Annal: 2008 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry

Results of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the year 2008.

Book:Watching the Spring Festival

Watching the Spring Festival: Poems

Frank Bidart

This is Frank Bidart’s first book of lyrics—his first book not dominated by long poems. Narrative elaboration becomes speed and song. Less embattled than earlier work, less actively violent, these new poems have, by conceding time’s finalities and triumphs, acquired a dark radiance unlike anything seen before in Bidart’s long career.

Mortality—imminent, not theoretical—forces the self to question the relation between the actual life lived and what was once the promise of transformation. This plays out against a broad landscape. The book opens with Marilyn Monroe, followed by the glamour of the eighth-century Chinese imperial court (seen through the eyes of one of China’s greatest poets, Tu Fu). At the center of the book is an ambitious meditation on the Russian ballerina Ulanova, Giselle, and the nature of tragedy. All this gives new dimension and poignance to Bidart’s recurring preoccupation with the human need to leave behind some record or emblem,…[more]

Book:The Kingdom of Ordinary Time

The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: Poems

Marie Howe

An anticipated new volume from Marie Howe whose “poetry is luminous, intense, eloquent, rooted in abundant inner life” (Stanley Kunitz).

Hurrying through errands, attending a dying mother, helping her own child down the playground slide, the speaker in these poems wonders: what is the difference between the self and the soul? The secular and the sacred? Where is the kingdom of heaven? And how does one live in Ordinary Time—during those periods that are not apparently miraculous?

Book:Ours (Cole Swensen)

Ours

Cole Swensen

These poems are about gardens, particularly the seventeenth-century French baroque gardens designed by the father of the form, André Le Nôtre. While the poems focus on such examples as Versailles, which Le Nôtre created for Louis XIV, they also explore the garden as metaphor. Using the imagery of the garden, Cole Swensen considers everything from human society to the formal structure of poetry. She looks in particular at the concept of public versus private property, asking who actually owns a garden? A gentle irony accompanies the question because in French, the phrase “le nôtre” means “ours.” Whereas all of Le Nôtre’s gardens were designed and built for the aristocracy, today most are public parks. Swensen probes the two senses of “le nôtre” to discover where they intersect, overlap, or blur.

Book:Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream

Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream

Connie Voisine

Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream is a book haunted by the afterlife of medieval theology and literature yet grounded in distinctly modern quandaries of desire. Connie Voisine’s female speakers reverberate with notes of Marie de France’s tragic heroines, but whereas Marie’s poems are places where women’s longings quickly bloom and die in captivity—in towers and dungeons—Voisine uses narrative to suspend the movement of storytelling. For Voisine, poems are occasions for philosophical wanderings, extended lyrics that revolve around the binding and unbinding of desire, with lonely speakers struggling with the impetus of wanting as well as the necessity of a love affair’s end. With fluency, intelligence, and deeply felt emotional acuity, Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream navigates the heady intersection of obsessive love and searing loss.   

Book:Sea Change: Poems

Sea Change: Poems

Jorie Graham

The New York Times has said that “Jorie Graham’s poetry is among the most sensuously embodied and imaginative writing we have,” and this new collection is a reminder of how startling, original, and deeply relevant her poetry is. In Sea Change, Graham brings us to the once-unimaginable threshold at which civilization as we know it becomes unsustainable. How might the human spirit persist, caught between its abiding love of beauty, its acknowledgment of continuing injury and damage done, and the realization that the existence of a “future” itself may no longer be assured?

There is no better writer to confront such crucial matters than Jorie Graham. In addition to her recognized achievements as a poet of philosophical, aesthetic, and moral concerns, Graham has also been acknowledged as “our most formidable nature poet” (Publishers Weekly). As gorgeous and formally inventive as anything she has written, Sea Change is an essential work speaking out for our planet and the world we have known.

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