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Dude, where’s my canon? National Book Foundation contextualizes past poetry winners

By Harriet Staff

In January, the National Book Foundation announced the forthcoming launch of its blog dedicated to National Book Award-winning poetry. Well, as of February 14th, the blog is upon us! Starting will William Carlos Williams in 1950, each entry is written by a contemporary poet and contains biographical information, contextual background on other events in literature at that time, and images of the winner and his or her winning books. What’s immediately striking about the entries is that only one out of the five selections featured this week is still in print– Conrad Aiken’s Collected Poems.

A number of the posts so far address the relative obscurity their subjects have fallen into since the days when each was celebrated, but even Williams and Wallace Stevens who remain well within the canon don’t have contemporary publishers for their prize-winning collections. On Archibald MacLeish, John Murillo wrote:

Reading Archibald MacLeish’s Collected Poems brought a new favorite poet into my life. It also gave me even more reason to question the criteria by which some poets are canonized while others go ignored for years. With three Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award to his name, MacLeish was clearly celebrated in his day. But how is it that after a four-year undergraduate liberal arts education, an MFA in creative writing, and countless conversations with other poets about influences and issues of craft—some insanely erudite poets, I might add—I’m only now learning about this important poet and his contribution to American letters? Someone should have pulled my coat a long time ago. Archibald MacLeish is the truth!

I’ll let you in on a little secret: When we poets were asked to blog and assigned our NBA winners, we damn near shut down the internet with all the backchannel trading that went on. “Hey, can I get William Matthews from you?” “Sure, only if you give up Lucille Clifton.” “Damn. Okay, but how about…” For the life of me, I couldn’t get anyone to take Archibald MacLeish off my hands no matter who I offered up in exchange. Good thing. Had I not read him, I’d have missed out on so so much, both as reader and writer. The old dude has a lot he can teach us.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, February 18th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.