And the Winner Is…

Posted on March 12, 2010


It’s encouraging to learn that Rae Armantrout’s Versed won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry for 2009. I just wonder if this award — as well as some others, for example Keith Waldrop’s 2009 National Book Award for his Transcendental Studies: A Trilogyreflects a broadening (or maybe enlightenment) of critical taste, or are these choices throwaways meant to satisfy those out of the poetry “mainstream.” Or, worse (gods forbid), do these awards mean that who were once the outsiders are now the insiders?

Another question that lingers in my mind: Do these awards, or prizes, make Armantrout’s or Waldrop’s poetry any better intrinsically? Winning provides great validation, changing how we view these poems. I just worry about our reliance on a contest culture in matters that boil down to taste (which is one reason why Quale Press will never institute a contest for publication). No matter how we dress up aesthetics in intellectual apparatus, it’s fundamentally an emotional issue why we like one thing (or poem) and not another. Better stated in Freudian terms: aesthetics (taste) might be the common, driving source from which the id, ego and superego spring. We can analyze why we might prefer the color red to the color blue, and determine the reasons for this preference (as well as draw up a rationale and plan for superseding this preference intellectually), but how much do we need to rely on some critic who also views red as preferable?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against competition. When the activity is more quantifiable (think a sprinter running against others & the clock; think chess, etc.) and not qualitative there’s value to the contest. A baseball game is built on a set of quantified activities and its outcome is not subject to the judgment of a single person or a panel (although, yes, I admit blown calls by an ump can affect the outcome of a game…). Good competition. Yet the selection of an MVP or Cy Young Award winner is not based on a shared set of quantified activities; rather, those types of selections are aesthetic judgments — ones that can elicit countless arguments. Bad competition. It’s nice to celebrate the contributions of a single player, but that doesn’t necessarily make his (or her) activities on which that award was based any better than if he or she did not win the award (what’s done is done). It also makes some lose sight of the many other players who were all worthy of this award, or gets us lost down a rabbit-hole of arguments about who truly deserved the award. Just play the game…