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Nocturne at High Noon. And the National Book Award Goes to . . .

By Travis Nichols


From a list of the most interesting list of of finalists ever (so says Ron Silliman), the National Book Award judges picked Keith Waldrop’s Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (UC Press) as this year’s winner.

Waldrop, a fixture of the poetry world of Providence, Rhode Island, has been celebrated as a translator (most recently of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal) and as a publisher, with his wife Rosmarie, of Burning Deck Press.

Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy is made up of three long poem sequences that mix philosophy and poetry in a style familiar to readers of Waldrop’s fourteen other collections.

“These powerful poems,” says his publisher, “at once metaphysical and personal, reconcile Waldrop’s romantic tendencies with formal experimentation, uniting poetry and philosophy and revealing him as a transcendentalist for the new millennium.”

Publisher’s Weekly called the collection “entrancing” and the Providence Sunday Journal said it’s “a complex, absorbing work.”

The National Book Award judges said: “If transcendental immanence were possible, it would be because Keith Waldrop had invented it; he’s the only one who could—and in Transcendental Studies he has. These three linked series achieve a fusion arcing from the Romantic to the Postmodern that demonstrates language’s capacity to go to extremes—and to haul daily lived experience right along with it: life imitates language, and when language becomes these poems, life itself gets more various, more volatile, more vital.”

Pennsound has a large collection of Waldrop recordings up for those who want deep immersion into the transcendental experience.

For anyone else who just wants a taste of the celebration, here’s a short clip from St. Mark’s Poetry Project.

Have the NBAs transcended?  Has this award gone to a notably different poet than it has in the past (2008: Mark Doty; 2007: Robert Hass; 2006: Nathaniel Mackey)?

Comments (25)

  • On November 19, 2009 at 11:29 am Joshua wrote:

    I’ve read Waldrop’s stuff for years with varying degrees of interest, and I really do think this is his best to date. Is it better than the Armantrout? Hard to say. She doesn’t really “transcend,” does she?

  • On November 19, 2009 at 11:38 am Henry Gould wrote:

    “If transcendental immanence were possible, it would be because Keith Waldrop had invented it…”

    – well, in fact, “transcendental immanence” is something Christianity has asserted (for the last 2000 yrs or so) to be not only possible, but actual. & though I hesitate to speak for Judaism, I have a sense the Pentateuch (which is much older) offers a narrative of “t.i.” as well.

    I guess the American way (since Emerson or so) involves a reinvention of the transcendental wheel, every now & then.

  • On November 19, 2009 at 1:08 pm Glen wrote:

    Aren’t they saying that transcendental immanence isn’t possible? But if it were, then Waldrop would have invented it? Well, to extend it a bit then, if squeezing the juice out of dark matter while wearing a Kansas City Chicken suit and Lohan leggings were possible, it would be because Henry Gould invented it. Right?

  • On November 19, 2009 at 1:25 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    You’re absolutely right, Glen. All I’m suggesting is that some people, for some time, have believed that “TI”, as well as the Kansas City Chicken Theory of astrophysics, are indeed possible, & even probable.

  • On November 19, 2009 at 1:30 pm Glen wrote:

    Quite right, Henry! And since it seems more people believe in the Kansas City Chicken Theory than anything transcendental at the moment, it is perhaps THE time for old man Waldrop and his “Seven Dirty Words” routine.

  • On November 19, 2009 at 2:04 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    You may be onto something there, Glen. As I’m sure you know, KCC Theory relies heavily on the famous “Schrodinger’s Cat” thought-experiment – since Kansas City, as we learn, is immanent in two places at once (Kansas & – uncannily – Missouri). Ol’ man Waldrop, furthermore, hails from them parts, I reckon (Arkansas, to be precise). And Arkansas represents a further corrosion/implosion/reconsitution of hypostatic immanence. See my seminal work of 1974 : “Arkansas – Is?” See also Waldrop’s riposte to the recent bestseller “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” (I mean his 2008 book, “Pain & Missouri : Our Kansas Way of Life”).

    There’s a lot of meat to chew on there, especially in the blue states (is Missouri…?)

  • On November 19, 2009 at 2:43 pm Glen wrote:

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention my own work on the subject, “Surely You’re Joking, Kansas City Chicken! (Adventures of a Transcendental Eminence)”

  • On November 19, 2009 at 2:45 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Yes – I had your wonderful tome right here in my mind – as well as simultaneouly on my desk – when suddenly… strange action-at-a-distance, I guess. It disappeared. From both “places”. Is the Pope Catholic? QED.

  • On November 19, 2009 at 2:52 pm Joshua wrote:

    So what you’re saying is that no one has actually read this book?

  • On November 19, 2009 at 3:02 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I can’t speak for Glen, Joshua, but as for me – not at all. Let’s read what the judges said again :

    “If transcendental immanence were possible, it would be because Keith Waldrop had invented it; he’s the only one who could — and in Transcendental Studies he has.”

    Based on this statement, I would have to insist that someone – probably several people – HAVE read the book, & with great pleasure. & if transcendental imminence were possible… why, they’ve done more than that. They’ve inaugurated the NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM.

  • On November 19, 2009 at 3:14 pm Glen wrote:

    I haven’t read the book. But I feel strangely as if the book has . . .yes . . . it has read me! Is this possible? It seems that nothing is impossible for this magical book of juju.

  • On November 20, 2009 at 9:08 am Henry Gould wrote:

    We’re being facetious here, but I don’t want to make light of the award itself. I think it’s a wonderful thing that Keith Waldrop has won it. He’s a quiet poet, who has avoided the limelight, yet has introduced a unique tone to American poetry – cosmopolitan & folksy at the same time, mournful, wry & funny…

    He’s also helped a couple of generations of young poets find their way here in Providence, & produced, with his wife Rosmarie, some beautiful letterpress books of their work (at Burning Deck Press). He has really paid his dues, & deserves this award.

    I think the p.r. statement by the award committee (on “immanent transcendence”) was – unlike the poet himself – kind of philosophically obtuse & tone-deaf, & that’s what triggered my comments above. But the award statement is not a very accurate reflection on Waldrop or his work.

  • On November 20, 2009 at 11:36 am Joshua wrote:

    Understood, Henry. It is all pretty ridiculous. There is no magic bullet that will make people all of the sudden appreciate Waldrop. This probably just means the people who like his work will have their taste validated, and the people who don’t like his work or don’t care will go on not liking and not caring. Maybe they should make him poet laureate? Or let him take over Prairie Home Companion! C’mon Poetry Foundation, can’t you make that happen?

  • On November 20, 2009 at 12:08 pm Hope wrote:

    I’m looking forward to reading the book, it sounds fascinating, but–how has he avoided the limelight? He teaches at an Ivy League school, runs a press, gives readings, travels the world promoting his work–how is that different from poets who seek the limelight? Who is an example of a limelight seeker? Billy Collins? Ron Silliman? Anyone who blogs here? Why is it bad to seek or saintly to avoid?

  • On November 20, 2009 at 12:39 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Hope, someone else can probably explain this better than I can, but I’ll try. To a degree, of course, you’re right : he’s a poet, after all. But he never grandstands. He has a humble, slightly eccentric demeanor; self-effacing, often self-deprecating. He doesn’t get involved in public squabbles : he has focused on making & publishing often very difficult experimental work, his own & others’. He doesn’t write big critical articles (or small ones, as far as I can see). Outside of teaching, translating, publishing his press, what does he do? He makes collages; I often see him rambling through old 2nd-hand bookstores around here. He keeps his distance form po-biz noise (unlike me!).

  • On November 20, 2009 at 2:02 pm Glen wrote:

    C’mon. There’s no such thing as limelight for poets. Elizabeth Alexander got a good gig, but I bet most people couldn’t remember her name without the help of Google.

  • On November 20, 2009 at 3:02 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    “Being a famous poet is not the same thing as being famous.”

    – John Ashbery

  • On November 20, 2009 at 9:03 pm Terreson wrote:

    What in sam hell is transcendent immanence? Any half-way tutored Jungian will tell you that the religious experience draws on two, opposing, archetypes: the transcendent and the immanent. The first finds the divine outside of nature, the second finds the divine inside of nature. Christianity and Islam are examples of the first. Shintoism, Witchcraft, neopagans, animism, even Hinduism draw on the second. Even in Shroedinger’s universe the two cannot occupy the same room at the same time and going in the same direction. As they say, doesn’t anybody screen these calls?

    And what about a poem that leads up to a dual cliche in all of 37 seconds? Nocturne? High Noon? I would be laughed off the wild west of a poetry board, to trade in another cliche, in less time for such shorthand, signature and commercial language.

    But maybe the artistic Providence RI scene is different than it was back in the seventies when it was heady, volitile, pretty much personally compromising.


  • On November 20, 2009 at 9:51 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Terreson, you misrepresent Christianity, & probably all those other religions too.

    You want to know what “immanent transcendence” is? Go ask Blind Willie Johnson.


  • On November 20, 2009 at 10:30 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    I like the idea of immanent transcendence. Any approximation of ultimate truth would have to involve a paradox, wouldn’t it?

    Thanks for this article, Travis. I’ll be looking for the book.

  • On November 21, 2009 at 12:13 am Terreson wrote:

    Henry Gould says:

    “Terreson, you misrepresent Christianity, & probably all those other religions too.

    You want to know what “immanent transcendence” is? Go ask Blind Willie Johnson”

    Actually, Henry Gould, I do not misrepresent Christianity’s mythology. Possibly you’ve read Dante. If not maybe you should. He got the categorical distinction.


  • On November 21, 2009 at 1:48 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    At this point there are so many flavors of Christianity that it could be said to encompass either view, or even both together. “Christianity” without a modifier doesn’t exist.

  • On November 22, 2009 at 9:23 pm john wrote:

    “Immanent transcendence” might encapsulate the genius of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper.

    You eat bread, you’re eating God.

    You drink wine, you’re drinking God’s blood.

    Immanent. Transcendent. Right on.

  • On November 23, 2009 at 11:00 am Joshua wrote:

    I think Waldrop is going for transcendence, not transubstantiation. But maybe somebody should eat his book and find out.

  • On November 24, 2009 at 1:13 pm pyrit wrote:

    Congratulations, Mr. Waldrop! Enjoy.

    (please, don’t call his poetry, “stuff”.)

    And in the photo I see my good colleague, Phil Hoose, smiling, holding his copy of “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice”.

    Congratulations to all the winners.

Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, November 19th, 2009 by Travis Nichols.