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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Yet Once More, a Laurel Not Bestowed -David Orr

While American fiction and theater can boast of at least a few Nobel winners (nine, to be precise), no American poet has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Not one, in more than 100 years.

There are two typical responses to this information. The first is to note that T. S. Eliot, Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz have a connection to the United States and did, in fact, win the Nobel. Yet while Eliot was born in St. Louis, his status as an American poet is debatable. He had been living in England for more than 30 years when he received the prize in 1948, and had been a British citizen for over 20 of them. It seems as reasonable to call him an English writer who was born in America as an American writer who lived in England. And while Brodsky and Milosz were both United States citizens when they became Nobel laureates, they were also both exiles from authoritarian regimes and were clearly being recognized for their work in and about their homelands, not their connection to their adopted country.

Which leads to a second reaction one might have to the absence of American poets from the Nobel list: Is it perhaps justified? After all, there are brilliant poets in many languages, and the Nobel can only be awarded to one person a year. The only problem is that the first half of the 20th century is widely considered a golden age of American poetry — a judgment supported not only by critics, but apparently by some Nobel laureates. In 1996, for example, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published a book called “Homage to Robert Frost” that consisted of an essay apiece by Brodsky (Nobel, 1982); the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (Nobel, 1995); and the West Indies poet Derek Walcott (Nobel, 1992). Frost himself, of course, never received the prize. Nor, for that matter, did Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore or William Carlos Williams, all of whom were alive when Nobels went to Ernest Hemingway (1954), William Faulkner (1949) and Pearl S. Buck (1938).


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