November 12, 2008

Academy of American Poets Awards Ceremony, November 7

This was was a ceremony/reading honoring this year's award recipients, with the likes of Robert Pinsky, current Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, Frank Bidart, etc. wandering around. Not that I am a particular fan of this breed of poets, but it was an opportunity to go to NYC for a day, run into friends, wander the village, see some of the poetry super-stars in the flesh, etc. I didn't bother to take pictures, you can find them all on www.poets.org.

It was like being a tourist on Mount Olympus, not the current multi-lingual tour buses climbing the Greek hillside, but more like the Homeric version where gods major & minor, & those aspiring to become gods, strut across the stage bestowing gifts on each other. Indeed reading between the lines one could see it was poets picking their friends, close collegues, collaborators, associates, promoting MFA programs, an incestuous community breeding more like themselves. It was like, "We's takin' turns & it'll be my turn next year."

Many of the poems read of course were difficult, if not impossible, to follow on first hearing, being so refined & mannered, as is the fashion. But while the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto (whose work was read by his translator, the awardee Patrick Barron) was described as a "madman," his poem "To the World" was one of the most enoyable & certainly the most playful of the evening. Similarly, the poems of Henri Cole (the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize), described as "sonnet length," were elegantly stated without self-concious obscurity. The one poet who I would have liked to hear more from, the quietly understated Brigit Pegeen Kelly, read a poem by Yeats & another by Dylan Thomas, & 2 of her own. I appreciate the idea of "sharing the stage," but her work deserves a wider audience (her poem beginning "It was not a scorpion I wished for..." was eerie & chilling), so hers was the one book I bought (The Orchard, BOA Editions, 2004). There is no need to promote the likes of Dylan Thomas or Yeats, everyone knows their work.

The major award (the Wallace Stevens Award) was to former Poet Laureate Louise Glück, $100,000 (!), for which she didn't even make an appearance at the wine & cheese reception afterwards. For that kind of money she should have walked around the reception & tongue-kissed every sycophant poet in the room, then bought them dinner.

You can go to the Academy's (so aptly named) website & read about all the recipients & the awards & what they were for. By my calculation they gave out that night $171,000. For that kind of money they could give 171 poets a $1000 each, or 1,710 poets a $100 each, instead 7 got what they got. I don't begrudge them their awards, but certainly $100,000 is excessive, the equivalent of about 2 to 3 good salarys, or about 4 low-paying jobs.

To all my fellow poets & habitués of the open mics I say, keep writing but don't quit your day jobs, or spend your award money before the Academy calls. After all, Wallace Stevens was an insurance man, Walt Whitman had to publish his own books & the only MFA that Emily Dickinson had was a mighty fine ass.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

So, you were the one to take of Emily Dickenson's clothes, and not Billy C.!! I'm totally in agreement on the Academy and such... My experience at the Dodge was similiar, but for a few highlights, like Sharon Olds and her new odes to various female organs, and Ted Kooser, whom I was relieved to discover was a reformed drunk! But overall, it's so much ado, and supported so by the letters after the name and the university they teach at!! They're a part of the poetry scene, but only one part... I'm too old to get carried away by a slickly turned phrase that, when read well, sounds more substantial than it really is... Thanks for the report, Dan, and I hope you had fun in the city!! xoC

Mary Kathryn Jablonski said...

I had a very different experience at the recent Nov. 7 Awards Ceremony and have contrasting opinions to those posted on this blog. I found the event quite moving. Found all recipients more than deserving of these awards and reported amounts, the panel brilliant (based on conversations I have had with them individually, books of theirs I've read, readings/lectures I've attended). In fact, barely making ends meet, I would give them more. I was encouraged by the support shown to young poets. I found Brigit's brief introductory nod to Yeats, since she has taught in Ireland, appropriate, and her concluding passage, "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," read for someone recently deceased known to many in the room, also heartfelt. We are all indebted to our poetic ancestors, and I found it humble and gracious that BPK would give of her allotted time for these others, leaving us hungry for more of her own lush work. As for Louise's absence at the reception following the awards, any sensitive person could see she was clearly emotionally shaken by the magnitude of her award, which she said aloud. She could barely pull herself together to get through her reading, but read she did, and brilliantly. She is a genius of our generation. Sitting back down, she wept with release. I completely understand that she was not in any shape to make a public appearance at that time. She consistently gives of herself to others through her teaching and appearances. Her gifts to those who are not occupied with women's "asses", etc. are thousand fold. I am a grateful, grateful recipient and know of many others who were there that same night.

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