Book of the Year: The Collected Poems of Donald Justice (Knopf)
Runner-Up: Second Space by Czeslaw Milosz (Ecco). Inner Voices: Selected Poems by Richard Howard (FSG).
Granted, this is not a daring choice. Donald Justice was beloved as a poet and teacher by several generations of American poets. Still, we’ll leave it to other award committees to prefer Jean Valentine over Justice. Sometimes the consensus opinion is also the right one.
Best Book of Contemporary Poetry: The Prodigal by Derek Walcott (FSG).
Runner-Up: Brother Fire: Poems by W. S. Di Piero (Knopf).
What was the best book by a living author this year? Derek Walcott’s travelogue was so gorgeous that it reminded his contemporary American counterparts how far from beauty their lines have strayed.
Best Translations: The Poetry of Petrarch, translated by David Young (FSG).
Runners-Up: Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell (Free Press). The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone by Seamus Heaney (FSG).
David Young over Seamus Heaney? One can almost hear the howls of disbelief. Better sorry than safe, we always say. Young’s work stands out all the more for its lack of competition: no one has bothered to bring Petrarch into English for quite some time. Alongside the greatest hits package Petrarch in English (Penguin), the reader can now easily approach the immortal Italian.
Best Criticism: Creative Glut: Selected Essays of Karl Shapiro (Ivan R. Dee)
Runners-Up: Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture by Dana Gioia (Graywolf Press). A Defense of Ardor by Adam Zagajewski (FSG). Collected Prose of James Merrill (Knopf).
Again this year, criticism was one of the most hotly contested awards—and while Gioia, Merrill, and Zagajewski enjoy sizable readerships, Shapiro’s reputation has nearly expired since his death. Only John Updike, it seems, still cares to keep his flame publicly kindled. Nevertheless, Shapiro wrote some interesting and awkward essays; his In Defense of Ignorance remains one of the best minority reports on Modernist orthodoxy ever written.
Best Biography: A Profane Wit: The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester by James William Johnson (University of Rochester Press)
Runners-Up: E.E. Cummings by Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno (Sourcebooks). Pablo Neruda: A Biography by Adam Feinstein. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life by Charles C. Calhoun (Beacon Press).
The Neruda and Cummings biographies hogged the spotlight and the reviews, but how can they compete with the Earl of Rochester for glamour or sex appeal? Dead at the age of 33, John Wilmot wrote such delicious smut that he has been systematically ignored by generations of priggish anthologists. As John Clare rose from the shadows in 2003, this year’s revived spirit belonged to Rochester; he is even rumored to be the subject of a major motion picture. Long may he reign.
Disappointment of the Year: The Best American Poetry 2004, guest edited by Lyn Hejinian.
Runners-Up: The Insistence of Beauty by Stephen Dunn (Norton); Blue Iris: Poems & Essays by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press); Blinking with Fists by Billy Corgan (FSG).
Plenty of critics panned the latest offering from Mary Oliver, but for sheer incompetence the anthology by Hejinian was impossible to surpass. Most of the “poems” in this book appeared to be laundry lists that Keith Richards scribbled to himself during the drug years; perhaps it’s Hejinian who needs aesthetic rehab.
Best of the Rest: Lepanto by GK Chesterton (Ignatius Press)
Runners-Up: Just The Thing: Selected Letters Of James Schuyler (Turtle Point Press). Ariel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath (HarperCollins). A Glass Half-Full by Felix Dennis (Miramax Books).
For sheer laughs, it’s hard to improve on Felix Dennis (the wealthy publisher of Maxim magazine), who spent part of the year reading his poems to huge crowds lured there by the free wine. It not only pissed off the self-important poetry crowd, but he wasn’t half-bad to boot. Arriving at his readings by helicopter was a nice trick too. And once the smoke cleared from the Plath book, we preferred her unrestored. So, that left lonely, unfashionable Chesterton—yes, that Chesterton. He wrote poems once, remember?
Publisher of the Year: Copper Canyon Press
This was the year that Sam Hamill, the founding editor of Copper Canyon Press, retired. Mr. Hamill managed to transform a regional and independent press into a force as powerful as the big commercial publishers in all American matters poetic. It merely took 34 years. One may not agree with all their publications or politics but, as someone once said, you can’t argue with success.
Ones We Missed: The Metamorphoses of Ovid: A New Translation by Charles Martin (Norton)
Runner-Up: The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (Copper Canyon Press)
This book arrived late in November, which meant that we missed praising Martin’s quiet mastery. Though Ted Hughes, David Slavitt, Rolphe Humphries, and Allen Mandelbaum have all produced admirable versions in the last fifty years, this new one might be the best. Do yourself a favor and get Arthur Golding’s supreme 1567 translation, along with the collection Ovid in English (Penguin Classics), as well.