There's money in poetry after all
"This world tries to bore me to death, but not hard enough."
-- Timothy Donnelly, "Chapter for Being Transformed into a Sparrow"
Timothy Donnelly this week won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his second book, The Cloud Corporation. This award brings with it a prize of $100,000. Yup, there are the right number of zeroes there. A hundred grand, like the candy bar. For a book of poems. Every poet in America secretly thinks they will win this prize some day (or maybe that's just me).
At any rate, I'm taking this opportunity to proclaim here my love and respect for this book. I bought it at AWP* last year and I've read the whole thing probably three times by now. It's long (150ish pages) and more than a little challenging, which I mean in a good way. It challenges readers, and it challenges societal power structures.
At a time when "occupy" was one of those words of the year, when we're all talking about the 99 percent and the 1 percent, when people might just maybe be paying a little more attention to just how powerful the powerful are, The Cloud Corporation is a great choice for a major award. It's not preachy or dogmatic, or even really devoted to a particular message, but its language is infused with an awareness of the power dynamic in contemporary America. It is at times conversational, colloquial -- but also entirely formal in terms of its control over line and diction.
Every review I've read of this book has singled out "Dream of Arabian Hillbillies," which blends (or at least claims to) the words of Osama Bin Laden with random words from the Beverly Hillbillies theme song, as a signature poem here. I would also point out the piece "Advice to the Baboons of the New Kingdom," which opens: "When they approach you with plates of soft fruit / and erotic subjects, they have already singled you out // for worship." I'm not sure I've ever felt more indicted. But the poet is gentle with you, even as he's calling you out: "Resist the impulse to play along, but if you can't, // and few can ..." The poem concludes with these double-edged words: "In this manner, you will pass / months, whole seasons, possibly years, until you are / possessed of a god at last, and this one means business."
You cannot skim the poems in this book, nor should you. This book asks more of you, as a reader; it asks you to commit. When you do, the payoff is substantial. I don't think I'm overstating to suggest that this book can change the way you look at language, change the way you look at the world around you.
One of my least favorite things is the constant snarking over the state of contemporary poetry, how workshops and MFAs and academics have killed the art, and how today's verse is all navel-gazing and disconnected and boring and bloodless. For the most part, I think that's bullshit. There is some terrific goddamn poetry being written right now, and so many poets who look at the world with clear eyes and render it in unflinching language. The Cloud Corporation is a prime example.
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*I always buy lots of books at AWP, and probably the two best books I bought last year both came from the same publisher: Wave Books. They were The Cloud Corporation and Mary Ruefle's Selected Poems. Just outrageously good, both of them. And such attractive physical artifacts, too.