Charles Bernstein is awarded Yale’s prestigious Bollingen Prize

Charles Bernstein Charles Bernstein reading at the Berlin Poetry Festival on May 25, 2018
Charles Bernstein reading at the Berlin Poetry Festival on May 25, 2018. (Photo credit: Susan Bee)

Charles Bernstein has been named the winner of Yale’s 2019 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry. The Bollingen Prize, established by Paul Mellon in 1949, is awarded biennially by the Yale University Library through the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library to an American poet for the best book published during the previous two years or for lifetime achievement in poetry. The prize includes a cash award of $165,000.

Bernstein is the 51st poet to be honored with the award and joins a list of past winners that includes W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Louise Bogan, Léonie Adams, Robert Frost, and Robert Penn Warren, as well as contemporary poets Susan Howe, Charles Wright, Louise Glück, Nathaniel Mackey, and Jean Valentine.

As poet, editor, critic, translator, and educator, Charles Bernstein’s decades-long commitment to the community of arts and letters reflects a profound understanding of the importance of language in the business of culture-making,” the three-member prize judging committee said. “His extraordinary new collection of poems, ‘Near/Miss,’ finds Bernstein deploying his characteristically incisive satire and sharp wit to dismantle the clichés driving public speech. Yet, in moments treading close to heartbreak, the work sounds the depths where the public poet must find the words for private grief. Bernstein’s work interrogates, restlessly, seemingly word by word, language and its performative nature.”

The Bollingen is the ultimate American poetry prize and the honor of this award turns to pure delight when I acknowledge the award committee,” Bernstein said. “I am overwhelmed at being in the company of my fellow Bollingen winners, who include so many poets whom I read with supreme astonishment. How great that ‘Near/Miss’ has been so warmly welcomed into the world.”

Bernstein’s other books of poetry include “Recalculating,” and “All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems,” among many others. His collections of essays include “Pitch of Poetry,” “Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions,” and “A Poetics.” Bernstein is also known for his translations, collaborations with artists, and libretti. With Al Filreis, he is the co-founder of PennSound, an extensive archive of recorded poetry. Bernstein was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2006. Other awards and honors include the Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry, the Münster Prize for International Poetry, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. Bernstein is the Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

The judges — Ange Mlinko, Claudia Rankine, and Evie Shockley — said: “Throughout his career Bernstein has facilitated a vibrant dialogue between lyric and anti-lyric tendencies in the poetic traditions we have inherited; in so doing, he has shaped and questioned, defined and dismantled ideas and assumptions in order to reveal poetry’s widest and most profound capabilities.”

Contemporary American poetry thrives through its small scale and radical differences of form,” according to Bernstein. “Its freedom is grounded in the diverse approaches of its practitioners and in its resistance to market-driven popularity. Poetic invention is as fundamental to our democracy as the Bill of Rights — something to celebrate with exuberance and pleasure.”

The Bollingen Prize for American Poetry is administrated by the Yale Collection of American Literature (YCAL) at the Beinecke Library.

The Beinecke Library is a national center for the living art of American poetry,” said Bollingen Prize Director Nancy Kuhl, curator of poetry for YCAL. “An open, pluralistic society requires literary arts and humanities if it is to flourish and we affirm their vital role through our collections, exhibitions, scholarship, teaching and in the celebration and support of living poets with this award.”

We are thrilled that the 2019 Bollingen Prize Judges have honored Charles Bernstein, a poet whose creative and critical work has for decades enlivened American poetry and poetics,” Kuhl observed. “The poems in his latest book, ‘Near/Miss,’ explore the very nature of poetry.”

Throughout its history, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry has recognized and honored the best in American poetry. Early Bollingen Prize winners — Stevens, Moore, E.E. Cummings, and  Auden — 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, Glück, Charles Wright, Gary Snyder, Howe, and Mackey — have been praised for bringing stylistic diversity in American writing.

Bollingen funds also provide for various poetry-related activities at the Beinecke Library, including readings and public seminar, curatorial projects, and graduate and undergraduate student publications and research.

The three judges are all accomplished poets. Mlinko’s poetry collections include “Marvelous Things Overheard,” which was selected by The New Yorker and The Boston Globe as one of the best books of 2013. She was a Guggenheim Fellow for 2014–2015 and is currently the poetry editor of Subtropics. She teaches poetry workshops and seminars on poetics at the University of Florida.

Rankine is the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale and is the author of five collections of poetry, including “Citizen: An American Lyric,” which won both the PEN Open Book Award and the PEN Literary Award, as well as the NAACP Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (“Citizen” was the first book ever to be named a finalist for in both the poetry and criticism categories).  It was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Rankine won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017 and was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship “genius” award in 2016. That same year, she co-founded The Racial Imaginary Institute.

Shockley, a professor of English at Rutgers University, is the author of “Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry” and several collections of poetry. The most recent, “semiautomatic” (Wesleyan, 2017), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and winner of the 2018 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, which she previously won in 2012 for her collection “the new black.” Her poems and essays have appeared in journals and anthologies internationally.  Shockley’s work has been supported and recognized with the 2015 Stephen Henderson Award and the 2012 Holmes National Poetry Prize, among other honors.