Nathaniel Mackey wins $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize

(Photo credit Nina Subin. Courtesy of New Directions)
(Photo credit Nina Subin. Courtesy of New Directions)

Nathaniel Mackey has won this year’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. The $100,000 lifetime achievement award — one of the richest literary prizes is the world — is given annually by the Poetry Foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine.

Mackey, 66, has served as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and now teaches creative writing at Duke. For decades he has been publishing poetry and prose, including a series of novels under the title “From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate.” His 2006 collection “Splay Anthem” won a National Book Award.

In a statement released Tuesday, Poetry magazine editor Don Share said, “The poetry of Nathaniel Mackey continues an American bardic line that unfolds from Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ to H.D.’s ‘Trilogy’ to Olson’s ‘Maximus’ poems, winds through the whole of Robert Duncan’s work and extends beyond all of these. In his poems, but also in his genre-defying serial novel (which has no beginning or end) and in his multifaceted critical writing, Mackey’s words always go where music goes: a brilliant and major accomplishment.”

Mackey described himself as “shocked” at the news. “I was at a skate park watching my 10-year-old son skateboarding,” he said. “The last thing I expected was to get news of winning a literary award. And then the surprise, a kind of disbelief, gave way to feeling very happy, of course, about the appreciation and the recognition of my work the award represents.”

Leading poets and scholars in America were quick to celebrate Mackey’s recognition.

U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey said, “It’s wonderful to see Nathaniel Mackey receive this award. It is evidence of the great diversity in American poetry — and a sure sign that it’s thriving.”

The poet Edward Hirsch, who serves as president of the Guggenheim Foundation, called Mackey “a leading African American experimental writer, who has developed a dramatic improvisational style, a poly-vocal lyricism.” Praising the way he “blurs generic boundaries,” Hirsch said, “I would call him a poet of ongoingness involved in a kind of spiritualist or cosmic pursuit.”

Robert Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, described Mackey as “one of our country’s great lyric experimenters, able to weave a multiplicity of phrases and voices into a song of spiritual reckoning.”

New Directions, a small, august press in New York, has published four of Mackey’s books, including his most recent collection, “Nod House” (2011). A new poetry collection called “Blue Fasa” will be published next May.

Jeffrey Yang, an editor at New Directions, said, “Mackey’s work is like putting a quarter in a jukebox, and the song that emerges is like nothing you’ve ever heard. His poetry feels like it exists in a parallel universe. The influence of the deep history and rhythms of jazz and world music jumps out at you immediately, but then the many other levels of his poems sink in and take you into a very unique poetic space that is in conversation with other cultures and arts. To me, he’s like a revered elder (but is too young to be one!) and carries on the modernist tradition of pushing the boundaries of the art.”

Mackey will officially receive the Ruth Lilly Prize at a ceremony at the Poetry foundation in Chicago on June 9.

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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