The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of $10,000, awarded annually for the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States by an American, is administered mutually by the Academy of American Poets and The Nation. In the past decade, winners have been David Ferry (2000), Wanda Coleman (1999), Mark Jarman (1998), Robert Pinsky (1997), Charles Wright (1996), Marilyn Hacker (1995), W.S. Merwin (1994), Thom Gunn (1993), Adrienne Rich (1992), John Haines (1991) and Michael Ryan (1990). This year the award goes to Fanny Howe for her Selected Poems. Jurors were Elaine Equi, Bob Perelman and Ann Lauterbach, who contributed the following essay. Other finalists for the award were Your Name Here, by John Ashbery (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); Republics of Reality 1975-1995, by Charles Bernstein (Sun & Moon); Atmosphere Conditions, by Ed Roberson (Sun & Moon); Plasticville, by David Trinidad (Turtle Point); and The Annotated ‘Here’ and Selected Poems, by Marjorie Welish (Coffee House).
In the days and weeks following the events of September 11, one poet, one poem by one poet, seemed to come into circulation: W.H. Auden’s searing “September 1st, 1939.” Set in New York, the poem’s narrator, chastened by events into chill eloquence, speaks in slow rhymes, as formally reassuring as they are devastating in content. Like other Modernists, Auden cultivated a poetics of narrative statement that gave public voice to private perception. It is a voice that turned the unruly emotions of sorrow, fear and rage into ideas of order. But just as hot war tactics and cold war rhetoric feel outdated and dangerous in our terrible new world, the pacifying sonorities of Auden seem strangely out of tune.
On the evening of September 10, my colleagues and co-judges, Elaine Equi and Bob Perelman, and I met at my loft on Duane Street in TriBeCa to converse about our choices for finalists for the Lenore Marshall Prize. Over the summer, we had each read more than 200 books, some, but by no means all, of the collections of poetry published in 2000. These books were written by poets of national stature and poets of only local repute; they included hefty life-works and first slim volumes. It was a daunting task, by turns exhilarating and infuriating. To choose from among them the “most outstanding” tested not only our individual judgments but our shared belief in a poetics responsive to the contemporary moment.
The six finalists, John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Fanny Howe, Ed Roberson, David Trinidad and Marjorie Welish, are remarkable writers. Together, they have contributed immeasurably to contemporary poetry in America: expanding formal range, resisting reductive subjectivity and its narrative claims, attending to the exigencies of both language and world. To chose one from among them seems arbitrary, but there is only one prize to give. We have awarded the Lenore Marshall Prize for the most outstanding book of 2000 to Fanny Howe for her Selected Poems.
Fanny Howe is the author of more than twenty books (poetry and fiction) published by some of the most adventurous and enduring small presses in America. This beautifully designed and produced book is the third in a series called New California Poetry from the University of California Press, edited by Robert Hass, Calvin Bedient and Brenda Hillman. Until recently, Howe was professor of American writing and American literature at the University of California, San Diego. She has now retired to her native New England.
Howe works in sequences of poems made of minimally punctuated short lines. The individual poems are untitled. This notational, almost diaristic format gives the impression of a seamless intimacy and urgency, as if the reader were present at the act of writing. A spare tonality moves against the density and complexity of her vision, where a classical lyric voice is annealed to a spiritual quest buffeted and embattled by resisting political and social realities. This tension is what gives the poems their power.
Small birds puff their chests and feathers
With the pleasure that they know better
High morning clouds unload themselves
On the world. Blue peeps through
Sunny boys have spacious souls but killers
Build war zones in the sky where they go to die
Blue poems. Blue ozone. A V-sign
Sails into the elements: an old ship
Named Obsolete though Lovely is easier to see
Now visualize heaven as everything around it
(from Introduction to the World)
Howe’s diction is not conventionally poetic, not dressed up, not avuncular, not pretty. It is peculiar, compelling and provocative, with moments of absolute clarity adjacent to moments of mere glimpse. This quixotic, pulsating quality lends a sensuous mystery and scale to the landscape of her work, as if the lines were emanating from a lighthouse whose signal is intensely bright one moment and scanning the horizon at the next. There is an asymmetrical oddness and frailty to her cadence that contributes to the dissonance between private and public event:
If goals create content stealth creates form
The air force hits space
with the velocity of a satanic wrist
How to give birth to children under these conditions
Favor the ghost over the father, maternalist
Howe stitches into a single poem materials from diverse, often divergent, experience. Affective language is laid beside statement but is not subsumed by it. The voice is personal, but there are no invitations here to bear witness to the concrete details of a life; or rather, that life’s details are drawn through the poem as a thread in a variegated fabric. In a world strewn with bare facts, Howe’s reflective meditative lines are consoling, not for their content, which is as charged with pessimism as Auden’s, but because they invite us, or remind us, to attend. The poems act on us like pilot lights, igniting the receptive synapse of language. Like all true poetry, her work is difficult to excerpt, impossible to paraphrase. Howe is compelled by the distinction between, and proximity of, History and story; her work brings us to the threshold of accountability.
Laughter–or slaughter–outside the door
And inside she was dying
To join in. So she had to go out
–a physical body
With subjective needs
Wing with the post-Christians. Her brow a headline
Reporting news of weather & mood
From masters of the military & amorous arts
Hide in her little close
Off the runway, or step into their story
(from The Quietist)
On the dust jacket, one person compares Fanny Howe to Emily Dickinson, a comparison all too easily invoked for writings by women. But in this case, there is justification. Like Dickinson, Fanny Howe animates her work with an austere logic, in which aspects of a unique response, spiritual, emotional and intellectual, are held in an uneasy, necessary relation. She makes demands on her readers. If those demands are met, the rewards are as inestimable as they are real.