The 2012 Academy of American Poets Prizes Ceremony: Poets You Should Read

At the 2012 Academy of American Poets Prizes ceremony, a highlight of the academy’s sixth annual Poets Forum, held in New York October 18–20, academy chancellor Jane Hirshfield praised the “breadth and vivacity and moral depth and playfulness” of American poetry—all qualities in evidence throughout the readings and panels that graced this three-day event. More about these intriguing doings next week. But if we can trust former LJ reviewer and current National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum, who once said that awards are the new reviews, a good look at those honored is instructive. Here are established poets you should have on your shelves in abundance—and up and comers you should watch closely.

Hirshfield offered her remarks when introducing Gary Snyder, winner of the Wallace Stevens Award, which recognizes outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry. She called Snyder a path opener, one who has changed the landscape of American poetry by writing poems that are “objectively, humbly epic” (an arresting phrase!). Referencing landscape is particularly appropriate for, of course, the Pulitzer/Bollingen/Ruth Lilly Poetry prize–winning Snyder is also an environmental activist, a consideration that was often evident in the four poems the genial elfin poet read for the audience. It’s not every poet who can write gracefully about fixing a generator (Snyder lives off the grid, depending on solar panels for energy), teaching us how to “relax with… our problems” and “start engaging the day.”

Since reading 1997’s Loose Sugar, I’ve admired Brenda Hillman’s warmly elegant poetry, so it was a real pleasure to see her awarded an Academy of American Poets Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement. I can only concur with academy chancellor Sharon Olds that Hillman’s poems are brilliant both spatially and linguistically and applaud Olds’s imaginative touch when she proclaimed, “I write poems about wishing I could write poems like Brenda Hillman.” The poems Hillman read were smart, concrete, lyric without excess, and at times rebellious; Occupy activist Hillman explained that she engages in acts of individual anarchy by moaning at the gas pump (think of all the crushed, lost life within the gas) and got us to moan along with her as she read her final poem.

It was also a pleasure to see David Wojahn win the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, given for the best book of poetry published in the previous year—in this case World Tree (Univ. of Pittsburgh. ISBN 9780822961420. pap. $15.95). Chair of the committee awarding this prize, Linda Gregerson observed that Wojahn’s work was “large in its imagination and historical engagement, large in its technical and affective range, large of heart and keen of mind” and characterized by moral penetration. That seems pretty appropriate for a collection that sweeps from Sumerian times to the violent 21st century, from Joe Strummer to Czesław Miłosz. And the tomatoes that featured in the poem he read were not just tomatoes.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the awards ceremony was its recognition of younger poets. The Walt Whitman Award, which facilitates publication for an American poet who has not yet had a first book of poetry, was given to Matt Rasmussen for Black Aperture, which will be published by Louisiana State University Press in spring 2013. Rasmussen’s direct, forthright verse considers his brother’s suicide from multiple perspectives; Hirschfield was the judge selecting the title.

The James Laughlin Award, named for the distinguished founder of New Directions and given to recognize and support a poet’s second book (a nice touch, that), went to Catherine Barnett’s The Game of Boxes (Graywolf. ISBN 9781555976200. pap. $15), a collection of tactile, sensual, sometimes gracefully erotic poems. Affectingly, Barnett opened by reading a final poem by Laughlin, which she had clipped from The New Yorker and found recently while housecleaning—a gift from “the muse of organization,” as she noted.

Finally, the act of translation, always tricky and especially so with allusive and elusive verse, was recognized with two prizes. The Harold Morton Landon Translation Prize went to Jen Hofer for her vivid rendering of Myriam Moscona’s Negro Marfil/Ivory Black (Les Figues. ISBN 9781934254226. pap. $15). The original Spanish is as penetrating as the title “Ivory Black” sounds (Moscona herself was there to read), while Hofer’s work was, in the words of judge Pierre Joris, “a restless swirl of English.”

Jennifer Scappetone won the Raiziss/de Palchi Translation Book Award, given for a translation from the Italian, for her work on ground-breaking Italian poet Amelia Rosselli’s Locomotrix: Selected Poems (Univ. of Chicago. ISBN 9780226728834. pap. $29). Real poetry enthusiasts will appreciate that work.

As read by Scappetone, one memorable line from Rosselli stood out: “Your romanticism slits your wrists.” It’s a line that would seem to sum up poetry itself as something gorgeous and heartfelt and hopeful (speaking at the panel “The Anxiety of Audience”, Brenda Shaughnessy named love, broadly defined, as the driving force behind verse) that nevertheless does relentless violence to our expectations. At the academy’s awards ceremony, that hopeful violence was everywhere in the air, keeping us upbeat, keeping us on our toes.




Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.