Continuing our pre-National Book Awards coverage—and if you still haven’t voted in our poll, still time—we’re looking at the poetry finalists today. For the most part, the poetry finalists are big names in the poetry world. Two have previously been NBA finalists, Ellen Bryant Voigt and Robert Hass, and the latter is a former U.S. Poet Laureate. Aesthetically, all the books fall toward the traditional end of the poetic spectrum. Norton has two nominees—Stanley Plumly and Ellen Bryant Voigt. Hass is the likely winner, though all are worthy books by established writers, so it’s a tough call.
Linda Gregerson’s latest book, Magnetic North (Houghton Mifflin) extends her rigorous investigations of the relationships between esoteric areas of knowledge—medieval art and genetics, to name two—and how they can become metaphors for deeply personal poems of loss. Gregerson publishes infrequently, and for many poetry fans, this is an important book.
Time and Materials (Ecco) is former Poet Laureate Robert Hass’s first book of new poems in a decade. It’s a much anticipated volume, and most people who read poetry—casually or very avidly—keep up with this poet’s work. And, it’s a very good book. In it, Hass’s alternately intimate and oracular speaker mourns the decline of the environment and the human folly that caused it.
If there is a curveball among this year’s nominees, it’s David Kirby’s The House on Boulevard Street (LSU). Kirby is perhaps less well established than the other finalists, and this selected poems represents more a mid-career check-in than a late career tour-de-force. Nonetheless, Kirby’s humorous, associative “memory poems,” which tell stories of daily life with a southern drawl, are highly accomplished.
Stanley Plumly—whose just-published Old Heart (Norton) is a finalist—is something of an elder statesman in the poetry world, having worked as an important teacher and mentor to many poets. His new poems hearken back to the High Moderns and confront questions of mortality with mythic energy. Plumly is a strong contender.
Messenger (Norton) is Ellen Bryant Voigt’s first career retrospective, and represents a solidification of her status as a mature, and important, American poet. In the manner of Louise Glück—though with a concision and Southernness that’s all her own—Voigt’s poems discover the hidden in the every day. The news is usually bad. A win here would be much deserved.