by Jane Ciabattari | Sep-14-2009
At the NBCC 35th Anniversary Celebration on September 12, John Ashbery spoke of how winning the first NBCC award in poetry, for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, helped jump-start his career. Click here to read NBCC board member and Balakian award winner Maureen N. McLane’s recent “In Retrospect” post looking back on Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. A video of Ashbery, introduced by NBCC board member Rigoberto González, appears below.
It’s great to be back here—actually it’s great to be anywhere, but especially here amid this group where my book Self-Portrait was picked as the first poetry winner in 1976, and, a few months ago, my translation of Pierre Martory’s The Landscapist was nominated in the category of poetry. Thank you all. Coming from a jury of book critics from across the country, these awards inevitably mean more to a writer than one chosen by a mere handful of judges.
My NBCC award, for my fifth collection of poems, happened when I was in my mid-forties, and served to jump-start my somewhat sagging career as a poet. That is to say, my work had been around and been reviewed, often unenthusiastically, for almost two decades. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror was given a terrific reception in the NY Times Book Review by John Malcolm Brinnin, a poet I had admired during my youth and who subsequently became a good friend. It got a quite unfavorable one from the New York Review of Books, edited by my Harvard classmate and dear friend Barbara Epstein. (As we all know, and I was a critic for many years too, both for the Times Book Review and at least once for the New York Review, editors don’t usually get to call the shots in such cases.) It happened that another friend and critic, David Kalstone, was chatting with Elizabeth Hardwick one day about this and that, and mentioned that it was too bad about that review, that it “knocked me off my pedestal before I was on it.” Elizabeth said, “What do you mean, John is always winning all kinds of awards.” “No,” David said, “he hasn’t won any!” Elizabeth, who was of course a founder of your august body, seemed to ponder this and said that she’d look into the matter. I’m not sure if that had something to do with my NBCC award, but that happened only a few weeks after the conversation I’ve described. Then, amazingly, the book went on to win the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. I’m still incredulous that this could have happened, and so, I gather, are a lot of people. A few years later, when Susan Sontag and I happened to be visiting Poland together, she mentioned my winning what inevitably became referred to as the “triple crown,” and told me that controls had since been put in place to insure that no book ever hogged all the awards again.
But I’ve been asked to not just speak about myself, but about changes in book reviewing in the last three decades. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I have to say that poetry gets a lot less space in general interest publications than it used to, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either for general readers or for poets. There seemed to be a moment in the eighties when it dawned on mainstream media that they didn’t HAVE to review it, like an adolescent who suddenly discovers he no longer has to choke down his veggies. But this event has been accompanied by a rise in specialized journals like Rain Taxi and American Book Review, as well as blogs that supply poetry readers with their delicious roughage. It seems to have resulted somehow in an increased readership for poetry—those of us who want it know where to look and how to communicate our knowledge to others like us, which is great. And of course we don’t have to cancel our subscriptions to, say, the TLS or the NYRB, for those moments, important for us too, when one really wants to sink one’s teeth into a study of where conservatism is headed or about fourteenth century Burgundian agricultural practices. Hey, we’re just like everybody, except that we like to read and write poetry too!
So once again thanks, national book critics, for letting me come full circle—that is to be here beaming my gratitude at you, both for what you’ve done for me personally, not just as regards poetry, but for all the things you write about. It seems inevitable that the more books there are, the less time one will have to keep up with them, which is why so many of us gorge on reviews. They give us the delicious feeling of having read something without spending the thousands of hours we need to really learn about it. They’re one of the essentials of daily life, along with naps, those much-maligned lattes, and Bill Moyers. Just keep on doing what you’re doing.
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