This is my latest post for the Best American Poetry Blog
After hearing about the Nobel Prize for Literature, I was reminded of my first grade class, particularly of a workbook for what was then called New Math. The workbook included pictures of sets of objects. Students were supposed to circle the object that did not belong. So one picture might include a bird, a dog, a pig, and a sandwich. The next, a fork, a spoon, a knife, and a tennis shoe. The next, a ring, a watch, a necklace, and a frog. What this had to do with math, I am still not certain.
But I liked the pictures, and I loved to think up stories in which one might want to include the circled items. I would explain to Mrs. Wallace, my teacher, that a sandwich could be used to feed the bird, the dog, and the pig. A fork comes in handy if you have a knot in your shoelace. The frog, of course, might have been a prince or princess once upon a time.
I was also reminded of discussions I had with the poet, Eleanor Ross Taylor, back when I was just out of college and first trying to understand the literary world. Eleanor had an acerbic wit and was unsparingly honest. Literary prizes, she suggested, are not all that you think they are. She talked at length about the different presses and literary connections and publishers one might wish to have, and I remember feeling so discouraged. I concluded that literary success is a bit like economic success in our country. There is the top tiny %, now referred to as the 1%, and that one dreams of becoming a part of, and then there is the 99%.
Eleanor also suspected that certain winners are actually compromise candidates. It’s hard to come to a consensus, she said, adding, we writers don’t agree on many things. That was especially true for Eleanor and me. She loved to ask me who my favorite writers were, but inevitably she would tell me how much she disliked them. About my beloved Garcia Marquez, she said, I simply cannot abide him. Of the French surrealist poets I adored in those days, she said, Really, I’d rather not get a headache. But you just tell me why I should. Once, when I showed her a poem by Russell Edson, she said, I don’t know what that is. Do you? And we both burst out laughing.