The Poetry Society of America finally gave haiku a little respect last night, April 21, 2008. At its 98TH ANNUAL AWARDS CEREMONY, in The Grand Ballroom of The National Arts Club, in New York City, PSA officially announced the winners of its twelve annual awards.
We’re very pleased to tell you that one of the two Finalists for the William Carlos Williams Award — which was given to “Complete Minimal Poems” by Aram Saroyan — was The Unworn Necklace: Haiku and Senryu (Snapshot Press 2007) by “our” lawyer-poet friend Roberta Beary.
Renowned poet and poetry commentator Ron Silliman was the judge for this year’s William Carlos Williams Award [which is for a book of poetry by a single author, published by a small press, non-profit, or university press]. At his Silliman blog this morning, Ron explains why he chose The Unworn Necklace and the very different “Sorry, Tree” by Eileen Myles as finalists — “the term that the Poetry Society of America prefers for those books that also deserve some special attention.”
He had this to say about the relationship of haiku to the rest of the world of literary poetry:
“If slam poets & visual poets go around thinking that nobody takes their genres seriously as literature, haiku poetry has been off the map altogether – a genuinely popular literary art form that receives no attention whatsoever from what Charles Bernstein would call Official Verse Culture unless it is for a new translation of one of the classics, or work by a poet, such as Anselm Hollo, already widely known and respected for writing in other forms. The whole idea of all these contests – not unlike slam competitions – is to create its own alternative institutional universe.”
Silliman later notes: “This is a book I never would have picked up – probably never would have seen, although it’s already gone into a second printing – that made me completely grateful to the Poetry Society of America and the Williams Carlos Williams Award for putting it into my hands.” I’m grateful that Ron Silliman had the courage to bring haiku into the spotlight of this “alternative institutional universe” — an important first step that should mean a little more respectability and appreciation for the genre as it has evolved in the English-language haiku world.
Silliman then goes on with great insight describing Roberta’s The Unworn Necklace. I hope you’ll read his entire posting to see why he felt TUN was a book worthy of special attention. After noting that her
the roses shift
“might tell you a lot about a poet like Beary” [e.g., she likes subtle formalities and specificity of detail] but, Silliman says:
“By itself, tho, it’s hardly distinct from any of the hundreds of well-written works in these books, not just my final 19 volumes or even the broader group of books I liked. The reality, tho, is that it’s atypical of The Unworn Necklace, which is really a 70-poem not-quite-narrative cycle that has the weight and emotional force of a novel. A sprawling & powerful novel. A novel specifically about a woman’s midlife relationships as her marriage goes south, her father dies, her daughter takes flight, a new relationship is tested.”
Silliman then gives a couple examples of more typical TUN poems:
his death notice . . .
the get-well card
still in my briefcase
a nurse unties
and declares: “These poems are compact, but remarkably well placed in the construction of a larger whole. . . . [T]he aesthetic here of absolutely minimal strokes accumulating to create a far more powerful picture is really overwhelming.”
If Silliman and PSA have whet your Beary appetite, check out our f/k/a review of The Unworn Necklace, which includes and has links to many of the poems in TUN. And, find many more of Roberta’s poems by clicking the links on her f/k/a Archives Page.
Here’s his final tribute to the two William Carlos Williams Award Finalists:
“Absent Aram Saroyan’s Complete Minimal Poems, I knew I would have given the WCW Award to one of these two books. . . . The only thing these books share in common is their power, and it’s interesting to imagine what kind of statement either would have made had it been the volume selected. This is what I just hate about contests. Each of these volumes is a total winner.”
Bravo to Roberta Beary and congratulations to the haiku genre, which can perhaps now start to overcome its little poetic self-esteem problem.
p.s. Snapshot Press has been in the process of “comprehensively redesigning and updating” its website for several years. It’s homepage now promises that “The new site will be launched in May 2008.” I hope so. And, I hope the new site will do a much better job than the old one of spotlighting each of its publications — especially the individual collections by haiku poets such as Roberta Beary, Carolyn Hall and Paul Miller.
update (April 23, 2008): John Barlow, editor of Snapshot Press, deserves a lot of credit for the overall feel of The Unworn Necklace. He has written a lengthy piece about Roberta’s Finalist status, and you can read it at the North Carolina Haiku Society Blog. John concludes:
“We feel this landmark achievement for the ‘haiku community’ underlines a belief that haiku has a considerable potential audience beyond this community, and that English-language haiku of the highest quality can break down barriers that both exist, and are perceived to exist, between ‘mainstream’ poetry and haiku. This will ultimately be to the benefit of all in the haiku community – haiku needs readers – but it will only be possible if we are collectively and individually supportive of such opportunities as they arise.”
afterthoughts (April 23, 2008): The PSA recognition for The Unworn Necklace is a wonderful development. I am a little worried, however, that the haiku community might conclude the way to be recognized by “mainstream poetry” critics and readers is to produce another “narrative cycle that has the weight and emotional force of a novel” — rather than collections of excellent haiku by an individual poet. The result, I fear, would be (in the hands of less talented poets or editors) — as Ed Markowski suggested to me yesterday — tediously long “haiku sequences” or a one-haijin “anthology” covering a particular theme. A collection of haiku and senryu can surely be much more than the sum of each poem, but I fear we are devaluing the individual poem and distorting the genre if we ask a collection to have a novel-like over-arching impact and theme in order to be serious literary poetry. What do you think?
afterwords (April 24, 2008): My cranky alter ego Prof. Yabut wanted me to clarify why I think recognition by PSA is good for haiku. It is not because I think haiku needs validation by “mainstream” or even “cutting edge” poets or poetry’s High Priests to be a worthy literary genre. My own enjoyment and appreciation of haiku — as a reader and a writer of genuine haiku — is in no way dependent upon the attitude toward haiku of what Ron Silliman and Charles Bernstein call the “Official Verse Culture.” (In some ways, their ignoring the genre makes me feel even better about being part of the humble little haiku community.) For me, PSA recognition of Roberta Beary’s wonderful book of haiku and senryu is to be celebrated because it makes it much more likely that many poetry lovers who have previously shunned or ignored the genre (or confused it with the parody-ku that is all too abundant on the web and in the media) will be exposed to it and will be able to discover for themselves its joys and unique gifts. Some will love it. Some will hate it. Some will be indifferent and never pick up another haiku volume. But, they will at least have given haiku a chance, by seeing what a modern English-language master of the form can do with 17 syllables or less.
update (April 28, 2008): A week after the award announcement, I’ve heard from several sources (e.g., here) that The Unworn Necklace has seen a nice jump in sales at Amazon.com, as have other “serious” haiku books. At 3 PM today, the TUN page at Amazon.com says:
Popular in these categories: (What’s this?)
#1 in Books > Literature & Fiction > Poetry > Japanese & Haiku
This is, of course, one of the hoped-for results of recognition by the PSA. As we had also hoped with the publication a year ago of “Baseball Haiku,” more exposure and sales of genuine haiku (as contrasted with Cowboy-ku and Cat-ku, etc.) will make it possible for more good haiku to be seen and published.