My opinion of the practice of giving a medal to any poet over the age of ten is not high.

—Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden (1971)

 

A while ago, trying to distinguish fellowships or grants that have many winners from prizes that have only one winner, I suggested:

Whenever a competition has only one winner there’s likely to be a story behind why he or she was chosen, identifying reasons apart from quality. A typical story reveals the sole recipient as a lover, student, loyal protégé of a single judge, or the member of some sociological group that the benefactor wanted to get some social credit for rewarding. This problem with single-winner prizes accounts for why nearly every historic list of past recipients of them seems critically embarrassing. Indeed, to start at a top, it’s easy to make fun of any list of poets’ laureate on either federal or state or local levels, of recipients of Pulitzer Prizes especially in literature, even of National Book Award beneficiaries.

I was reminded of this earlier distinction in reading The Open Door: 100 Poems 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (Univ. of Chicago), which is America’s most venerable literary journal’s recent anthology from itself.

About the selections nothing important can be said, as they are neither very good nor very bad. Nothing’s deviant; nothing’s experimental. Instead, consider that the key to understanding this magazine, its values, and perhaps the peculiar world represented there appears in the biographical notes for the 100 contributors. These are evidently written by the book’s editors, Don Share and Christian Wiman, as is typical for an anthology, in contrast to a literary magazine whose editors customarily print whatever biographical notes are offered by the contributors.

Nearly every poet reprinted in The Open Door is credited with winning not one prize but several, so important apparently are such recognitions to Poetry’s editors. Consider, from the top, in alphabetical order with no exceptions:

A.R. Ammons: Wallace Stevens Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Robert Frost Medal, the Ruth Lilly Prize.

Rae Armantrout: National Book Critics Circle Award, Pulitzer Prize.

Craig Arnold: Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize Fellowship, The Alfred Hodder Fellowship from Princeton, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry Magazine.

Margaret Atwood: E.J. Pratt Medal, Governor General’s award, the Booker Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

W.H. Auden: Too many to itemize.

John Berryman: Ditto

Need I go through the remaining 94 contributors to this anthology? The book’s co-editor, Don Share, not to self-neglect, even credits himself with the “Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize [note caps, RK].”

Nonetheless, prizes aren’t poems; nor are they substitutes for poetry criticism. As prizes finally measure nothing more than someone’s having copped a certain prize (that others didn’t), prizes are too trivial to be featured, let alone mentioned, in critical literary histories or encyclopedias of poetry. Since poets who parade false faiths are for good reasons diminished, may I suggest that some of the living poets included here might not be so happy about these biographical notes. Don’t be surprised if this edition is withdrawn and another, less gauche, appears. Thanks to a largess from the Lilly Foundation, the Poetry Foundation, Inc., can afford to clean up such poop.

Two decades ago I wrote about the Age of Grants; but while the number of those has declined since then, prizes proliferate like bunnies, some requiring entrance fees, others not; some rewarding money, others not. What makes this anthology so 21st Century, in spite of looking back for 100 years, is demonstrating the importance of such prizes to certain powerhouses. Thus does Poetry’s circle encircle itself.

 

Richard Kostelanetz has received over three dozen fellowships and grants but only one prize (from a Canadian newspaper) where, yes, one of two judges owed him a favor.