in 2000, includes two ghazals, a Middle Eastern poetic form where the poet addresses himself in the last line. In one of these poems, Kinnell imagines a young couple driving across the country:

A girl puts her head on a boy’s shoulder; they are driving west.
The windshield wipers wipe, homesickness one way, wanderlust the other, back and forth.
This happened to your father and to you, Galway—sick to stay, longing to come up against the ends of the earth, and climb over.

(“Sheffield Ghazal 4: Driving West”)

I also admire this poem (a self-address that is also a vow) from the book Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, both for its good advice and for its plain statement:


Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become interesting.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again;
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a little and listen:
music of hair,
music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

The tone here, and the word play, echo Kinnell’s amazing translations of the 15th century French poet Francois Villon, published in 1983 and available from University Press of New England.

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:

  • Jack Gilbert for Monolithos
  • Linda Pastan for PM/AM
  • Mona Van Duyn for Letters from a Father and Other Poems

Poetry Judges that Year: Not Available

The Year in Literature: Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Galway Kinnell (1927- ) was born in Providence, RI.
  • Kinnell went to college at Princeton University where he was classmates with fellow National Book Award Winner W.S. Merwin.

John Ashbery, Richard Howard, and Galway Kinnell at the 1983 National Book Awards.

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