Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Handicapping the Nobel Prize for Literature

Cormac McCarthy
Tomas Transtromer


NO AMERICAN POET HAS won the Nobel Prize for literature.  If you think of Eliot as American or his poetry as American, you might be able to quibble with my brash opening hook, but otherwise, not.  Eliot had already been a British citizen for 30 years when he won the Nobel in 1948, making "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" over 30 years old and the even creakier The Wasteland a Twenty-Something.

Chances are, an American poet will not win the 2010 prize, despite some impressive candidates.  Oddsmakers are bullish on South Korean Poet Ko-Un, the Sweedish poet Tomas Transtromer, and the American novelist Cormac McCarthy.  All are good choices, though, I think the smart money might go on Ko-Un.  I mean, who can say no to that smile?

Why impressive American poets like W. S. Merwin, John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, and Charles Wright get lower seeds in the March Madness of the Literature Nobels remains somewhat of a mystery.   And yet not.

In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Nobel prize jury, wagged his finger at American writing for its American-centric-ness. "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."

Merwin, in particular, obviates Engdahl's claim.  He has translated countless authors, though, agreeably, most are rather obscure: Pablo Neruda, for example, Osip Mandelstam, Jean Follain, Antonio Porchia, Roberto Juarroz, oh, and, like, Dante.  His work has always carried heavy political water, and recently, he's become particularly active as a poet of and a voice for environmental awareness--in particular the rain forests of Hawaii.  He's won the Pulitzer Prize and just about every other award, and he's the current Poet Laureate.

But, even so, I wonder if Mr. Engdahl and perhaps the entire Swedish academy defines "big dialogue" as "externally political."  For someone like Charles Wright, the big dialogue is "landscape, language, and the idea of God," which, I think, is pretty big.  Graham and Ashbery both are legendary for taking on complex issues about knowledge, language, communication, history, and the self in finely-tuned language that forces the reader to reorient how she sees the world and his place in it.

American poets, even Eliot--especially Eliot--have generally excavated the universal in the particular.  They locate the public deep within the private. Think Emily Dickinson or Wallace Stevens.  And, they often help translate America's Americanness--perhaps the world's most complex text--for the rest of the world.

I'm always happy when writers whose work I don't know win major awards like the Nobel, but I would also like to see some of this country's best voices be given a chance to articulate what they are working through here on the world's biggest stage.


  1. I know I am biased in my opinion, but I would like to see Louise Erdrich nominated some day.

  2. I carry secret hopes for a number of American poets, but I'd love to see Transtromer win. No flies on that dog.

    Joe Ahearn

  3. Adrienne Rich used to appear pretty highly on the odds list, but she's faded from contention I guess. I saw that Transtromer seems to be the odds-on favorite this year. Was surprised to see Ann Carson so high on the list, though I love her work. I've been expecting Atwood to win it for years, but she seems to be sliding down the list.

  4. I agree with Scott. Given the Nobel Committee's obsession with "the big dialogue,"one of the great travesties is the absence of a Native American winner. Erdrich is the best candidate, but Momaday and Ortiz and Silko are also deserving.