The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, awarded annually by the Academy of American Poets, recognizes the most outstanding book of poetry published in the United States in the previous year and carries a stipend of $25,000. The judges for this year’s award were Lucie Brock-Broido, B. H. Fairchild and John Koethe.
To appreciate what’s so distinctive about Henri Cole’s Blackbird and Wolf, this year’s winner, it helps to have a sense of his development as a poet, for more than any other I can think of, he has remade himself over the course of a career leading to this, his sixth book. His first two books, The Marble Queen and The Zoo Wheel of Knowledge, were mandarin performances, full of highly polished verse conspicuous for its sheer artfulness, exhibiting a delicacy and a mental and linguistic dexterity somewhat reminiscent of James Merrill. But starting with some of the poems in the 1995 The Look of Things and continuing with the harshly direct poems in The Visible Man and the equally direct though somewhat mellower poems in Middle Earth, Cole developed a style and a sensibility, characterized by a relentless self-examination, almost diametrically opposed to those he began with, and which have reached full fruition in Blackbird and Wolf.
The poems in the book are as artful as those of anyone writing, but it’s an artfulness so subtle and skillful that they seem almost artless in their directness and simplicity, as in these lines from “Gravity and Center”:
I’m sorry I cannot say I love you when you say
you love me. The words, like moist fingers,
appear before me full of promise but then run away
to a narrow black room that is always dark,
where they are silent, elegant, like antique gold,
devouring the thing I feel.
The artfulness here reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Bishop in its invisibility (more so than, say, Robert Lowell, in whose work the effort too often shows), though certainly in style and subject matter Cole’s work is nothing like Bishop’s. Presenting the award, Lucie Brock-Broido, one of the other Lenore Marshall judges, described his work as manifesting “the art of Violent Concision” in the way it magnifies its human subject matter and renders it with a surprising and startling clarity. The poem concludes with a kind of ars poetica:
I don’t want words to sever me from reality.
I don’t want to need them. I want nothing
to reveal feeling but feeling–as in freedom,
or the knowledge of peace in a realm beyond,
or the sound of water poured into a bowl.
The delicacy of the last line and the straightforward but plaintive desire of the first in this excerpt serve to heighten the sense of inwardness that is Cole’s true subject, in something akin to what the late critic David Kalstone describes when he traces much of the power of Elizabeth Bishop’s work to a “heightened receptiveness…to a scene which, in the event, so excludes” the poet, an exclusion that strengthens the sense of the poet’s subjective consciousness as an implied presence, isolated in “a narrow black room that is always dark.”