The Best Books of 2003: The CPR Awards

Book of the Year: The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter (FSG)

Runners-Up: The Collected Poems of Ted Hughes, edited by Paul Keegan (FSG); “I Am”: The Selected Poetry of John Clare, edited by Jonathan Bate (FSG)

The story of the year was summed up in two words: Robert Lowell. Nearly three decades after his death, David Gewanter and Frank Bidart finally released the massive Collected Poems (1181 pages) to massive acclaim, and still managed to leave it incomplete. Yet this book leaves no doubt, now, that Lowell stands with Pound and Eliot and Yeats. By comparison, a mere five years after the passing of Ted Hughes, Paul Keegan amassed the 1333 pages of his Collected. We shall see if Hughes also deserves his place among the immortals.


Best Book of Contemporary Poetry: Middle Earth by Henri Cole (FSG)

Runner-Up: Macbeth in Venice by William Logan (Penguin)

What was the best book by a living American author? Henri Cole’s fifth collection just shaded Logan’s sixth, if only because Logan himself praised Cole’s book to the skies in The New Criterion.


Best Translations: The Oxford India Ramanujan, edited by Molly Daniels-Ramanujan (Oxford UP India)

Runners-Up: Rimbaud Complete, translated and edited by Wyatt Mason (Modern Library); Three Chinese Poets by Vikram Seth

The late A. K. Ramanujan (1929-1993) was known as one of the most important poets and scholars of modern-day India, and he spent his life translating poetry from the ancient Tamil and Kannada. This huge book, edited faithfully by his wife, contains posthumous editions of his collected and uncollected poems, as well as his translations, notes, and essays on the ancient poetic forms–indeed, in this book is an entire vanished world.


Best Criticism: Style & Faith by Geoffrey Hill (Counterpoint)

Runners-Up: Speaking of Beauty by Denis Donoghue (Yale UP); Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry by Anthony Hecht (Johns Hopkins UP); Coming of Age As a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath by Helen Vendler (Harvard UP)

This was probably the most hotly contested of the awards this year, for how to choose between Hill, Hecht, Vendler, and Donoghue? The Hill was chosen with one eye on scarcity, then, since Style & Faith is only Hill’s third collection of criticism. For those curious to know exactly what Hill teaches at Boston University, in the Department of Religion, one gets essays on the Bible, the OED, and on 16th and 17th century literature.


Best Anthology: The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, edited by Eliot Weinberger

Runner-Up: Ezra Pound’s Poems & Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (Library of America), The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, edited by Ilan Stevens (FSG)

A one-volume collection of Pound’s pre-Cantos career was long overdue, but Eliot Weinberger’s anthology could help to redefine the genre: it contains different versions of the same poem by various translators, and most of them are superlative. From Ezra Pound to William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and David Hinton, the reader can confront the evolution of Chinese poetry in English in one volume.


Best Biography: John Clare: A Biography by Jonathan Bate (FSG)

Runner-Up: W.B Yeats: the Arch-Poet, Volume II by R. F. Foster (Oxford)

Many thought that the second volume of R. F. Foster’s day-by-day accounting of Yeats was the year’s best biography but Bate’s book (along with his selection of Clare’s poetry) is an attempt, and we can only hope a successful one, to resurrect an important English poet who remains, to this day, in the shadows.


Worst Book of the Year: The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (Third Edition), edited by Jahan Ramazani.

Yes, there were other bad books this year but none as thoroughly noxious as the Norton. The recipe for disaster was simple: take a classroom staple, add a mediocre academic to revise the canon of 20th century poetry for the sake of political correctness, and serve up a stinker. Perhaps Norton and Ramazani didn’t think anyone was paying attention: they were wrong. Every notable critic on our side of the Atlantic condemned this miserable collection at once. Norton managed to turn this generation’s version of Palgrave’s into pinchbeck overnight. As for Ramazani, the editor who hired him ought to be fired.


Publisher of the Year: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Add them up: the Lowell, the Hughes, the Cole, the Neruda anthology, the two Clare volumes, and it wasn’t even close. FSG was the Seabiscuit of poetry publishers in 2003. In fact, this might be remembered as their annus mirabilis.


 What was the view from across the pond? David Wheatley, co-editor of the Irish poetry magazine Metre and a CPR contributing editor, provided us with his selection of the finest books printed this year.  

Best Poetry: Scenes from Long Sleep: New and Collected Poems, by Peter Didsbury  (Bloodaxe)

Runners-Up: New Collected Poems, by George Oppen; Collected Poems 1997-2003, by Peter Reading


Best Translations: Translations, by Michael Hartnett (Gallery Books)

Runners-Up: Rimbaud Complete, edited by Wyatt Mason; Forced March, by Miklos Radnoti, translated by George Gomori and Clive Wilmer 


Best Criticism: Selected Writings, 1938-1940, by Walter Benjamin

Runners-Up: Randall Jarrell and His Age, by Stephen Burt; D.H. Lawrence and ‘Difference’, by Amit Chaudhuri


Best Anthology: 20th Century French Poets, edited by Stephen Romer


Best Biography:W.B. Yeats: A Life: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939, by R.F. Foster


Worst Book of the Year: Rather than nominate a worst book, I would like to suggest a book most deplorable for its absence – namely, a proper edition of Samuel Beckett’s Collected Poems (all offers c/o CPR).

About Garrick Davis

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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