Book of the Year: Collected Poems by W. H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson (Modern Library).
This one is unavoidable. You can’t get around it. You have to go through it. 2007 was a very good year for Auden’s readers. Mendelson’s collection was welcomed with open arms on both sides of the Atlantic. Timed to coincide with the centenary of Auden’s birth, it received wide attention and sent many back to school under the tutelage of the rumpled, incredibly prolific, and always loveable man who may be remembered as the greatest English-born poet of the century.
Best Book of Contemporary Poetry: Ludlow by David Mason (Red Hen Press).
The book-length poem has been a very risky venture in the last century. Few efforts can be counted as successes in the manner of their great predecessors, such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost (the great Protestant epic) or Lord Byron’s Don Juan (a great comic and commercial success). Yet the lure of the long poem persists well into the age of the lyric. Ludlow tells the story of the Ludlow Massacre, in which many coal miners, most of them recent immigrants, were attacked and killed by the Colorado National Guard in 1914 during a prolonged strike. Mason grips the reader and produces a fast-paced, compelling story in verse. Mason shows us that the verse novel remains a valuable and highly pleasurable literary form.
Best Debut of the Year: Big-Eyed Afraid by Erica Dawson (Waywiser Press).
Dexterously rhythmic, with punchy rhymes and inventive style, Erica Dawson’s poems allow her to sing a truly modern song of herself and persuade the reader to assume what she assumes with every perfectly placed note along the way. This book is a joy to read.
Best Second Book: Dismal Rock by Davis McCombs (Tupelo Press).
McCombs transports the reader to his native Kentucky for his follow up to Ultima Thule, which won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. The poems are laden with rich local imagery, and they seem at times carved into the very sandstone of Dismal Rock like the ancient petroglyphs his characters encounter there.
Best Book of British Poetry: Collected Poems by Louis MacNeice (Faber and Faber).
Louis MacNeice was the Jonson to Auden’s Shakespeare in the Oxford Group concoction known as “MacSpaunday.” Auden’s coeval, he died younger than his friend but still left behind a notable and very impressive body of work, one that commands considerable attention and respect. MacNeice may not be Auden, but he’s no Spender! As the magazine’s editor Ernest Hilbert wrote for the special issue on MacNeice’s career, “His poetry is musical and humane, possessed of wit, flair, and exuberance. From his first published work Blind Fireworks (now considered juvenilia) in 1929 to the immediately posthumous Burning Perch in 1963 (published only days after his funeral) he brought out no fewer than fifteen volumes of poetry (if one includes Letters from Iceland, co-written with Auden). His book-length poem, Autumn Journal, is generally viewed as one of the great interwar English poems, presaging both fascist victories in Spain and German bombs raining on London. His short, singing lyric “The Sunlight on the Garden” is a startling, small masterpiece that encapsulates the alarm of a generation preparing for war while courting nostalgia as it bids farewell to peace and youth. Born in Belfast, tutored at Marlborough and Merton College, Oxford, a resident of Birmingham and London, eventually a world traveler, MacNeice has always straddled the trenches that define English, Irish, and, of course, British poetry of the last century. This has only added to his appeal.”
Best Book of Contemporary British Poetry: Pessimism for Beginners by Sophie Hannah (Carcanet).
This book is a hell of a lot of fun. Hannah is pitch-perfect, and she proves that the British tradition of finely-tuned cosmopolitan verse remains very alive. She raises material that might be merely light verse in the hands of a lesser poet to new heights: “At the moment I still prefer you / To the poems I’ve written about you. / I expect this won’t always be true.” One will detect distinct and pleasing strains of both W.H. Auden and Wendy Cope, but Hannah’s poetry is fresh and every inch her own.
Best New and Selected Edition: Selected Poems by Derek Walcott, edited by Edward Baugh (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).
Yes, he won the Nobel Prize but does Derek Walcott really get the respect he deserves from his fellow poets? His American colleagues tend to ignore him, while the Brits don’t claim him as one of their own. “What are his politics? Who does he belong to? What group does his work represent?” You can just imagine the academics asking their reductive questions about him and shaking their heads in dismissal. Walcott is, however, one of the greatest poets alive in English — only Richard Wilbur, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill are in his league.
Runner-Up: In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955-2007 by X. J. Kennedy (Johns Hopkins University Press).
X.J. Kennedy is a living legend and, dare we say it, a national treasure. His previous selected, Cross Ties, appeared in 1985, so his latest is a necessary update from this fertile author of poetry for both adults and children, in both serious and comic veins (Peeping Tom’s Cabin, a collection of his comic verse was issued in 2007 by BOA). Catherine Tufariello wrote in these pages that “in conjuring the voices of people who are rarely heard as well as in his mastery of traditional verse forms, Kennedy is a direct descendant of Edwin Arlington Robinson. He shares Robinson’s compassion for people regarded by society as losers and failures, finding stories worth telling in lives stunted by isolation and disappointment. While Kennedy spent much of his professional life as a college literature teacher, he comes from a working class Irish-American background — his father was a timekeeper in a boiler factory — and in crucial ways his poems have remained rooted in that background.”
Best Translation: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation by Simon Armitage (W.W. Norton).
An old standby, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has seen many translations. W.S. Merwin published his translation of the Middle English chivalric romance in 2004. J.R.R. Tolkien (with E.V. Gordon) offered a scholarly edition of the Middle English text in 1925 and later his own translation into modern English (alongside Pearl and Sir Orfeo, which may have issued from the pen of the same original author; some misguided fans of Tolkien later believed that he was the author, rather than merely translator, of the poem). The highly symbolic alliterative poem can be traced back to a single manuscript, recorded as “Cotton Nero A.x.” As a hero, Gawain merits mention as early as the twelfth century in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regun Britanniae. While the French preferred to depict the English knight as a villain, Sir Gawain remains one of the great heroes of British myth and literature. Simon Armitage’s translation has excited readers on both sides of the Atlantic this past year, and it may come to be our standard modern translation. His muscular deployment of alliterative rhythms and appealing contemporary language (including much British slang) breathe fresh life into a classic.
Runner-Up: Ted Hughes: Selected Translations, edited by Daniel Weissbort (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Ted Hughes co-founded Modern Poetry in Translation with Daniel Weissbort in 1965, and remained actively involved in translation throughout most of his career. Yet while Hughes’s translations are mentioned by critics, they are rarely given particular importance in the context of his other work. As Weissbort points out in the introduction to this exceptionally well-edited collection, this limits understanding of Hughes’s work since his engagement in translation “related to his own needs as a writer,” provided clues to his development, and was integral to his overall style. And Hughes’s engagement with the work of other poets was broad, democratic, and eclectic, which makes this collection particularly interesting and extremely readable. Translations of the work of more than twenty poets writing in over a dozen languages are included — for example, Seneca, Ovid, the Pearl Poet, Yehuda Amichai, Garcia Lorca, Aeschylus, and Pushkin. While assessments of particular translations may be relatively subjective, some of the “stars” appear to be Hughes’s translations of Ovid (Hughes translated a well-received collection of Ovid’s works); Racine’s Phaedra, the poems of Amichai, and perhaps most of all, Hughes’s translations of the fragments from Gawain and the Green Knight. There is a strong narrative drive to Hughes’s Gawain, and as Weissbort indicates, he “seemed intent on telling the story vividly for a contemporary audience.” Of course, what made Gawain particularly attractive to Hughes was his own Yorkshire dialect, which as he has commented, connected him directly to Middle English poetry; or, “In writing verse, it’s what I hear.”
Runner-Up: The Nature of Things by Lucretius, translated by A. E. Stallings (Penguin Classics).
Titus Lucretius Carus is the famous Roman Epicurean wit who wrote in the 1st century BC. Stallings, who worked on the translation over many years, wrote in the New Criterion that the unlikely masterpiece “probably seemed as curious then as now. Prose, not poetry, was the vehicle for philosophy in the first century, and Greek, not Latin, was its proper language. Epicurus himself would, in theory, have frowned on this mode for his gospel — he disapproved of poetry — but for Lucretius, poetry was the honey that helped the bitter (and salutary) medicine of philosophy go down.” For those of us who grew up reading De Rerum Natura in the red-jacketed Loeb Classics Library, a new Penguins Classics translation (hers joins the Ronald E. Latham translation in the series) is just what the doctor ordered.
Best Criticism: Ambition and Survival by Christian Wiman (Copper Canyon Press).
Mr. Wiman was chosen as the editor of Poetry magazine largely for the quality of his critical reviews and essays. At the time, his selection was greeted with befuddlement and even skepticism; as a little-known and rather young poet-critic, he was viewed as the “dark horse” choice. Readers of this collection will gain a sense of the work that recommended Wiman for the job in the first place.
Runners-Up: Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 30s: The Shores of Light, Axel’s Castle, Uncollected Reviews. Edited by Lewis Dabney (Library of America # 176).
Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s and 40s: The Triple Thinkers, The Wound and the Bow, Classics and Commercials, Uncollected Reviews. Edited by Lewis Dabney (Library of America # 177).
Following on Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature (his excellent biography of the “Man in the Iron Necktie”), Mr. Dabney has edited two volumes of the works of the most powerful American literary journalist of the 20th century (with apologies to partisans of Mencken et al). These should have been the inaugural volumes of the Library of America, since it was Edmund Wilson’s idea that the United States needed such a press to safeguard its cultural legacy, but at last justice has been served. Though most of the American writers and critics who shaped the century’s literature did so from cheap garrets in London and Paris, it was Edmund Wilson who brought the latest news of Modernism to the provinces of America for half a century.
Best Biography: Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet’s Life by Scott Donaldson (Columbia University Press).
Although issued in mid-December 2006, most of us didn’t start reading this desk-tipper until we declared it a New Year’s resolution. Donaldson’s meticulous life of Robinson certainly helped to sweep out many of the cobwebs of the previous year. It is a magnificent and exhaustive account of the life of one of America’s major (though neglected) poets. It makes a persuasive case for Robinson as the first major American modernist, a tireless craftsman who did much to clear away the undergrowth of Victorian clichés and open a path for poets like Frost and others who would follow. Although Robinson’s life was largely sedate and uneventful, his poems contain an intensity and power rarely seen in any era. Widely reviewed and widely praised, this book ought to be required reading for all American poets.
Runner-Up: Ezra Pound: Poet, Volume 1: The Young Genius 1885-1920 by A. David Moody (Oxford University Press).
Such is Mr. Moody’s reputation after his work on T. S. Eliot that Pound scholars eagerly anticipated the release of this book—which is not the usual state of affairs in literary criticism these days, to say the very least. Does this planned two-volume critical biography supplant its older brethren? Among the Poundians, Hugh Kenner remains the first among equals (just as his classic The Pound Era remains the definitive account of literary Modernism) but Moody has written his work at a time when Pound’s poetic legacy is under attack by leftist scholars who wish to erase him from the canon because of his politics. This work should help remind everyone of a simple truth: Ezra Pound was the central figure of 20th century poetry in English.
Disappointment of the Year: The Notebooks of Robert Frost. Edited by Robert Faggen (Harvard University Press).
Universally welcomed and praised by critics and book reviewers earlier this year, Mr. Faggen’s volume appeared to be a carefully edited sampling of the master’s scraps and shavings from forty-seven notebooks. It fell to the poet-critic William Logan to actually perform that much neglected task of comparative scholarship: check the sources! According to Mr. Logan, Mr. Faggen’s transcriptions are untrustworthy to the point of shoddiness (see his review of the book in Parnassus vol. 30, nos. 1&2).
Event of the Year: The W. H. Auden centenary
“Witty” Wystan was everywhere this year. The newspapers remembered him; the journals reprinted him; the general public read him once more. The reception that Auden received in America was more than an outpouring of respect or affection: it was a public canonization. In December, the Poetry Society of America subsidized two dramatic performances of Auden’s For the Time Being in New York City. Earlier in the year, the National Endowment for the Arts also organized two commemorative events. The last time Americans took to an Englishman this way it was Churchill, or Chaplin.
Publisher of the Year: The Library of America
With Lewis Dabney’s two-volume, 2,000 page collecting of Edmund Wilson’s critical prose (a task of the greatest importance to American literary criticism), the equally massive two-volume anthology of early American poetry by David Shields, David Bromwich’s selection of sonnets, and the upcoming one-volume Elizabeth Bishop waiting in the wings, the printers for the Library of America probably don’t want to see another manuscript from chief editor Geoffrey O’Brien until sometime in the next millennium. The press, which has always promised to be our Pleiade and yet has always felt more like a work-in-progress, has now reached its majority. The backlist is impressive; the editions are handsome. Edmund Wilson would be proud. Yes, it was a very good year.
Best of the Rest: The Complete Poems of Tennessee Williams. Edited by David Roessel and Nicholas Moschovakis (New Directions).
It will surprise no one that the American playwright Tennessee Williams always considered himself primarily a poet: everywhere in his dramatic work there is an intense lyricism and a language straining toward poetic effects. When he wrote in either of his two mastered forms (the couplet and quatrain) Williams usually produced something memorable. His best poetry—concentrated in a very few short poems— displays a musical delicacy that reminds one of a much greater poete maudit, Paul Verlaine. While his poetry does not rank as his first contribution to American letters (certainly his plays and letters deserve that distinction), a handful of them are still memorable today.