Annal: 2003 National Book Award for Poetry

Results of the National Book Award in the year 2003.

Book:Jelly Roll: A Blues

Jelly Roll: A Blues

Kevin Young

In this jaunty and intimate collection, Kevin Young invents a language as shimmying and comic, as low-down and high-hearted, as the music from which he draws inspiration. With titles such as “Stride Piano,” “Gutbucket,” and “Can-Can,” these poems have the sharp completeness of vocalized songs and follow a classic blues trajectory: praising and professing undying devotion (“To watch you walk / cross the room in your black / corduroys is to see / civilization start”), only to end up lamenting the loss of love (“No use driving / like rain, past / where you at”). As Young conquers the sorrow left on his doorstep, the poems broaden to embrace not just the wisdom that comes with heartbreak but the bittersweet wonder of triumphing over adversity at all.

Sexy and tart, playfully blending an African American idiom with traditional lyric diction, Young’s voice is pure American: joyous in its individualism and singing of the self at its strongest.

Book:The Owner of the House

The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001

Louis Simpson

Few poets have so artfully confronted American life as Louis Simpson. Persona speakers struggle with everyday issues against a backdrop of larger forces, the individual’s maladjustment to a culture of materialism and brutal competition, the failure of marriage under the pressures of such a society, the failure of the American dream. Simpson wages a lover’s quarrel with the world.

“Louis Simpson has perfect pitch. His poems win us first by their drama, their ways of voicing our ways . . . of making do with our lives. Then his intelligence cajoles us to the brink of a cliff of solitude and we step over into the buoyant element of true poetry.”—Seamus Heaney

Educated at Munro College (West Indies) and at Columbia University, Louis Simpson has taught widely, most recently at…[more]

Book:The Singing

The Singing: Poems

C.K. Williams

In his first volume since Repair, C. K. Williams treats the characteristic subjects of a poet’s maturity—the loss of friends, the love of grandchildren, the receding memories of childhood, the baffling illogic of current events—with an intensity and drive that recall not only his recent work but also his early books, published forty years ago. He gazes at a Rembrandt self-portrait, and from it fashions a self-portrait of his own. He ponders an “anatomical effigy” at the Museum of Mankind, an in so doing “dissects” our common humanity. Stoking a fire at a house in the country, he recalls a friend who was burned horribly in war, and then turns, with eloquence and authority, to contemporary life during wartime, asking “how those with power over us can effect these things, by what cynical reasoning do they pardon themselves.” The Singing is a direct and resonant book: touching, searching, heartfelt, permanent.

Book:Sparrow

Sparrow: Poems

Carol Muske-Dukes

Sparrow, a luminous new volume of poetry by acclaimed poet, novelist, and critic Carol Muske-Dukes, draws the reader into a mesmerizing world of love and loss. In the wake of personal tragedy, the death of her husband, Muske-Dukes asks herself the questions that undergird all of art, all of elegy. “What is the difference between love and grief?” she asks in a poem, finding no answer beyond the image of the sparrow, flitting from Catullus to the contemporary lyric.

Beyond autobiographical narrative, these are stripped-down, passionate meditations on the aligned arts of poetry and acting, the marriage of two artists and their transformative powers of expression and experience. Muske-Dukes has once again shown herself to be, in this profound elegiac collection, one of today’s finest living poets.

Book:The Voice at 3:00 A.M.

The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected Late and New Poems

Charles Simic

Charles Simic has been widely celebrated for his brilliant poetic imagery; his social, political, and moral alertness; his uncanny ability to make the ordinary extraordinary; and not least, a sardonic humor all his own. Gathering much of his material from the seemingly mundane minutia of contemporary American culture, Simic matches meditations on spiritual concerns and the weight of history with a nimble wit, shifting effortlessly to moments of clear vision and intense poetic revelation.

The poems in this collection—spanning two decades of his work—present a rich and varied survey of a remarkable lyrical journey.

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