January, 2019


by Admin | Jan-22-2019

New York, NY (January 22, 2019)—Today the NBCC announced its 31 finalists in six categories––autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry––for the outstanding books of 2018. Of note: There are six finalists instead of five this year in autobiography, proving a strong year in the category. Also notable this year, the writer Terrance Hayes is a finalist in two categories for two separate books (in poetry for American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin and in criticism for To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight). Hayes has been a finalist in poetry twice before, for Lighthead (2010) and How to Be Drawn (2015). The winners of three additional prizes (The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, The John Leonard Prize and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing) were also announced. The National Book Critics Circle Awards, begun in 1974 and considered among the most prestigious in American letters, are the sole prizes bestowed by a jury of working critics and book-review editors.

The awards will be presented on March 14, 2019 at the New School in New York City. The ceremony is free and open to the public. A reading by the finalists will take place the evening before the awards, on March 13, also at the New School. The NBCC hosts a fundraising reception following the awards on March 14. The tickets, $50 for NBCC members when purchased in advance and $75 to the general public, benefit the NBCC, the awards, and the work that the NBCC does year round to promote books, critics, and writers nationwide.

The recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award is Arte Público Press.

Tommy Orange, author of There There, is the recipient of the fifth annual John Leonard Prize, established to recognize outstanding first books in any genre and named in honor of founding NBCC member John Leonard. Finalists for the prize are nominated by more than 600 voting NBCC members nationwide, and the recipient is decided by a volunteer committee of NBCC members.

The recipient of the 2018 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing is Maureen Corrigan. The Balakian Citation is open to all NBCC members, who submit recent reviews to the 24-person board, which votes on the recipient. The Balakian Citation carries with it a $1,000 cash prize, endowed by NBCC board member Gregg Barrios.

Here is the complete list of NBCC Award finalists for the publishing year 2018:



Richard Beard, The Day That Went Missing: A Family’s Story (Little, Brown)

Nicole Chung, All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir (Catapult)

Rigoberto Gonzalez, What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood (University of Wisconsin Press)

Nora Krug, Belonging: A German Reckons With History and Home (Scribner)

Nell Painter, Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over (Counterpoint)

Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir (Random House)



Christopher Bonanos, Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous (Henry Holt & Company)

Craig Brown, Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Yunte Huang, Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History (Liveright)

Mark Lamster, The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century (Little, Brown)

Jane Leavy, The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created (Harper/HarperCollins)



Robert Christgau, Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017 (Duke University Press)

Stephen Greenblatt, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (W.W. Norton)

Terrance Hayes, To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight (Wave)

Lacy M. Johnson, The Reckonings: Essays (Scribner)

Zadie Smith, Feel Free: Essays (Penguin Press)



Anna Burns, Milkman (Graywolf Press)

Patrick Chamoiseau, Slave Old Man. Translated by Linda Coverdale (The New Press)

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (Random House)

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room (Scribner)

Luis Alberto Urrea, The House of Broken Angels (Little, Brown)



Francisco Cantú, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (Riverhead Books)

Steve Coll, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Penguin Press)

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Penguin Press)

Adam Winkler, We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights (Liveright)

Lawrence Wright, God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State (Knopf)



Terrance Hayes, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin Books)

Ada Limón, The Carrying (Milkweed)

Erika Meitner, Holy Moly Carry Me (Boa)

Diane Seuss, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (Graywolf Press)

Adam Zagajewski, Asymmetry. Translated by Clare Cavanagh (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)



Maureen Corrigan

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America.

Her book So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures was published by Little, Brown in September 2014. Corrigan's literary memoir, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading! was published in 2005. Corrigan is also a reviewer and columnist for The Washington Post's Book World, and has served on the advisory panel of The American Heritage Dictionary.

Balakian Finalists

David Biespiel

Julia Klein

Becca Rothfeld

Wendy Smith



Tommy Orange, There There (Knopf)

Tommy Orange is a graduate from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is a 2014 MacDowell Fellow, and a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow. He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. He was born and raised in Oakland, California.

John Leonard Finalists

Nana Kwami Adjei-Brenyah, Friday Black (Mariner)

Jamel Brinkley, A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press)

Francisco Cantú, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (Riverhead)

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry: A Novel (Simon and Schuster)

R.O. Kwon, The Incendiaries (Riverhead)

Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir (Random House)



Arte Público Press

Arte Público Press is the oldest and largest publisher of Hispanic literature in the United States. Founded 40 years ago by Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, and currently based in Houston, Texas, Arte Público publishes dozens of books by Latino writers each year in both English and Spanish, including titles under its children’s literature imprint, Piñata Books. In 1992,  Arte Público began its Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, which seeks to recover and publish lost texts from Latino writers from colonial times to the mid-20th century. Arte Público was he original publisher of Sandra Cisneros’ legendary novel The House on Mango Streett. Other authors published by Arte Público have included Helena María Viramontes, John Rechy, Ana Castillo and Luis Valdez. Arte Público’s determination to build bridges, not walls, has immeasurably enriched American literature and culture.


Winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on Thursday, March 14, 2019 at 6:30 p.m. at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium, 66 W. 12th St, New York, NY. A finalists’ reading will be held on March 13 at 6:30 p.m. in the same location. Both events are free and open to the public. The NBCC hosts a fundraising reception following the awards on March 14. The tickets, $50 for NBCC members when purchased in advance and $75 to the general public, benefit the NBCC, the awards, and the work that the NBCC does year round to promote books, critics, and writers nationwide.



The National Book Critics Circle was founded in 1974 at New York’s legendary Algonquin Hotel by a group of the most influential critics of the day. Comprising 750 working critics and book-review editors throughout the country, including student members and supporting Friends of the NBCC, the organization annually bestows its awards in six categories, honoring the best books published in the past year in the United States. It is considered one of the most prestigious awards in the publishing industry. The finalists for the NBCC awards are nominated, evaluated, and selected by the 24-member board of directors, which consists of editors and critics from the country’s leading print and online publications. For more information about the history and activities of the National Book Critics Circle and to learn how to become a member or supporter, visit http://www.bookcritics.org Follo.w National Book Critics Circle on Facebook and on Twitter (@bookcritics).

NBCC Reads: J. Howard Rosier on Edmund Wilson’s ‘Axel’s Castle’

by J. Howard Rosier | Jan-16-2019

What are your favorite books about books? Why are these books such a ferocious pleasure? Maybe it's their range: books on books can combine memoir and criticism (see Rebecca Mead's 'My Life in Middlemarch' or Janet Malcolm's 'Reading Chekhov'), history and sociology (Alberto Manguel's 'A History of Reading'), humor, travelogue, astute observation, and who knows what else (Elif Batuman's 'The Possessed'). Tell us about your favorite for the latest installment of the NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees  and is curated by Alan Cheuse Emerging Critic Natalia Holtzman. (The series dates back to 2007; you can explore the archive here.) Submissions can be 500 words or fewer and should go to nbcccritics@gmail.com.





From advocating for more inclusive discussions, to letting a reader know whether or not a book is worth the money, criticism has a multitude of functions. One of the most important, though, is making sense of a book for casual readers. It's with this in mind that—gun to my head—I'd pick Axel's Castle by Edmund Wilson as my favorite book about reading.

By the end of his life, Wilson had tons of achievements under his belt. He was the first literary editor of the New Republic. His scheme, of an American equivalent to the Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, blossomed into the Library of America. But his legacy rests on this book-length survey that demystified Modernism, whose highest achievements were still up for debate at the time of the book’s publication (1931).

To Wilson, the changes in sensibility taking place weren’t a movement so much as a tension between historical tendencies: the Enlightenment’s ration-based concreteness, and Romanticism’s deeply felt embellishments. In Wilson’s reading, Romantic literature was a revolt from “Classicism”—too fixated on mechanical order, and precise to the point at which what was accurate no longer felt “real.” Though the genre of realism sprang from this inclination (Flaubert and Ibsen get high marks), literature had yet to find a method of ascribing sensory experience to feelings.

The point at which these two poles collide is Edgar Allen Poe, whose refined rendering of psychological dread was utterly refreshing to a French readership still ensconced in the age of reason. Remarkably, it wasn’t Poe’s poetry that flipped the switch; his criticism, “to which no one seems to have paid much attention elsewhere,” was studied and expanded upon by a literary culture “reasoned” over “far more than English.” This elaboration gained importance as W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein began their expatriate stints; and as Paul Valery and Marcel Proust began innovating French metre and prose style.

Much of the book’s strength lies in Wilson’s cool, detached tone. He wasn’t trying to be a cheerleader; rather, to contextualize trends in literature that were baffling readers. Many of the techniques employed in The Waste Land, In Search of Lost Time, and Three Lives were just as maddening to Wilson as they were to his counterparts. The difference is that he didn’t get bogged down by the works in isolation. Axel’s Castle is a book about the implications of things—how encountering a new aesthetic can shift the gravity of what is acceptable decades down the line. The smallest changes can have seismic consequences, and by blowing up the mechanics of a small group of writers to several times beyond scale, Wilson enables us to recognize literature as a game of inches.

Thus, the greatest innovation in Ulysses, where its author removes the intermediary between internal and external reality, is so engrossing that it distracts readers from what is supposed to be a parody of the Odyssey. The drama of Eliot’s poetic line, confusing to readers who haven’t engaged with the texts he cross-cuts, is bolstered by his insistence on enveloping his references in music. And though “we may regret the spoiled child in Proust…[born] of rich parents, who has never had to meet the world on equal terms,” we’re unable to look away from a first-rate imagination “recreat[ing] the world of the novel from the point of view of relativity.” Few books written in the 1930s can claim to be the last word on anything, but of the six writers warranting full chapters, Axel’s Castle nails at least four. (Along with Eliot, Joyce, and Proust, the chapter on Yeats does much to explain the poet producing his best work in old age.) Rigorous close reading, paired with clear-eyed historical perspective, allows Wilson’s subjects the dignity of being taken seriously.

And yet there's never a point where he crosses the line into confusing data with clairvoyance. Armed with all this research, it'd be easy to render definitive judgments on an author's worth, but Wilson never portends to know where anyone’s career is going. Instead, he opts to view writing and, by extension, literature, as an imperfect act riddled with pure potential. Progress is impossible without signs of life, after all.

J. Howard Rosier lives in Chicago, where he edits the journal Critics’ Union. His writing has appeared in The New Criterion, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the James Nelson Raymond Fellowship from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle.

Critical Notes: Hideo Yokoyama, Glory Edim, Heather MacDonald, and More…

by Victoria Chang | Jan-14-2019


The deadline for #NBCCLeonard voters is January 14, 6 pm EST. Don't forget to vote!

Check out our latest #NBCCReads series, Favorite Books about Books, curated by Emerging Critic Natalia Holtzman.


Tara Cheesman reviews Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama for the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Geography of Rebels Trilogy by Maria Gabriela Llansol for The Triquarterly Conversation.

Robert Allen Papinchak reviews Anthony Horowitz's James Bond novel, Forever and a Day for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Michelle Lancaster reviews The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander for Lone Star Literary Life.

Ron Slate reviews An Untouched House, a novella by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated by David Colmer for On The Seawall.

Paul Wilner interviews Peter Nathaniel Malae about his new novel, Son of Amity for ZYZZYVA.

NBCC board member Tom Beer previews new books in, "New Books to Look Forward to in 2019" in Newsday.

 NBCC VP/Online Jane Ciabattari talks to John Prendergast and Fidel Bafiemba, authors of Congo Stories, about five books about the Congo, including NBCC finalist Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, in Literary Hub.

Diane Scharper's review of Sharing the Wisdom of Time by Pope Francis and Friends was published in the 12/20/18 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.  

Martha Anne Toll interviews Glory Edim, editor of Well-Read Black Girl for The Millions.

Robert Allen Papinchak reviews Farewell, My Orange by Iwaki Kei for World Literature Today, Winter 2019.  

Dana Wilde reviews Paul Guernsey's American Ghost, winner of the 2018 Maine Literary Award for Speculative Fiction and Karie Friedman's poetry collection, Add Water, Add Fire for the Central Maine newspapers.

Paul Gleason reviews Heather MacDonald's The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Grace Lichtenstein reviews John Feinstein's Quarterback: Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League in the New York Journal of Books.

Gregory Crouch reviews Jack Kelly's The Age of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America in the Wall Street Journal.

Tobias Carroll interviews Sarah Moss about her new novel, Ghost Wall, for Longreads.

Lanie Tankard reviews Aya Dane by Mhani Alaoui at The Woven Tale Press.

Hamilton Caine reviews A Rope from the Sky by Zach Vertin for Star Tribune.

Alison Buckholtz reviews Dani Shapiro's Inheritance for the Florida Times-Union.

Mike Lindren reviews Ian S. Port's book, The Birth of Loud for the Washington Post.


Adam Morris's forthcoming book, American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation (Liveright, March 2019) was listed as one of Buzzfeed's "66 Books Coming in 2019 That You'll Want to Keep on Your Radar" by Arianna Rebolini and Tomi Obaro.

NBCC members note: Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including news about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. With reviews, please include title of book and author, as well as name of publication. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.​ We love dedicated URLs. We do not love hyperlinks.

Victoria Chang’s fourth book of poems, Barbie Chang, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2017. The Boss (McSweeney’s) won The PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award. Other books are Salvinia Molesta and Circle. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship in 2017, along with the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award. She is a contributing editor of Copper Nickel and a poetry editor at Tupelo Quarterly. She teaches at Antioch University’s MFA program in Los Angeles. You can find her at http://www.victoriachangpoet.com

NBCC Reads: Brendan Driscoll on Colm Tóibín’s ‘On Elizabeth Bishop’

by Brendan Driscoll | Jan-09-2019

What are your favorite books about books? Why are these books such a ferocious pleasure? Maybe it's their range: books on books can combine memoir and criticism (see Rebecca Mead's 'My Life in Middlemarch' or Janet Malcolm's 'Reading Chekhov'), history and sociology (Alberto Manguel's 'A History of Reading'), humor, travelogue, astute observation, and who knows what else (Elif Batuman's 'The Possessed'). Tell us about your favorite for the latest installment of the NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees  and is curated by Alan Cheuse Emerging Critic Natalia Holtzman. (The series dates back to 2007; you can explore the archive here.) Submissions can be 500 words or fewer and should go to nbcccritics@gmail.com.






The key to understanding Elizabeth Bishop, suggests Tóibín, is to understand her conflicted relationship with words. 

A talented poet, Bishop understood that words, like icebergs, are both alluring and dangerous. Words are unstable; fluid; reactive. They tempt us to suppose lines and distinguish categories, but they also seduce us into thinking they are more precise than they actually are. Their resonance cannot be entirely directed or controlled, despite an author’s efforts. 

Some poets embrace the chaos and allow the messiness of words to give their writing power; potentiality; life. Not Bishop, suggests Tóibín. “A true statement for her carried with it, buried in its rhythm, considerable degrees of irony because it was oddly futile,” he observes, “it was either too simple or loaded to mean a great deal.” She was too aware of the inherent instability of words not to be skeptical of statements purporting to be truthful. 

And yet she valued precision in descriptions. In a letter Bishop wrote to the poet Robert Lowell, she put it like this: “Since we do float on an unknown sea,” she said—there’s the awareness of chaos, fluidity, instability—“I think we should examine the other floating things that come our way carefully; who knows what might depend on it?”

So we end up with poems like one, called simply “The Fish Poem,” which begins:   

I caught a tremendous fish

and held him beside the boat

half out of water, with my hook

fast in a corner of his mouth.

He didn't fight.

The poem goes on to provide a magnifying-glass view of the fish, “speckled with barnacles, fine rosettes of lime, and infested with tiny white sea-lice.” Its insides are “coarse white flesh packed in like feathers,” but most significant are the “five old pieces of fish-line” attached, their “five big hooks” evidence of previous victories “[l]ike medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering.” And in the end, when “victory filled up the little rented boat,” the tremendous (and carefully-described) fish is abruptly released back into the water. 

It’s a memorable poem that also happens to capture more or less perfectly Bishop’s distrust of words. There we are, in a little rented boat, floating on an unknown sea. A fish—and not just any fish, but a tremendous one—comes our way. We study its majesty; note its flaws. But who knows what might depend upon it? Having described it, we throw it back. And if we are awed by the scarred old fish, or scared by the vastness of the unknown sea, best not to say so out loud. 

Both Bishop and Tóibín grew up in similar seaside geographies; both had childhoods marked by grievous loss. But the real reason Tóibín’s appreciative critique of Bishop succeeds is that Tóibín shares her predicament. He, too, cherishes the precision of words, while at the same time remaining all too aware of their fluidity, their inherent instability, their vulnerabilities.  He, too, finds the silence between words the safer vessel for the strongest emotions. 

Brendan Driscoll's work has appeared in Booklist, The Millions, and other periodicals. His current projects include a study of creativity and commerce among instrumental rock guitarists, and a novel about parenting, male friendship, and immigration status. Originally from western New York State, he now lives in Colorado

Critical Notes: 2019 Reading + the Five-Year Anniversary of #ReadWomen

by Jane Ciabattari | Jan-07-2019


National Book Critics Circle board elections results announced today! Here are the eight candidates elected.

Reviews & Interviews

NBCC board member Michael Schaub on Didion, Patterson, and more "Secrets of the Book Critics."

NBCC VP/Membership Anjali Enjeti reviewed Amy Meng's "Bridled," Duy Doan's "We Play a Game," and Jenny Xie's "Eye Level" for the Georgia Review.

NBCC VP/Online Jane Ciabattari recommends 2019 books for her BBC Culture column, including NBCC Sandrof and fiction award winner Toni Morrison's essay collection and new novels by  NBCC finalist Colson Whitehead and Sandrof winner Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

NBCC Emerging Critic Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers contributed an essay to The Millions “My Year in Reading” series. She also reviewed Meghan Dowling’s A Catalogue of Small Pains,  Anna Burke’s YA fantasy, Thorn, S. W. Leicher’s Acts of Assumption, Reema Zaman’s memoir, I Am Yours, and Kim McLarin’s essay collection, Womanish for Foreword Reviews Women’s Issues special feature. 

Lanie Tankard reviewed Secret Passages in a Hillside Town, a novel by Finnish author Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, in the January 2019 issue of World Literature Today.

Roxana Robinson writes of a 3500-acre estate outside London that has been returned to the wild, for the Washington Post.

Matthew Jakubowski writes for Asymptote about the five-year anniversary of the #readwomen movement and how writing by women has fared in terms of literary prizes over the past five years.

Robert Allen Papinchak reviewed The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B. Hughes for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Building on the mini-trend of “let’s send Mike Lindgren on droll stupid-human-trick-style adventures,” Michael Lindgren's editor commissioned a piece in the Washington Post, wherein he attempts to follow the directives of a self-help book on procrastination.

Joan Frank reviewed Anna Burns' Milkman for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Adam Carroll published a critical essay on four defiant women's voices reshaping Asian American immigrant stories--Elaine Castillo's America Is Not the Heart, R.O. Kwon's The Incendiaries, Vanessa Hua's A River of Stars, and Kirstin Chen's Bury What You Cannot Take--in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Nathaniel Popkin's piece on the ecological crisis was published in the New York Times.

NBCC fiction finalist Valeria Luiselli has been appointed Writer in Residence at Bard College.

Results of this Year’s NBCC Board Elections

by Admin | Jan-07-2019

Here, in alphabetical order, are the eight candidates (of 27) who garnered the most votes in this year's board elections. Congratulations to all the candidates who stepped forward, and to the eight who join the NBCC board in March 2019.


Laurie Hertzel

Carolyn Kellogg

Carlin Romano

Michasl Schaub

Madeleine Schwartz

David Varno

Hope Wabuke

Marion Winik


NBCC Reads:  Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers on Helen Vendler’s ‘Poets Thinking’

by Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers | Jan-02-2019

What are your favorite books about books? Why are these books such a ferocious pleasure? Maybe it's their range: books on books can combine memoir and criticism (see Rebecca Mead's 'My Life in Middlemarch' or Janet Malcolm's 'Reading Chekhov'), history and sociology (Alberto Manguel's 'A History of Reading'), humor, travelogue, astute observation, and who knows what else (Elif Batuman's 'The Possessed'). Tell us about your favorite for the latest installment of the NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees  and is curated by Alan Cheuse Emerging Critic Natalia Holtzman. (The series dates back to 2007; you can explore the archive here.) Submissions can be 500 words or fewer and should go to nbcccritics@gmail.com.




Any poet who’s written a bio statement, introduced themselves at a party, or been offered less pay for their work than a prose compatriot is familiar with the strange ways “poet” suggests more than just a genre affiliation, but rather a whole mode of being that has the potential to confine, limit, and preclude in ways the term “writer” does not. In Poets Thinking, Helen Vendler notes, “‘Intellectuals’ and their ‘ideas’ (invariably expressed in prose) occupy at this moment a privilege in academic and popular discussion which is (absurdly) denied to poets and poems—as though poetry and responsible ideation could not, do not, overlap.” In a clear-voiced, unstinting critique, Vendler calls out this status difference as dangerously bad behavior and offers both nuanced argument and careful metric when demonstrating how necessary it is to view poets' intellection as a visible process of poetry. 

Convivial and discursive throughout, the book echoes its origins as four Clark Lectures delivered at Cambridge University. Focusing particularly on the lyric, Vendler illuminates “the way thinking goes on in the poet’s mind during the process of creation, and how the evolution of that thinking can be deduced from the surface of the poem,” choosing four case studies: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, and Yeats. She uses these “greats” as touchstones, delivering a master class on how to decipher intellectual maneuvers within poetic texts. Yet, Vendler emphasizes their primary importance isn't their literary standing but the fact that their work illustrates four distinct examples of poetic thinking: parody, reprise, serial sequence, and images.

Thrilling in her language and brashly rebellious in the way she discusses poets, Vendler’s case studies make short work of these four poets. In just 120 pages, she unlocks their patterns of thought in arguments that are dense and rich, without a word wasted. Possessed of a dry humor and sly wit, Vendler calls out critics and entrenched readings of her chosen poets. When discussing Whitman, she intentionally chooses three poems dismissed as “melodramatic” and “naive,” then insinuates the problem is not in the work, but rather in the critics doing the reading. Her callouts are balanced by equally delightful, often parenthetical, rebuttals to these critics’ imagined protestations. But the real weight and boldness of her indictments rests in the economy and elegance of her argument. An amazing rhetorician and close-reader with a linguist’s sensitivity to semantics, syntax, lexical choice, and grammatical encoding, Vendler makes the entire exercise seem, if not quite simple, at the very least, self-evident.

Vendler extends her argument beyond the work of her four acknowledged masters: “In justice to the poets, we must call what they do, in the process of conceiving and completing the finished poem, an intricate form of thinking, even if it means expanding our idea of what thinking is." Despite our propensity to dismiss artistry, delight, meditation, and a host of other attributes as existing outside the realm of thinking, all poems are able to teach us how to read them in the reading because the poet’s intellection is made visible within the fabric of the poem itself. In this way, Vendler contests, poetic thinking does not “obliterate or disavow the reflections it engages in en route to its arrival at a ‘solution,’” because poets “are always thinking” and their texts “embody elaborate and finely precise (and essentially unending) meditation.”

In Poets Thinking, Vendler rockets around familiar poetic territory with the sangfroid of a Formula One driver, fueled with a precise perspicacity that, when deconstructing Dickinson’s tactics, tosses off “nugatory” and—after a reach for the dictionary—is proved wholly right. Whether it’s making that reach or giving a passage a second or third read, Vendler always rewards with insight that rearranges what’s present and possible both in the texts she presents and our own mentation.

A poet, writer, book critic, and farmer, Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers earned a B.A. in English from Penn State and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and M.A. in Applied Linguistics from Old Dominion University. A finalist for the 2018 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Award and the 2018 Hal Prize, her creative work has been published in Gulf Stream, IthacaLit, Menacing Hedge, SWWIM Every Day, and Peculiar, among others. Named a 2018 Emerging Critic by the National Book Critics Circle, her critical work is published or forthcoming at The Los Angeles Review, Foreword Reviews, Orion, and The Millions. Find her talking about books and other passions on Twitter @murderopilcrows.

Page 1 of 369 pages     1 2 3 >  Last ›

About the Critical Mass Blog

Commentary on literary criticism, publishing, writing, and all things NBCC related. It's written by independent members of the NBCC Board of Directors (see list of bloggers below).


Categories & Archives

Become a Member of the NBCC

NBCC Awards

Finalists for 2017

See all award winners

Find out how to submit

Read how we select

Frequently Asked Questions

Upcoming Events

NBCC Finalists’ Reading: March 13th, 2019

NBCC Awards Ceremony and Reception: March 14th, 2019

NBCC at AWP19 with Paul Beatty and Joan Silber: March 28th, 2019

NBCC at AWP19 The Future of Criticism: A Conversation with Established and Emerging Critics: March 30th, 2019

Videos and Podcasts

NBCC 2017 Awards Ceremony

NBCC 2017 Finalists Reading

All videos and podcasts.

The postings on this blog represent the views and opinions of each individual poster and are not representative of views held by the National Book Critics Circle as an organization, or the NBCC board as a whole. Everything on this blog is copyright protected

Online Committee

Additional Contributors