The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of $25,000, awarded annually for the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States by an American, is administered jointly by the Academy of American Poets and The Nation. In the past decade, winners have been Anne Winters (2005), Donald Revell (2004), Eamon Grennan (2003), Madeline DeFrees (2002), Fanny Howe (2001), David Ferry (2000), Wanda Coleman (1999), Mark Jarman (1998), Robert Pinsky (1997) and Charles Wright (1996). This year the award goes to Eleanor Lerman for Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds. Jurors were Carl Dennis, Carol Muske-Dukes and Tony Hoagland, who contributed the following essay. Other finalists for the award were The Singers I Prefer, by Christian Barter (CavanKerry); Refusing Heaven, by Jack Gilbert (Knopf); Facts About the Moon, by Dorianne Laux (Norton); and The Incentive of the Maggot, by Ron Slate (Mariner).
Of late, American poetry has yielded some interesting species of “social” poetry–by which I mean poetry that engages the realities of the collective, as well as the emotional concerns of an individual speaker. There was Anne Winters’s arresting collection The Displaced of Capital (the 2005 Lenore Marshall winner), which contains meticulous meditations on ATM machines and immigration. And Ron Slate’s The Incentive of the Maggot, which opens with a jump-cutting, cinematic meditation-narrative about how the collapse of the Argentine peso conveniently coincides with the speaker’s ability to buy a fine leather jacket. Both of those books, encountered by the casual reader of poetry, might transmit a shock, attending as they do not just to seismographic vibrations of inner being but to the riptides of the world at large and in particular. Winters and Slate possess a savvy regarding the wide world, and an appetite to understand it not commonly associated with the poet. Poet-MBAs, poet-economists: Are they our future?
Of course, a rich tradition exists for social analysis in American poetry. The lineage includes Muriel Rukeyser, Louis Simpson, Adrienne Rich, C.K. Williams–these and many others have diagnosed the complicities of empire, the erosions of modern selfhood, the all-you-can-eat lotus blossom of consumer culture. Some of these poets are editorial, some are detached observers, some ironic rhapsodists. But new times require new tones, and some of the most recent work in poetry shows the possibility for innovative penetrations.
To the above list we now can add Eleanor Lerman, whose intriguing contribution is tonal. In the very title of her book, Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, Lerman designates a context for the American self. It is a psychic twilight zone that exists in the wake of burst expectations, both historical and personal. Lerman’s poems are set among shadows of events that didn’t happen: the cold war that didn’t become hot; the ’60s awakening that went back to sleep; the reckoning that may be on its way. There’s an eerie science-fiction atmosphere inside these monologues, as if set in a dystopian near future where we “private/citizens,” with our lost faiths, are still functioning among the skyscrapers of late-stage capitalism, in stairwells and sublets, in lounges and office cubicles. But there is a furtive, anxious quality to our lives, and our expectations are more indefinite than ever.
Lerman is distinctly a baby boomer–born in 1952, raised in the milieu that mixed LSD and SDS, excess with idealistic overconfidence. Her first book, published in 1973, was titled Armed Love, and her new work retains some of the swagger of the postrevolutionary. “What else did you expect from the/braniacs of my generation?” she asks in her opening poem, “The survivors, the nonbelievers,/the oddball-outs with the Cuban Missile Crisis still/sizzling in our blood?” Her work also betrays plenty of post-Aquarian irony, like the testimonial in “About Patti Boyd and Me”: “I’m not complaining, Patti:/I survived it. I ate it when I had to, liked it when they said to./I killed it when there was nothing else to do.”