Finally, there seems to be justice in the ever-wacky poetry world. Michael Palmer has just been awarded the Wallace Stevens Award by the Academy of American Poets. The prize has been in existence since 1994 and carries a purse of $100,000. This news makes me ecstatic for two reasons.
In short, Palmer is my favor living poet. In a review of his work for the Harvard Review I called him “one of America’s most important poets….startingly lyrical and visceral.” New Directions has since used this quote in blurbs for Palmer’s subsequent books. To describe his work as thus is quite exact and the thing that makes Palmer so magically talented. His work defies borders. It tells a story, but is not narrative. It is maniacally lyrical and beautiful, but relentlessly experimental. He is considered a forerunner of “so-called Language Poetry,” but he himself dismisses this title. His work is much different from Bernstein, Andrews, Rae Armantrout, and somehow similar too. The work laughs in the face of categories to which many poets desperately cling.
The Academy of American Poets and the mainstream public have their opinion of what is and isn’t “good poetry” as much as young poets and editors. This is to the extent that the “mainstream” reads poetry – which everyone reading this will know is a joke! I had a disagreement some months ago with some poets as to whether Palmer is marginalized or underrated. All disagreed with me. However, what I meant was that Palmer in marginalized in terms of what Americans regard as major poets. One only has to look at the Award’s past recipients to see what I mean: Gerald Stern, Mark Strand, Richard Wilbur, James Tate, and so on. These are largely narrative accessible poets. The exceptions were Ashbery (you have to give him an award for something!) and Jackson Mac Low (another liberal leap for the Academy whose judges that year included Creeley, Perloff, and Yau). These are all fine poets. My point is that readers are not exactly going to see a Palmer poem on the bus next to Angelou and Bishop.
Perhaps this award will help expand all of our opinions of what can be great poetry can and should be. If not, oh well! Mr. Palmer, you’ve got the money and you surely deserve it! Enjoy!