Not Gwendolyn Brooks, not Robert Hayden, not Amiri Baraka, not Jay Wright, not Michael Harper, not Yusef Komunyakaa, not Rita Dove — no “person of color” won the National Book Award for Poetry between 1950 and 1999, Elizabeth Alexander pointed out as part of a National Book Foundation panel designed for “six leading poet-critics to offer their opinions on the list of winners of the National Book Award in Poetry since 1950.”
The panel was held last night at The New School’s Tishman Auditorium in Manhattan. Panelists, who included Alexander, Stephen Burt, Tony Hoagland, James Longenbach, Maureen McLane, and Susan Stewart, spent a long time discussing the ways that cultural and political context influence institutions like the National Book Award, and the fact that most published poetry gets swallowed whole by history.
“This history of taste is not the same as the history of art,” Longenbach asserted.
Hoagland suggested that poetry be judged by its “irrationality and cultural relevance,” and panelists pointed to Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck and Robert Bly’s The Light Around the Body as examples of culturally relevant NBA winners. Both Burt and Hoagland addressed the feminist politics that inform Rich’s book.
“[The books displays] anger that’s not quite sure what to do with itself,” Burt stated. He spent his entire talk celebrating Diving Into the Wreck and its “rage turned inward,” pointing out that nine poems end with something burning.
“The thinking that goes on in poetry is more capacious than the thinking that goes on anywhere else,” Stewart said.
Stewart focused her talk on the four listed NBA winners that are “most worn from rereading” on her shelf: A.R. Ammons’s Garbage, John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, W.H. Auden’s The Shield of Achilles, and Wallace Stevens’s The Auroras of Autumn.
“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror explores what is lost to time and history,” she said, hitting on a topic that would dominate discussion late in the panel.
“All will be lost,” Longenbach claimed matter-of-factly.
Burt suggested that all arts suffer the same fate.
“Most films go unseen,” he said. And later, “there’s only so much time you have to devote to anything while you’re alive.”
Burt also said that it is important for critics to find out what is in danger of being lost.
“What matters is that we are lost now,” added Hoagland, who called James Longenbach “Ecclesiastes Longenbach.”
Panelists roundly praised the most recent National Book Award winner, Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead. Hayes is one of four poets to win the award since 1999 who are African-American or part African-American. The other three are Ai, Lucille Clifton, and Nathaniel Mackey.
As to whether any contemporary poetry might stand the test of time, Longenbach stated, “no one this room will live long enough to know.”