NBCC poetry judges consider a dazzling variety of verse

Just a sampling of the hundreds of poetry collections the NBCC considered for this year’s prize. (Courtesy of David Biespiel)
Just a sampling of the hundreds of poetry collections the NBCC considered for this year’s prize. (Courtesy of David Biespiel)

Last year in Harper’s, Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, delivered a jeremiad against contemporary poetry. He upbraided our leading bards for being “oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning . . . timid, small, in retreat . . . ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn.” And then he went negative.

This Thursday, we’ll have another good opportunity to test that judgment. The National Book Critics Circle will announce award winners in several categories, including poetry. We’ll run a round-up review of the five poetry finalists in Wednesday’s paper. But before that, I wanted to talk with David Biespiel, chair of the NBCC poetry committee. (I spoke with the chair of the NBCC Criticism committee here last week.)

Biespiel estimates that he read more than 300 collections of verse published in 2013. “Variety truly dominates contemporary American poetry,” he says, and few people are in a better position to make that assessment. “We’ve considered the poetics of lyricism and of conceptualism, of political identity and eco-identity, of the urban alleys and rural meadowlands, of highly conceived-of projects and career-long retrospectives. We’ve considered the gamut: from the genial gems of Mary Oliver’s ‘Dog Songs’ to the recalculations of Charles Bernstein.”

Biespiel offers a reassuringly reasonable critical agenda. The burden of identifying an immortal collection is too grandiose for him. “‘Great’ may be asking too much,” he says. “Time will tell us that, and history will shake the leaves. We tend to narrow our discussions to the idea of book of the year. We wonder which individual volumes seem best for the epoch of the moment, the 12-month era, for the 365-day cycle, the annual aeon. In this way, we’re trying to compare one book that might be in X style with another book that might be in Y style, and take them at their best (or worst, depending). To repurpose an adage, we don’t compare the books to the almighty, we compare them to the alternatives.”

There are nine members of the NBCC poetry committee, all of them professional critics but not all professional poets. Still, I know many of these judges, and it’s impossible for me to imagine them favoring poetry that’s “timid,” “small” or “in retreat.” The variety of their tastes is, perhaps, one of the strengths of this organization’s poetry award. Biespiel describes the committee’s dynamic as “collegial, challenging, sometimes agreeable, other times disagreeable. The debate is highly spirited.” That’s the rhyme and rhythm of a good collection of judges.

Beware, aspiring poets: Biespiel says what kills a book of poetry is “sounding like everyone else. Nothing smothers the voice of a poet and the music of a volume of poetry more than hundreds of other books singing the same notes in the same melody in the same fashion.”

Thursday night in New York, listen for the sound of several hundred book lovers cheering.

(Disclosure: Later this month, I will start a three-year term on the NBCC board.)

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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