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Best Books of 2006: The CPR Awards

 

Book of the Year: Not for Specialists: New & Selected Poems by W. D. Snodgrass (BOA Editions).

What happened to Snodgrass? After winning the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for his first book, the “confessional school” landmark Heart’s Needle, his career stalled. As William Logan has written, among living poets “none has suffered so peculiar a history of publication” as has Snodgrass. This is a welcome selected, then, for one of the most significant post-war American poets, his first since the 1991 Selected Poems from SoHo Press.

Runner-Up: Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments by Elizabeth Bishop (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

A very popular and sometimes controversial book. New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn’s selection of previously unpublished, and in many cases uncompleted, poems from Elizabeth Bishop made a big splash in the press and inspired the Contemporary Poetry Review to arrange a special issue devoted entirely to this important collection.

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Best Book of Contemporary Poetry: Hapax by A. E. Stallings (Triquarterly).

The second commercial publication by Stallings (following Archaic Smile and several fine press releases), Hapax is perhaps her finest. An American living in Greece, she uses her considerable knowledge of classical languages and literature to create poems in a truly contemporary idiom (she recently translated Lucretius’s Nature of Things for Penguin Classics). From serious sonnets to mischievous limericks, she reminds us how diversely skilled and truly gifted a contemporary poet can be.

Runner-Up: Ooga-Booga: Poems by Frederick Seidel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Seidel remains a mystery to many readers, but his poems contain such force and intelligence that he is certain to be remembered long after most of the poetry popular in America today has long since simmered away. While some of his mid-career books plod and lack any distinct energy, Ooga-Booga is nothing less than exhilarating. The poems are elegant and bloodthirsty, whimsical, arrogant, insulting, and tender. It is a surprising book and one that deserves to be read and remembered. It is an unsettling comeback for a poet who has divided critics and readers for generations.

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Best Book of British Poetry: Collected Poems by John Betjeman, introduction by Andrew Motion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Betjeman is so English that Americans may have trouble “getting” him. Once incredibly popular as poet laureate, television presenter, and architectural critic, the sun may have set on his empire, but there is still much to love and much to learn from the man Craig Raine recently described crawling drunkenly from a cab and climbing the red carpet at Buckingham Palace on all fours to present Ted Hughes to the queen. He is a master of popular, satirical verse: something Yanks could use a bit more of these days.

Runners-up: Selected Poems by James Fenton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).  Without Title by Geoffrey Hill (Yale University Press).

James Fenton, born in 1949, has distinguished himself as the finest English poet of his generation. His experience as both war journalist and critic for the Times has allowed him to hone a unique, dexterous style that bristles with lived experience and a feel for the great turn of historical events. American poets would do well to read him closely. His sequence “Children in Exile” may be one of the finest English-language poems composed since VE day.

Issued in 2006 in the UK and not available until this year stateside, Geoffrey Hill’s latest collection is a return to a less barbed but still sternly constructed poetry of his earlier career. After writing his first verifiably great poem (“Genesis”) at age 20 while an undergraduate at Oxford University, Hill has consistently created the most refined and often most shocking poetry in the language for five decades. Thanks in part to Poetry magazine’s championing of his recent work, Hill has begun, at long last, to receive some overdue attention here in the United States. His wooly, weather-tossed poems—simultaneously constructed downward etymologically and upward musically—are not likely to appeal to an American poetry audience with little patience for serious philosophy and history, but he has already begun to exert an incredible influence in certain dark quarters.

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Best Translation: The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles (Viking).

Fagles is a living legend. At least two generations have come of age with his translations of the Homeric epics, and many of us have waiting a long time for his Roman epic. The Aeneid is his first large-scale translation from the Latin, and it arrives on our shelves at a time when topics such as empire, national destiny, patriotism, war, and sacrifice once again keep us up at night. Many translations of Virgil’s masterpiece are mired in archaic linguistic constructions; Fagles provides us with a rhythmic, highly enjoyable, and reliable version of the greatest imperial epic.

Runners-Up: Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Edited by Michael Hofmann. Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems by Durs Grunbein (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Translated and edited by Michael Hofmann.

Mr. Hofmann served up a massive double-helping of translations from the German in 2007: almost nine hundred pages ranging from Günter Grass to Grunbein. So far, very few have reviewed both books because very few have read both books, but Hofmann has clearly staked his claim to being the great interpreter of German poetry in our time.

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Best Criticism: 

The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures by Paul Muldoon (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Timed to coincide with his recent, critically acclaimed collection Horse Latitudes, Muldoon’s Oxford Lectures display a virtuosity and sinuosity of thought that we have come to expect from his best poems. These are the finest Oxford poetry lectures (delivered over the course of a year by the Oxford Professor of Poetry) since James Fenton’s powerful The Strength of Poetry (published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2002).

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Best Biography: William Empson: Volume 2 (Against the Christians) by John Haffenden (Oxford University Press).

In a year that saw the extraordinarily controversial A. N. Wilson biography of Betjeman, we still had to go with the commanding and all-inclusive Haffenden. At 792 pages, Haffenden has given us the second and concluding volume of his authorized biography of William Empson (the first, subtitled Among the Mandarins, was a mere 640 pages), and it now stretches longer than many readers would wish. Was Empson’s life really so packed with incident? Was he really the greatest literary critic of the 20th century? To both questions we would answer: no. Still, Mr. Haffenden deserves our applause for his Johnsonian labors: this second volume arrived in the same year as Empson’s Selected Letters and a paperback edition of his Essays on Renaissance Literature. All of that adds to Haffenden’s Complete Poems of William Empson, which appeared five years ago. What is left for him to do? Perhaps he may even persuade Oxford University Press to re-issue new editions of Empson’s books (all of which are out of print and difficult to obtain). Regardless, there are very few literary critics who have enjoyed this level of attention and meticulous editing. This is scholarship in the grand style.

Runner-Up: The Way It Wasn’t: From the Files of James Laughlin. Edited by Barbara Epler and Daniel Javitch (New Directions).

It was Laughlin’s year in many ways. After the amateurish but amusing chopped-prose-as-poetry memoir Byways, we were treated to this gem: a scrapbook of odds and ends from the greatest independent American publisher of the twentieth century. Quite impressive: what a push from Ezra Pound could do to one restless heir to a steel fortune! What we should admire most is Laughlin’s example; clearly, he was enjoying himself during his wild ride among the Modernist masters.

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Disappointment of the Year: Oxford Book of American Poetry, edited by David Lehman (Oxford University Press).

A recent and dismal trend continues: abysmal anthologizing. The venerable W.W. Norton brought out a boondoggle of an anthology when they hired J. Paul Hunter, Alison Booth, and Kelly J. Mays as editors for their Introduction to Poetry. They punted again with their two-volume Modern and Contemporary Poetry anthology (the CPR’s choice for worst book of 2003). So perhaps it was inevitable that Oxford University Press would get this wrong. After F. O. Matthiessen and Richard Ellmann magisterially edited earlier editions of the Oxford schoolroom behemoth, OUP was faced with the task of finding a new editor equal to the task. For mysterious reasons, they selected David Lehman, who is less a scholar than a cheerleader for particular camps and poets, many of whom were personal friends and mentors. Critics of all stripes rightly took Lehman to task, and the most vehement among them, Marjorie Perloff, batted him sternly about the ears in the Times Literary Supplement. His attempts to make the anthology more inclusive have made the overpriced doorstop into a sprawling, less realistically representative assessment of American poetry than we had yet seen from a major publisher.

Runner-Up: Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems by Alice Notley (Wesleyan University Press).

Perhaps the nadir of carelessness, and the sloppy DIY-approach of the New York school, Notley’s poems embarrassingly exhibit to the reader the essential dilemma of contemporary free verse: if this is poetry, then what isn’t poetry?

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Event of the Year: The revival of Poetry Magazine

Yes, this renaissance began a few years ago. No, it’s not all about the 100-million dollar miracle. Christian Wiman’s reinvigoration of the flagship magazine continues apace and is priceless—though the criticism on display is usually superior to the odd and sometimes anemic poetry. Still, subscriptions have soared, and the magazine once again seems to be not only vital but central to the American poetry scene.

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Publisher of the Year: Adastra Press 

With no web presence and almost no publicity, Adastra Press of Easthampton, Massachusetts has quietly built a solid reputation for itself as a publisher of short-run, handcrafted limited editions. Gary Metras continues the ancient and virtually lost practice of hand setting type and hand-sewing the gatherings. Independent-minded, they represent the best in small press poetry publishing. Without bluster, grand mission statements, or corporate backing, they continue the slow, serious work of publishing in a world swiftly adapting to strictly digital means of textual reproduction.  The last book that we received from Adastra ended with this note: “Production lasted from September to November 2006 as an unusually mild autumn kept trout actively feeding on the printer’s favorite dry flies.” Simply gorgeous work.

Runner-up: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A quick scan of our list this year will confirm that Farrar, Straus and Giroux still rules the roost. Under the stewardship of editor Jonathan Galassi, who must have the finest eye and ear (and rolodex) of any poetry publisher in the country, FSG deserves to rack up a second win for consistent quality and vision but our heart belongs to letterpress work this year.

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Best of the Rest: Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics by Cole Porter, edited by Robert Kimball (Library of America).

Cole Porter’s song lyrics are American masterworks, and they unquestionably qualify as some of the best of the century. This is a much-appreciated addition to the growing Library of America series, particularly since we haven’t had readily available collections of Porter’s lyrics since the early 1980s. The subtlety, humor, sophistication, and grace of the lyrics allow them to be read as poems, a rare thing for song lyrics. In fact, they are at times much more successful in that role than many poems tapped out today, as they are memorably crafted with rhyme, rhythm, and a bright musicality from one of the best-tuned ears America has known: “At words poetic, I’m so pathetic / That I always have found it best, / Instead of getting ‘em off my chest, / To let ‘em rest unexpressed.”

Runner-Up: Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters (Library of America). Edited by Langdon Hammer.

This post was written by:

- who has written 38 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.

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