Susan Howe Named 2011 Winner of Yale’s Bollingen Prize in American Poetry

Genre-defying American poet and critic Susan Howe has been named the 2011 winner of Yale University’s Bollingen Prize in American Poetry.

Announcing the poet’s selection for the Bollingen Prize, the judges wrote, “In more than three decades of writing, Susan Howe has discovered the ground of a new American poetry, one that combines the most unlikely elements: history and mysticism, Puritan New England devotional writing and the Irish folk ballad, visual lyricism and dramatic narrative, scholarship and memoir. … Susan Howe has given American poetry a new voice and a new language.”

The Bollingen Prize in American Poetry, established by Paul Mellon in 1949, is awarded biennially by the Yale University Library to an American poet for the best book published during the previous two years or for lifetime achievement in poetry. From its controversial beginnings in 1948, when the Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress awarded the prize to Ezra Pound for “The Pisan Cantos,” the Bollingen Prize has honored the literary accomplishments of poets whose work continues to define modern American literature. The prize includes a cash award of $100,000.

Born in 1937 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to an Irish actress and playwright mother and law professor father, Howe earned her bachelor’s degree at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. She enjoyed professional success as a painter and also trained as an actor in Dublin before she embarked on her career as a poet. Her much-acclaimed work, which has been described as Postmodernist and is often associated with the so-called Language poets, draws on historical and mythical allusion and uses typographic tropes and other visual devices to create an unconventional, multi-layered format. Her poetry is largely unrhymed and eschews a consistent metrical pattern. She cites among her most important literary influences Emily Dickinson, Charles Olson and Puritan writers like Cotton Mather.

Howe is the author of numerous volumes of poetry, including “The Midnight” (2003), “Kidnapped” (2002), “Pierce-Arrow” (1999), “Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979” (1996), “The Nonconformist’s Memorial” (1993), “The Europe of Trusts: Selected Poems” (1990), and “Singularities” (1990). She is also the author of two books of criticism: “The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History” (1993), named “International Book of the Year” by the Times Literary Supplement, and “My Emily Dickinson” (1985).

Of Howe’s most recent book, “THAT THIS,” the three member judging committee wrote: “Susan Howe is a fierce elegist. ‘THAT THIS,’ prompted by the sudden death of the poet’s husband, makes manifest the raw edges of elegy through the collision of verse and prose, visionary lyricism and mundane incident, ekphrasis, visual patterning and the reclamation of historical documents. The book culminates in a set of luminous and starkly condensed lyrics moving increasingly toward silence.”

Howe was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999 and a chancellor of The Academy of American Poets in 2000; she has been a fellow at The American Academy in Berlin and a distinguished fellow at the Stanford Institute of the Humanities. She held the Samuel P. Capen Chair of Poetry and the Humanities at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and has recently taught at Princeton, University of Chicago, University of Utah and Wesleyan University.

Among the most prestigious prizes available to American writers, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry has been a force in shaping contemporary American letters. Early Bollingen Prize winners — Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore and E.E. Cummings — are today widely considered to be writers whose work defined a new American literature of the 20th century. More recent winners — John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Louise Glück, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, Gary Snyder, Jay Wright and Adrienne Rich — represent stylistic diversity in American writing. Throughout its history, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry aimed to recognize and celebrate the very best in American poetry.

This year’s judges were poet Peter Gizzi, literary critic Marjorie Perloff, and poet and playwright Claudia Rankine. Gizzi is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including most recently “The Outernationale”; Perloff is the author of nearly 20 books about modern and contemporary poetry, including most recently “Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century”; Rankine is the author of several collections of poetry, including “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric.”

For further information, contact Nancy Kuhl, curator of poetry, Yale Collection of American Literature: nancy.kuhl@yale.edu; or visit http://beineckepoetry.wordpress.com.

Excerpts from That This, by Susan Howe(NY: New Directions, 2010)


That this book is a history of
a shadow that is a shadow of

me mystically one in another
Another another to subserve

                       ***

Not spirit not space finite

Not infinite to those fixed—

That this millstone is such

Quiet which side on which—

                       ***

Is one mind put into another

in us unknown to ourselves

by going about among trees

and fields in moonlight or in

a garden to ease distance to

fetch home spiritual things

                       ***

That a solitary person bears

witness to law in the ark to

an altar of snow and every

age or century for a day is

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Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345