I got to read/had to read for the P.E.N. poetry prize, so that meant 65 books of poems. It was fun; I like poetry, and I got to read some people I’d merely heard about and a whole lot of people I’d never heard of.
What I particularly liked was how clear it was who the finalists were. Everybody else was merely good. Janis Joplin, of all people, said that at some point in the winnowing process, everybody is about as talented at everybody else, so what separates them is ambition. That’s a cool thing to say, and I understand it. Forget about poetry for a minute and just think of novelists we know who try harder. They market themselves. They appear. That’s one kind of ambition. Another kind is being ambitious about the product. These are writers who are hard to please where their own work is concerned. Maybe they wait six months or a year for the story to cure. Rather four wonderful books than twelve good ones.
Back to poetry. Ambition was less obvious there, at least the kind that separates the buzzing swarm of the Good What made it clear that the winners’ books were terrific was the sense that they were onto something and the reader got to follow them as they found out what that was.
Paradoxically, those books and poems were fun to read again. The discovery never got old.