Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Poets' Prize: Notes on Finalists Michael Collier and Albert Goldbarth

The Roerich Museum, where the ceremony took place.

I'm back from New York, where I was very happy to play a small part in this year's Poets' Prize ceremony.  Among other things, it was very good to finally meet R.S. Gwynn face to face—he's the poet I'd known longest online without actually meeting, and I'm hoping to write something about his fine, witty new book Dog Watch soon.

Although I was under the weather and presented a somewhat muted, sweaty, trembly figure, I managed to make my way to the lectern at the Roerich Museum and deliver a few remarks on two of the finalists for the award, Michael Collier and Albert Goldbarth.  Here's what I had to say.


It falls to me to say a few words about two of this year's finalists for the Poets' Prize, Michael Collier and Albert Goldbarth.  Both are so distinguished that I feel I could only do them justice by reciting their titles and honors, in the manner of a bard of the dark ages singing out the praises of a King of Wessex.

Michael Collier – director of the Bread Loaf Conference, Professor at the University of Maryland and former poet laureate of that state, Guggenheim Fellow, N.E.A. fellow, Pushcart Prize winner, recipient of other honors too numerous to list, and author of a half dozen books of poetry, one of which, The Ledge, from 2000, was a finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award!  Michael Collier, author of Make Us Wave Back: Essays on Poetry and Influence, and author of a translation of Euripedes' Medea — a translation that puts the force and horror back into the language of the old Greek master.  When the critic James Longenbach described Collier's imagination as populated with a "sinister and yet oddly comic cast of misfits, ogres and giants" he was speaking of Collier's poetry, but the statement could just as well apply to Collier's choice of translation project or, for that matter, his essays on poetic influence, a subject rife with ogres and giants.

Many have described Collier's poems in terms of their loving, careful, and sometimes uncanny description of physical things, and there is a sense in which Collier follows the great dictum of William Carlos Williams, "no ideas but in things."  Indeed, Collier's own comment about the great, mad Romantic John Clare pertains as much to his own poetry as to Clare's: "Clare pays kind of scrupulous attention to the world, that the world itself kept him alive and whole, the particularity of the world… there's no one who's described a nest or a burrow the way that Clare has. And then also the other thing about Clare, and this goes along with the sort of purity of response in him, is the humility you feel and the way in which he praises the world for its beauty and powerful simplicity."

But we mustn't let the truth of this cloud out the range of Collier's achievement.  One of his most important accomplishments is the way he gracefully interweaves personal experience or family connections with a larger, less private world—a world of history and, in a subtle way, politics.  Nowhere does he manage this more deftly than in the title poem of the volume that made him a finalist for the Poets' Prize, An Individual History:

This was before the time of lithium and Zoloft
before mood stabilizers and anxiolytics
and almost all the psychotropic drugs, but not before thorazine,
which the suicide O'Laughlin called "handcuffs for the mind."
It was before, during, and after the time of atomic fallout,
Auschwitz, the Nakba, DDT, and you could take water cures,
find solace in quarantines, participate in shunnings,
or stand at Lourdes among the canes and crutches.
It was when the March of Time kept taking off its boots.
Fridays when families prayed the Living Rosary
to neutralize communists with prayer.
When electroshock was electrocution
and hammers recognized the purpose of a nail.
And so, if you were as crazy as my maternal grandmother was then
you might make the pilgrimage she did through the wards
of state and private institutions,
and make of your own body a nail for pounding, its head
sunk past quagmires, coups d'etat, and disappearances
and in this way find a place in history
among the detained and unparoled, an individual like her,
though hidden by an epoch of lean notation -- "Marked
Parkinsonian tremor," "Chronic paranoid type" --
a time when the animal slowed by its fate
was excited to catch a glimpse of its tail
or feel through her skin the dulled-over joy
when for a moment her hands were still.


Albert Goldbarth, too, weaves the personal and the historical together—along with the scientific, the mystical, the demotic, the mythological, the quotidian, the remote, the comic, and (to hijack the title of one of Goldbarth's books) the kitchen sink. Despite, or perhaps because, of all this variety, Goldbarth's voice remains singular and eminently recognizable.  Eric McHenry, writing for Slate magazine, understood the nature of Goldbarth's singularity when he wrote that "What distinguishes most contemporary poetry from prose isn't meter or rhyme or even line breaks, but a self-conscious spareness and a slightly arch or elevated diction.  An Albert Goldbarth poem, by contrast, is wacky, talky, and fat."  Corpulence, in an age of bulimia, is no vice, and readers have been appreciative: Goldbarth has won the Theodore Roethke prize, an N.E.A. fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Mark Twain Award for Humorous Poetry, and he is the only poet to receive the National Book Critics Cricle Prize twice.  Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the University of Wichita, he has written 25 full-length books of poetry as well as many chapbooks, a novel, and five collections of essays, one of which, Many Circles, won the PEN West Creative Nonfiction Prize.

For all of its wide-ranging talkiness and its elegant leaping from astronomy to zoology, Goldbarth's poetry, like Collier's, maintains a loving attention to the particular, an attention best explained by Goldbarth himself, when he says "It's not my place to define the job of poetry, but a lot of my poems do try to serve as memorials, as segments of frozen time that save people or cultural moments that have otherwise passed away or are in danger of passing away."  We get a taste of this love, even reverence, for the transient and particular in an uncharacteristically short poem of Goldbarth's called "How Simile Works," which I offer not because it is new, but because it is one of the first poems of Goldbarth's with which I fell in love:

The drizzle-slicked cobblestone alleys
of some city;
             and the brickwork back
of the lumbering Galapagos tortoise
they'd set me astride, at the "petting zoo"....
The taste of our squabble still in my mouth
 the next day;
            and the brackish puddles sectioning
 the street one morning after a storm....
So poetry configures its comparisons.
My wife and I have been arguing; now
I'm telling her a childhood reminiscence,
stroking her back, her naked back that was
the particles in the heart of a star and will be
again, and is hers, and is like nothing
else, and is like the components of everything.

Michael Collier and Albert Goldbarth are fine poets, and it is an honor to name them here tonight.


Naomi Replansky was the other runner-up for the prize.  At age 94, she attended and read wonderfully and in strong voice.  This year's prize went to George Green.