By Steven Mihailovich
Rae Armantrout received the Pulitzer Prize for her work "Versed," a book described as "striking for its wit and linguistic inventiveness, offering poems that are often little thought-bombs detonating in the mind long after the first reading."
The prize, announced April 12, carries a $10,000 award for Armantrout. She has been a professor of writing and literature at UCSD for more than two decades.
"I'm stunned," Armantrout said in a statement. "This was not on my radar screen at all. Tomorrow (April 13) is my birthday and this was a very nice birthday present." Armantrout is the author of 10 books of poetry. "Versed" also won the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award and was selected as a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.
UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox congratulated her for receiving the Pulitzer Prize. "We are extremely proud of Rae and her talent for creating distinctive art and poetry," Fox said. "This Pulitzer Prize, along with the other national recognition she has received recently, is much deserved." The Pulitzer Prize is awarded annually through Columbia University.
While UCSD's prominence in science, medicine and research is deep rooted, the school is cultivating a reputation for literature that is flowering under Armantrout.
Having garnered growing national and international renown for her previous nine books of poetry, Armantrout catapulted to the top last month when "Versed," received the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) award for the best poetry book in the U.S. in 2009.
Published by Wesleyan University Press, half of the book was written after Armantrout was diagnosed with cancer of the adrenal gland. Titled "Dark Matter," the second chapter explores Armantrout's experiences and thoughts as she coped with the starkness of treatment, recovery and her own mortality.
The result is pure poetry.
"Facing death makes life more intense," Armantrout said. "That's a cliche that's true. ... Reading poetry is secondary to writing to me. I think in writing. In order to think, I have to write."
The NBCC award is the only leading literary prize that is determined by book reviewers and critics, not other poets and writers, said Kevin Prufer, chairman of last year's NBCC poetry committee. While admitting the potency of the topic, Prufer maintained that it was Armantrout's technical mastery that convinced the 24 board members to give her book the award.
"Her work is compressed," Prufer said. "It combines a multiple of full, sometimes conflicting, emotions surrounding one big issue. One board member said it was like a set of firecrackers ready to go off. She's a real poet's poet. There was a lot of rejoicing when she won."
The NBCC winners were announced at a ceremony on March 11 in New York from a short list of five nominees in six categories. Although Armantrout didn't expect to win, she said she was extremely pleased when receiving the honor and ever since.
"Part of the joy of winning is you get to hear from people you haven't heard from in a while," Armantrout said. "It's also amazing how fast news spreads. I just told a few people, but in days, I got a ton of e-mails. When you win, everyone is a friend."
Friends such as Michael Davidson, a professor of modern literature at UCSD and Armantrout's colleague since the late 1970s, said that the win was not a surprise because Armantrout's work has been winning new fans with each passing day. He said the award merely validates his appreciation for her poetry.
With Armantrout's ability to wring powerful connotations out of simple words, Davidson found its application to her personal ordeal with cancer to be transcendent.
"She was extremely interested in what was growing inside of her," Davidson said. "She was thinking of her mortality but in a detached way, like Emily Dickinson. It's the idea of a poem as active thinking, not a representation of a thought."
Armantrout said she totes a notebook almost everywhere she goes to record things she hears or sees. She later works those recollections into her poems. She divides poetry into two main components: a way of being aware, and a way of making language memorable.
"Poetry is a way of connecting disparate things," said Armantrout, who teaches poetry writing. "I get students who just want to write about their emotions. You have to provide context or you're just naming them (the emotions). The best poetry is looking outward and inward at the same time. A poet, like any artist, just doesn't feel satisfied with the world; a poet has to answer the world, not just be a passive receiver."
In an era of pop culture and mass media from TV to Internet, Armantrout bemoans the decline of poetry in a country where poets were once considered heroes of their age. The consequence is not a lack of vision, but rather a loss of eloquence, she claims.
"The vocabulary seems to be shrinking, especially in America," she said. "But I've had quite a few really good students, some talented and furious. They're still coming from somewhere. I don't know where because there's not really much in the culture to inspire people to poetry."
City News Service contributed to this report
A poem from "Versed," by Rae Armantrout
What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as "scumble," "pinky,"
What if I maneuvered conversation in the hope that others would pronounce these words?
Perhaps the excitement would come from the way the other person touched them lightly and carelessly with his tongue.
What if "of" were such a hot button?
"Scumble of bushes."
What if there were a hidden pleasure
in calling one thing
by another's name?