Book of the Year: The Collected Poems (1943-2004) of Richard Wilbur (Harcourt)
Runners-Up: Safest by Michael Donaghy (Picador)
Who is the greatest living American poet? While Anthony Hecht lived, one could debate the question. Now, the matter is beyond dispute: Wilbur really is our “king of the cats.” What’s more, not since Robert Lowell has a poet written so many good poems to accompany his great ones. As for Donaghy, who died last year, here is one last book from that rarest of exiles: an American much admired in London and Dublin.
Best Book of Contemporary Poetry: Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems (Library of America)
Runners-Up: The Niagara River by Kay Ryan (Grove Press). Scenes from Comus by Geoffrey Hill (Penguin UK).
Who is Samuel Menashe? The last of the New York Bohemians suddenly arrived this year with an award from the Poetry Foundation, and a book from the Library of America—the first living poet to be so honored. While the rest of the poetry world pursued grants and honors and endowed chairs, Menashe pared his poems down into their tiny, essential forms while sitting in Central Park. Such a life illustrates a lasting principle: if one persists in being original long enough, one inevitably comes into fashion.
Best Translation: The Greek Anthology, translated by Sherod Santos (Norton).
Runners-Up: The Poems of Catullus, translated by Peter Green (University of California Press). The Portable Petrarch, translated by Mark Musa (Penguin Classics).
Peter Green’s translations from the classics are justly celebrated; his Sixteen Satires of Juvenal is a gem. So he shouldn’t have to share the podium with Sherod Santos’ first attempt at reviving the antiquities. Yet Santos’ Greek Anthology is so full of stunning free-verse fragments that it cannot be ignored; it stands with the versions by Dudley Fitts and Kenneth Rexroth, and perhaps outshines them.
Best Criticism: The Undiscovered Country by William Logan (Columbia University Press)
Runners-Up: A Poet’s Prose: Selected Essays of Louise Bogan, edited by Mary Kinzie (Swallow Press). Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems (Pantheon). The Wounded Surgeon by Adam Kirsch (Norton).
William Logan edged the competition with his fecundity: this is his fourth collection of criticism in seven years. Every one of them is worth owning and, collectively, they stand as the most complete analysis of contemporary English-language poets that we are likely to have. Logan is constantly reprimanded for his hard-man style; it’s time he was praised for the virtues of his vices.
Best Biography: Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature by Lewis M. Dabney (FSG).
Runner-Up: Ogden Nash: The Life and Work of America’s Laureate of Light Verse by Douglas M. Parker (Ivan R Dee).
Dabney’s life of the “man in the iron necktie” was inescapable this year, with reviews in all the major papers and journals. It’s hard to recall now how far-ranging, how iconoclastic, how singular Wilson was. He knew nine languages, wrote a pornographic novel, a diatribe against the IRS, a path-breaking study on the Dead Sea Scrolls (for which he taught himself Hebrew), several volumes of memoirs, several volumes of book reviews, and several unclassifiable classics (Patriotic Gore, Axel’s Castle, The Wound and the Bow, The Triple Thinkers). Yet, for all this, he was dismissed by generations of American professors as insufficiently serious, a mere journalist.
Disappointment of the Year: Migration: New & Selected Poems by W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press).
Runners-Up: Overlord by Jorie Graham (Ecco/HarperCollins). The Trouble with Poetry, and Other Poems by Billy Collins (Random House).
As a rule, poets don’t age well. They descend into despondency and madness, or at least their lines do. To compare the volumes of Richard Wilbur and W. S. Merwin is to be struck by that melancholy fact: while both poets began as careful craftsmen of formal verse, only Wilbur’s work deepened in fluency and power. Merwin’s poetry, decade after decade, shriveled into carelessness until, in his latest volume Present Company (2005), the syntax is autistic, the diction prosaic, and the lines are so repetitive and broken they’d shame a high school literary magazine. Despite all his recently bestowed awards, Merwin’s decline is as plain as dawn breaking over Topeka; if one reads his work backwards, and ends with his first collection, A Mask for Janus (1952), one may exclaim that he saved his best for last.
Event of the Year: Sappho’s lost poem recovered
In a year that found the poetry world mourning Robert Creeley, and the last of the Modernists, 101-year old Richard Eberhart, the most important event was the discovery of a complete poem by the ancient Greek poetess, Sappho. How rare? We now have four complete poems, to add to 63 complete single lines, and 264 fragments—all that’s left of the woman Plato considered the tenth Muse.
Best of the Rest: Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden, edited by Stephen Burt (Columbia University Press).
Runners-Up: The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton (FSG). A Wild Perfection: Selected Letters of James Wright, edited by Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Maley (FSG).
Yes, you’ll want to read the letters of Lowell and Wright, though their tales of alcoholism, madness, and mangled marriages don’t make for light, bedside reading. Better to spend your evenings reading the wittiest of our critics, Jarrell, on his favorite poet, “Witty” Wystan Auden. Compiled from lectures, this book is the one Jarrell constantly promised (or threatened?) to write but never finished. It’s so funny that one almost forgets Jarrell was writing his version of The God That Failed.
Ones We Missed: Jejuri, by Arun Kolatkar, edited by Amit Chaudhuri (New York Review Books Classics).
This poem-cycle won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the mid-1970s, but has been more or less out of print since then. It’s probably hands-down the best collection by an Indian writer in English (if you discount Vikram Seth’s book-length poem Golden Gate). Kolatkar died last year.