Five Reviews: The Sobbing School; Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last; The Wug Test; Scriptorium; and TrébuchetPoetry
Reviewed By Christopher Kempf
- Penguin Books, Milkweed Editions, Ecco, Beacon Press, and University of Georgia Press (2016)
- Various pages
- $ Various
There are, in contemporary American poetry, certain cultural institutions that exert outsized influence over the shape and priorities of the literary field. Like suns, these institutions organize the poetry cosmos around them, pulling disparate planets into a system (think the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference), gathering nebulae into stars (the Ruth Lilly to Graywolf/Copper Canyon pipeline), or simply affording their light (the National Book Award, the Pulitzer) to a few life-supporting super-planets. One need not be a scholar of Pierre Bourdieu—who first described literature as a system, or “field,” and whose lifework was to map such a field—to recognize that American poetry, through these institutions and others, is shaped by the gravities of power, prestige, and cultural capital in ways that often, unfortunately, de-emphasize the work itself. The offerings from these institutions betray such priorities; while there is no shortage of superior poetry being written today, I am hardly alone, I suspect, in my side-eyed skepticism toward much of the writing which, year in and year out, our most massive cultural institutions bring into existence. It comes, however, as a welcome surprise to discover the tiny but impressive cluster of planets brought into the mappable universe by another of our most powerful suns—the National Poetry Series. In taking up the five selections for the 2015 NPS, I hope not only to chart the terrain of these often groundbreaking individual texts but, in so doing, to understand more fully one of the most central and influential bodies in that institutional form we know, all too familiarly, as the poetry contest.
Founded in 1978, the National Poetry Series consists, each year, of five books selected by reputable poets and published by a distinguished group of trade, university, and small presses. While some years’ winners include names we hardly recognize anymore—the inaugural recipients were Sterling A. Brown, Joseph Langland, Ronald Perry, Wendy Salinger, and Roberta Spear—the series has also given us landmark first books from poets who would go on to prominent careers as writers, educators, and editors, including Mark Doty (My Alexandria was selected by Philip Levine in 1992), Kathy Fagan, Marie Howe, Marcus Wicker, and Kevin Young. The 1981 NPS produced the incredible lineup of Jonathan Aaron, Cyrus Cassels, Denis Johnson, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Sherod Santos while—more recently—2013’s all-star cohort featured Simeon Berry, Thomas Dooley, Sara Eliza Johnson, Rose McLarney, and Jeffrey Schultz. Name recognition should not, of course, be the arbiter of aesthetic merit—particularly in our age of social media celebrity—but this roster might provide some insight, in any case, as to the centrality of the National Poetry Series over the past half century.
Among the 2015 winners of the NPS are two remarkable first collections (Joshua Bennett’s The Sobbing School and Justin Boening’s Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last) and three additional second collections (Jennifer Kronovet’s The Wug Test, Melissa Range’s Scriptorium, and Danniel Schoonebeek’s Trébuchet), among whom are certainly names that will, in another half century, continue to elicit admiration. Common among these collections is an introspective examination of the self and its estrangement from the everyday world, whether owing to the world’s absurdity and increasingly apocalyptic politics (Boening, Bennett, and Schoonebeek) or to the ways in which language itself (as in Kronovet and Range) estranges us from the world and each other, alienating us from a social existence which, simultaneously, language makes possible. Certain collections are grounded in rich historical milieu—Bennett’s, for example, in the often violent experiences of African-Americans; Range’s in the working-class culture of Appalachia; and Schoonebeek’s in late-capitalist rage. Other collections are almost deliberately anti-historical, timeless in their abstracted, philosophical pursuit of the relationship between language and identity. In a collection at once cagey, tongue-in-cheek, and profoundly spiritual, Boening explores the self’s stubborn non-identity, his wide tonal range enacting, on a formal level, the collection’s thematic investment in proliferative, disunified subjectivities. In The Wug Test, Kronovet probes the processes by which we build a vocabulary and, in so doing, build a world for ourselves. All these collections, however, share an intellectual restlessness, a capacity for rendering the associative leaps and gambols of thought in skillful poetic language, and a keen investigative spirit which—playfully, pleasurably—unfolds itself across the many diverse forms each collection takes up. In each, we might say, thought flexes itself muscularly in language.
The Sobbing School, by Joshua Bennett
(Penguin Books, 2016)
Joshua Bennett’s magnificent debut, The Sobbing School, takes its title from Zora Neale Hurston’s assertion—School’s epigraph—that she does “not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. . . . No,” Hurston says, “I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” What follows, for Bennett, is not lament or self-pity—about the violence to which African-Americans are subject, about the many inheritances of race—but a fierce drive to endure, a claiming of defiant agency in a culture that would otherwise deny not only agency but humanness itself. As Bennett puts it in the collection’s title poem:
There’s a process
by which bodies blend in, or don’t, or die, or roll on
past the siren’s glow so as not to subpoena the grave.
Mama never said surviving this flesh was a kind
of perverse science, but I’ve seen the tape,
felt the metal close & lock around my wrists, witnessed
bone bisected by choke hold. A crow turns crimson
against the windshield & who would dare mourn
such clean transition, the hazard of not knowing
you are the wrong kind of alive.
As the allusions to Freddie Gray and Eric Garner make clear, much of the violence to which The Sobbing School responds grows out of a pervasive culture of police brutality, a culture in which, as Bennett writes later in the collection, “fear stalks me like an inheritance.”
One of the most compelling aspects of School, however, is the way in which Bennett captures the variegated textures of African-American life, portraying black culture not as a single, monolithic entity—the African-American experience—but as a diverse body of experiences cut through with conflicting class and cultural investments. Many poems in the collection, for example, treat Bennett’s middle-class coming-of-age through allusions to popular culture, revealing how an already malleable adolescent identity is shaped by, among other influences, mass-marketed representations of blackness. In the powerful “In Defense of DMX,” Bennett writes that “I . . . invoke your name to laminate my hood credentials” while, in “Praise Song for the Table in the Cafeteria Where All the Black Boys Sat Together During A Block, Laughing Too Loudly,” Bennett lays bare the fictions that hold all social formations together. Here is the poem’s conclusion:
Who in their right mind would want us,
our threadbare lives, without a little legend
to sweeten the frame?
What mattered the miles
between The Hood, its protean
borders, & our actual homes, or the first times
that never happened, or the nicknames
no one called us in real life,
when such warm fiction was shared
among this huddle of strangers
made lifelong friends
by a Scantron’s omniscience,
by our careful parents & their justifiable
fear of the world?
In a poetry culture in which identity is clung to as a badge of aesthetic and political authenticity, Bennett offers a refreshing exposé of the plasticity and performativity of identity while also levying a sharp critique of the ways in which certain identities are denied social being.
While racial politics continue to occupy a central position in contemporary poetry—often to profound effect—Bennett avoids the reductiveness that can sometimes mar such writing, whether through didacticism or, relatedly, through a failure to engage in critique of one’s own positionality. Bennett’s politics are effective, in other words, because he sets them within compelling coming-of-age narratives in which the political is always immanent and never a forced, prosthetic attachment; the personal, in The Sobbing School, is never the background or excuse for the political as it is, it seems to me, in some of the most widely praised collections of the present day. Moreover, Bennett’s complex, multifaceted politics play out across a wide range of forms and tones—from abecedarian taxonomies to anaphoric invocations to academic abstracts—and, tonally, from African-American slang to Valley girl lilt—“So I have this dream, right?”
If, at times, Bennett’s abstracts—complete with “keywords” and academic catchphrases like “to be sure” and “this poem is interested in enacting . . . ”—too closely mirror Gregory Pardlo’s syllabi in Digest (“This course will begin by . . . ”), this debt is more than remunerated in Bennett’s profound ability to wrestle experience into always surprising diction and richly textural syntax. Bennett is a master at breaking sentences across the line, exploiting the tension between line and syntax, sense and sound. “I can say, without certainty / or shame,” he writes in “Praise House,” “that we have come // here with no aim higher than that / kind of blood & saltwater prayer.” Both blood and saltwater prayer, The Sobbing School is one of the most striking first collections I’ve encountered in a long time; a protean, playful examination of identity, history, and popular culture—with intellectual chops to boot—the collection heralds the emergence of a voice certain to shape, challenge, and enrich contemporary poetry for years to come.
Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last, by Justin Boening
(Milkweed Editions, 2016)
Likewise, Justin Boening’s impressive first book, Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last, announces the arrival of a poet—inheritor, it seems to me, of Mark Strand and John Ashbery—who may be our generation’s own skeptical spiritualist. Like Bennett, Boening commands an array of poetic tones—self-loathing yet egoistic, cagey yet spiritually deep—and employs this tonal reach to develop the collection’s thematic investment in the self’s non-identity; coherent subjectivity, Boening suggests in “The Opera Singer,” is nothing more than an illusory projection:
[I] dress myself in a costume plucked
from her brass-trim trunk—
velvet bolero, long
white gloves, one
It doesn’t look right,
but the audience loves it
when I clear my throat,
when I raise my hand. When I start to sing.
For Boening, the self always entails struggle. The collection’s spiritualism, then, consists in its belief in a salvific escape from the self, the kind of eschatological abandonment once practiced, for example, by Christian hermits in the desert of North Africa. “To save myself, / I remove myself,” Boening writes in an early poem, and the book’s project throughout is the pursuit of a quasi-messianic passage from selfhood into “something / too important to see”:
a part of time, which is
a part of me, a form of struggle
struggle, and ending in a courage to surrender to a will
remarkably not one’s own . . .
As this passage demonstrates, Boening is particularly adept at using lineation to complicate, revise, and question his own sinuous thinking. “We were glad to be rid of ourselves,” he writes in the astonishing “Then After,” “even for a moment, glad to dance the dance / that made our irrelevance / more real.”
The tradition behind Last’s messianism, of course, is not Christian hermeticism but Jewish mysticism, as the collection’s title suggests. “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary;” Kafka writes in the fabular “The Coming of the Messiah,” “He will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come not on the last day, but on the very last.” Like Kafka’s, Boening’s messianism is a paradoxical one, recognizing that faith is shadowed perpetually by doubt and that salvation—of a self, of a people—is unthinkable outside annihilation. Boening’s skepticism, however, is neither the ludic soullessness of the Language school nor the self-conscious hauteur of neo-Marxist Bay Area poetics; rather, Boening’s seems a skepticism only the most faithful could possess, a doubt that provides the constitutive backing of belief. I’m moved, time and again, by the depth of feeling in these poems, by a sincerity that’s never saccharine or simplistic, and by Boening’s ability to articulate spiritual desolation in ways that feel fresh and engaging.
Part of this freshness—a pulsing, spiritual vitality—comes from the small, absurdist narratives embedded in many of these poems—narratives, typically, in which the speaker seems bewildered to find himself, for example, alone in the middle of a wedding ceremony or sitting ringside at an abandoned carnival. “I stayed / under the empty circus tent,” Boening writes in “Then After”:
and I sat like a nail
at the edge of the center ring. I didn’t know
what to say. Hours passed. I sat there. Then
out of nowhere
a lioness entered the ring.
The absurdism of Last gives the collection a spare, abstracted feel, as if the speaker is not quite of this world, or as if he’s already trying to extract himself from the world. Boening’s absurdism, though, leads not to droll nihilism but to an affecting sadness tempered by a profound love for life—the one life—available to us. Here is the astounding conclusion to the poem:
And the lioness looked up at me, with a tear
falling from her massive amber eye, and said,
“This is it, you know.
We won’t be getting a second chance.”
In the hands of a lesser writer, such a statement would be sententious, but Boening’s forte is finding, and capturing in such redemptive cadences, the enduring beauty in despair. Often reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’s famous assertion that “death is the mother of beauty,” Boening’s poems are charged, as his world is, with mystery, and indeed part of what makes this collection so engaging is its refreshing ability to treat that mystery with reverence and awe. Ultimately, the collection is one of great triumph, a commitment to love our only world despite—perhaps because of—its flaws. This triumph is most dramatically articulated in the stunning end of a late poem, “The Game”:
The boy looks up at me, charcoal eyes,
clearly waiting to hear me say
exactly the words he’s been longing
to hear all his life, the promise
that one’s love turns into a poem
by the end, that the people
we grieve for come back,
that some voice, however small,
from some wave
receding into waves, finally tells us
there was no particular way
it was meant to happen,
that every mistake one makes
one makes through his own attempt
to be fathomed.
“You’ve lost,” I say.
“But only out here,” says the boy,
“in this town’s dusty reaches,
where there are no games to lose,
and no one to console you
if there were.” “No,” I say,
“you’ve lost in this place
because there is no other.
I’m leaving you now
to spread the good news.”
An emotionally rich, intellectually sharp gospel, Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last does exactly that. Boening’s is a lustrous debut written by a poet who already, it seems, possesses the wisdom and spiritual depth of a much more established writer.
The Wug Test, by Jennifer Kronovet
Like Boening, Jennifer Kronovet explores the self’s estrangement and non-identity through examining, in particular, how language restricts our ability to explain ourselves to ourselves and to others. Whereas Boening’s poems are rooted in human narrative—however spare, absurdist, and abstracted—Kronovet pursues a more theoretical approach, thinking discursively about how language conditions our experience of our inner and outer lives. If contemporary American poetry, including these five NPS selections, occupies a spectrum passing from narrative through lyric to experiment—none of which, of course, are mutually exclusive—Kronovet’s The Wug Test and Schoonebeek’s Trébuchet are undoubtedly the most experimental of the 2015 winners. Disjunctively tracking the mind as it reflects on its own processes, Kronovet’s language is often clipped or elided to keep up with the speed of thought, a common technique among contemporary dissociative poets. “Why assumes because is an equal sign,” she writes in “Q&A.” “Cause and effect. Before and after. Conservation of energy.”
At times, this kind of theorizing seems overly abstract and involuted as when, for example, she performs a “corpus analysis” of her first book—essentially a Ctrl+F count of word frequency. At times, likewise, the few humans who populate the book seem mere devices by which to act out the linguistic philosophy Kronovet wants to develop. The Wug Test is most compelling, though, when the human aspect of these poems feels authentic, and when theory opens, as it often does, to the awe and wonder in language and linguistic systems. In “With the Boy, in the Garden,” for example, reproduced here in full, theory grows out of human narrative:
We admire a large, wet snail
and moments later an older boy
decides to kick it. Unsticking
thing from ground—I want
to gut that moment
from the boy. And yet
that’s how I define language.
In the prose poem “Neologism,” similarly, Kronovet reveals the fascinating history and culture carried, like pollen on bees’ fur, in everyday words. “Computer,” she writes. “A newish thing. In English, for centuries, the word referred to a professional human reckoning land and stars. The word moved from person toward object.” What’s most admirable about The Wug Test, then, is not only its ability to theorize the self’s estrangement in and through language, but its ability, more importantly, to find pleasure in this estrangement, to cultivate joy in the process of unmooring oneself into the free play of signifier and signified.
Referring in its title to a linguistic game in which researchers use nonsense words to gauge children’s knowledge of morphological rules—pluralization, subject-verb agreement, etc.—The Wug Test juxtaposes theoretical prose poems with conventionally lineated narratives about the speaker’s own child, “the boy,” as he enters language for the first time. What results is a dramatic exploration of language acquisition and how, if language mediates experience, “breaking” language can open up alternative possibilities of being. Just as a word covers over the history and culture sedimented inside it, the seeming simplicity in Kronovet’s poems belies the depth of thought within. “Nouns, // for the boy, live in the sounds / nouns make,” she writes in one poem. In another—“Words travel by boat and by horse and by foot.” Reading, here and elsewhere, like a children’s language primer, The Wug Test re-enchants linguistic processes—language evolution, the arbitrariness of signification—which often remain invisible to adult speakers. Holding a master’s degree in applied linguistics, Kronovet is interested equally in surprising us with language, as all good poetry does, and in theorizing that surprise. While the prose poems in The Wug Test sometimes read like graduate school philosophy—“He was multitudes to me by being different from himself”—Kronovet is best when she makes us feel, as she often does, the immediacy in the intellectual claims of thinkers like Wittgenstein and Whorf, two figures who ghost this collection like presiding spirits. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” Wittgenstein famously wrote, and The Wug Test—in its formal experimentation, in its theoretical abstraction—strives not only to probe both limits but to push beyond them, toward new limits, new languages.
Scriptorium, by Melissa Range
(Beacon Press, 2016)
If Kronovet is concerned with language in the abstract, Melissa Range examines precisely the opposite in Scriptorium—language as material. Range’s second collection, Scriptorium, is powerful ekphrasis in response to sacred illuminated manuscripts like those in the famous Cotton Library at Ashburnham House, the collection’s title referring to the rooms in monasteries where monks copied the books and ballads and myths that fill this collection. What makes Range’s writing more than mere descriptive ekphrasis, however, is the way she unearths the material labor behind these gorgeous texts, documenting in particular the natural ingredients that constitute the texts’ colors, “seashells or eggshells for white,” she writes, “the plant woad for blue.” In so doing, Range makes visible the otherwise invisible labor that undergirds the majesty of art, religion, and—ultimately—empire. This kind of deep, cross-sectional scan is most conspicuous in the sonnet “Woad,” reproduced here in full:
Once thought lapis on the carpet page, mined
from an Afghani cave, this new-bruise clot
in the monk’s ink pot grew from Boudicca’s plot—
a naturalized weed from a box of black seeds found
with a blue dress in a burial mound.
Knobs of leaves that reeked like cabbage rot,
steeped and strained for Briton’s battle paint, wrought
the Gospels’ splotched knotwork, the monk’s dyed hand.
Gouged with quills, woad-hued blots beneath your hide,
Lucifer, who can understand your blues?
I can: the Lord invades my piece of sod
to set up a scriptorium, introduce
true indigo, and build a Roman road;
he knots by blue veins till I can’t refuse.
As evident here, Range’s writing is densely formalist in nature, characterized by thick rhyme and, sometimes, the distant tone that tends to hamper much New Formalist writing. At worst, this can lead too closely to the light verse of writers like Ogden Nash and Dana Gioia, or, relatedly, can distract from a poem’s overall meaning; an over-reliance on alliteration and assonance, that is, can blind us, like gold leaf, to what a poem is trying to say—“Not a boatload but a sift that barely sticks.” At her best, though, Range’s formalism allows her to pull off the pathos and grandeur of someone like Elizabeth Bishop, as in the touching conclusion to “To Swan”:
When Nana was in the nursing home,
her mind stretched big enough for anything,
she loved a good fuck you and a good goddamn.
Ena (who wouldn’t stop her swearing
for another dozen years)
sat by Nana, didn’t mutter even shit,
didn’t drop a goddamn tear,
but looked at Nana’s swan-white hair,
then looked at me, then at her hands,
as if by looking she could find
words as calm as swans, as grand.
Likewise, Range is often wonderfully associative in her thinking, an associative poet in the true sense of that term, with its implication of a thread of connection woven between thoughts (not, in other words, the more common “dissociation” that characterizes much other contemporary poetry). In “Crooked as a Dog’s Hind Leg,” for instance, Range brings together various kinds of crookedness in a gripping narrative of family, class, personal development, and gender. Here is the poem’s opening:
Yanking my lank hair into dog-ears,
my granny frowned at my cowlick’s
revolt against the comb, my part
looking like a dog’s shank
no matter what she did, crooked
as the dogtrot path
out the mountain country I left
with no ambitions to return,
rover-minded as my no-count granddaddy, crooking
down switchbacks that crack the earth
like the hard set of the mouth
women are born with where I’m from.
Scriptorium is most impressive when its formalism accentuates and deepens the collection’s personal and intellectual pursuits, when, as here, Range’s language seems as lapidary and entrancing as the illuminated manuscripts about which she writes.
Yet these manuscripts are not the only sacred texts in Scriptorium. Range also finds a holy power in the vernacular of her native Appalachia, in the archaic remnants of language—“hit” for “it,” phrases like “flat as a flitter”—that, as Kronovet also suggests, carry inside them increasingly threatened histories and cultures. Range’s poems about growing up in working-class eastern Tennessee are stunning, with her father’s work as a coal miner standing in brilliant counterpoint to the other kinds of labor the collection documents. Indeed, the collection itself is a kind of archaeological excavation, a delving through the layers of history and meanings buried in a word’s etymology; and what Range turns up is often profoundly resonant. In “Flat as a Flitter,” Range writes:
When that I was a little bitty baby,
my daddy drove up into Virginia
to fix strip-mining equipment, everything
to him an innocent machine in need.
On God’s own mountain,
poor people drink bad water, and the heart
of the Lord is a seam of coal gouged out
to fuel the light in other places.
I love how deftly this poem widens out from the personal to the economic, how succinctly and brutally Range reveals her own family as part of an invisible working class whose labor makes life possible elsewhere. A working-class poet for a new generation, inheritor of Philip Levine and Muriel Rukeyser, Range’s Scriptorium is an inspired response to the various forms of disappearance that threaten both peoples and texts; like the manuscripts she describes, the collection is a beautiful one, nimble in its thinking, lavish in its style. It is a house, a tabernacle of language. It is a seam of gold gouged out to give us light.
Trébuchet, by Danniel Schoonebeek
(University of Georgia Press, 2016)
“These poems will offend a number of people who will refuse to ignore them,” Danniel Schoonebeek announces in the opening poem of Trébuchet, “some of them people with fathers, / fathers in law or fathers of Capitol Hill, / and men and women of influence with fathers of money in Iowa.” In so doing, Schoonebeek levels a large—if sometimes self-mocking—claim for the agency of poetry in an era of political despair. Yet Schoonebeek’s poems belong to that phalanx of the avant-garde—think YesYes Books, think Damien Hirst—less likely to offend for their politics than for their refusal of conventional meaning, their playful flouting of narrative cohesion, their deconstruction of coherent identity. Despite, that is, the jacket copy’s assertion that Trébuchet “tackl[es] contemporary politics in a more direct, personal way than Schoonebeek ever has before,” the collection can often be intriguingly opaque, its poems charmingly mysterious. The politics of Trébuchet, then, lie in the assumption that form carries with it an inherent politics and that, as people like Charles Altieri have been arguing for decades, there’s something implicitly reactionary about narrative. Therefore dissociative or “experimental” writing represents a kind of aesthetic trébuchet, knocking down walls and leading us all, imminently, to a promised land of anarchic self-rule. “Drinking vinho verde under the harvest moon and puttering our lines is dead,” Schoonebeek writes in the collection’s title poem, lampooning overly romantic lyric poetry and announcing—in a book omnivorous enough to devour Andrew Jackson’s inauguration, government watch lists, commando raids on gasworks, net neutrality, forest fires, the CIA Torture Report, and INXS songs—an aesthetic and political revolution.
It is difficult, at times, to gauge the level of commitment behind Schoonebeck’s political proclamations, and, as I do respect this work, I tend to believe that much of this posturing is done self-consciously, waggishly, wryly. If one can accept and move past the premise—itself a romantic notion—that form carries its own inherent politics, Trébuchet offers a manic, often breathtaking panorama of an empire in decline. In long, dissociative poems that build and circle and weave and sing, Schoonebeek gives us less a consolidated narrative or coherent meaning than an explosion of thought and experience, a fracturing of late-capitalist life whose tone and form—often panicked, angst-ridden, frightened—reenact on an experiential level our own empire’s death spiral. Schoonebeek is particularly deft at using repetition to incantatory and fascinating effect, as in the poem “Glasnost,” based, a note says, “on a list of phrases that have landed U.S. citizens on government watch lists when googled.” Here is the poem’s brutal conclusion:
Best practices for squeezing the trigger. And how do I clear a room.
But how do I get rid of a body. Instructions for securing a blindfold.
And how many years for treason. Best practices for beating a death warrant.
But how close without tripping a wire. And how do I get rid of a body.
Haunted by the failed imperial projects of Germany and Rome, ancestors to our own waning empire, the poems in Trébuchet take place in a mysterious, almost fabular present in which characters speak past each other, narratives don’t quite align, and identity itself is fractured; it is a present haunted by a long history, and one, the collection suggests, with a short future.
Each of these books, I think, is a worthy new addition to a National Poetry Series that has, since its inception in 1978, given us such classics as Billy Collins’s Questions About Angels, Marie Howe’s The Good Thief, and Marcus Wicker’s Maybe the Saddest Thing, among many other landmark titles. One of the most prestigious book prizes in the country, the NPS continues to shape American poetry in beautiful and important ways. To be sure, the contest has its shortcomings. At thirty dollars per entry, the contest is one of the most expensive in the country, creating, unfortunately, a barrier to access for underprivileged writers and ensuring that excellence in contemporary poetry continues to be found among those who, as James Agee puts it, “can afford the retail price.” (Such economic barriers, of course, also restrict the formal and thematic diversity of the NPS manuscript pool, since poetry, like all artistic production, is socially and materially conditioned.) Perhaps more troubling, the procedures of the National Poetry Series remain shrouded in mystery. In a time of rising entry fees, poets have a right to transparency regarding the contests to which they submit—a right, that is, to know who first round screeners are and how manuscripts are handled thereafter, particularly in a contest with five judges who, as one former judge informed me, are simply handed random stacks of manuscripts. A contest like the Milkweed/Copper Nickel Jake Adam York Prize, in contrast, should be commended not only for publishing the identities of initial readers but for rigorously screening manuscripts “until no one was tasked with screening work by anyone s/he had published or knew personally.”
Hardly unique to the National Poetry Series, these failures are endemic to contests, though—as the Jake Adam York Prize has made clear—they are far from inevitable. For all its shortcomings, the NPS remains an important and laudable institution, awarding winning writers $10,000—making it the most lucrative book contest on the market—and routing otherwise overlooked books and writers to some of the country’s most prestigious publishing houses. Its statement of purpose testifies to this latter function, noting that the Series “give[s] American poets, of all ethnic and racial groups, gender, religion, and poetic style”—notice the absence of class—“ access to publishing outlets not ordinarily available to them,” access that sometimes results in multiple book relationships. The books in this series, including these five, offer a representative cross-section of official verse culture in a given historical moment. What these collections tell us about American poetry—here, now—is that its locus of meaning continues to be the poetic or “lyric” self, a self whose activity consists in organizing the world around it and in documenting its own interior efforts to make a home in that world. It is not an evaluative statement to note that these collections are rarely historically or textually allusive, nor that—excepting Schoonebeek’s—they largely eschew different kinds or textures of language—quotation, catalog, multiplicity of voices. Rather, each, in its own way, clings fast to and tries to consolidate a thriving kind of selfhood, even, in the end, as they track also the inevitable, beautiful dissolution of such selfhood.
Christopher Kempf is the author of Late in the Empire of Men, which won the 2015 Levis Prize from Four Way Books. Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, he is currently a doctoral student in English literature at the University of Chicago.