National Book Award Winners and Finalists
in the Modern Literature Collection
November 15th marks the announcement of the National Book Award, an honor which numerous Modern Literature authors have either won or been nominated for. Among MLC recipients and nominees are May Swenson (A Cage of Spines, 1959, and To Mix With Time, 1964), Robert Creeley (For Love, 1963), James Dickey (Buckdancer’s Choice, 1966), Mona Van Duyn (To See, To Take, 1971), James Merrill (Nights and Days, 1976), William Gaddis (JR, 1976, and A Frolic of His Own, 1994), and Howard Nemerov (The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov, 1978).
May Swenson‘s first nominated collection–A Cage of Spines–-received advance praise from Elizabeth Bishop, who wrote, “Miss Swenson looks and sees and rejoices in what she sees. Her poems are varied, energetic, and full of directness and optimism that are unusual in these days of formulated despair and/or stylishness.”
“Love, what do I think/to say. I cannot say it.”, Robert Creeley declares in the title poem of his nominated collection For Love. He leaves this imagination of “love” to his reader, whom–in the words of his preface–may well “know more” of his poems than he does.
James Dickey’s 1967-winning poetry collection Buckdancer’s Choice examines the experience of pain from the colossal scope of a WWII firebombing to the more intimate death of a narrator’s mother who–dying of emphysema–whistles a tune in an adjacent room: “The invalid warbler’s note”.
Mona Van Duyn’s 1971 National Book Award Acceptance Speech focused around the role of the caring reader in cultivating “a form of love” through their close readership. Both “reading” and “love” are central to Van Duyn’s collection, To See, To Take.
James Merrill’s drafts of his 1976 NBA winning poetry collection Nights and Days reveals his characteristic playfulness and attentiveness to detail, filled with sketches and multitudes of subtly changing lists, in many different shades of ink.
William Gaddis’s novel JR also won the NBA for fiction in 1976. Much like Van Duyn, his acceptance speech highlights the importance of reading well in order to write well: “…it seems to me the only way to keep writers writing well, or trying to write well, is to read what we write.”
Howard Nemerov’s 1978 NBA winning poetry collection The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov, speaks through many voices, from a wide terrain of experiences. In the words of NBA judges, “That craft has deployed itself in an extraordinary range of accomplishments: from the gnomic to the dramatic, from the bleak to the triumphant, from the pure to the being at home in the multiple modern muck of the modern world–a poetry of the whole man.”