Monday, August 28, 2006

On Mastery

One of the most prestigious awards in American poetry is the Wallace Stevens Award, which is given by the Academy of American Poets. Currently carrying a stipend of $100,000 for the recipient, the award "is given annually to recognize outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry" ( Basically, it is a lifetime achievement award for poets.

But rather than honoring poets for "lifetime achievement", the award recognizes poets for "outstanding and proven mastery." I have several issues with this formula for "mastery".

First, a minor one. What does it mean for "mastery" to be "outstanding and proven"? To me, saying "outstanding and proven mastery" is kind of like saying "terrific and wonderful greatness" or "benevolent and humanitarian charity." In other words, the adjectives seem superfluous. But let's take the adjectives seriously for a moment. "Outstanding" works for me -- it signifies that the judges believe that the poet's work is unique, innovative, special. But "proven" strikes me as a tad conclusory, and I'm not sure you can "prove" "mastery" in poetry. It's not like a math problem. There are no theorems and equations. It's not like any Carlos Bulosan may write a poem that is somehow the objective magical formula of poetic superiority.

It leads to my second (and primary) issue, which is the award's recognition for "mastery in the art of poetry". I have problems with the term "mastery". Now mastery can mean "natural or acquired facility in a specific activity," but it can also mean "the act of exercising controlling power or the condition of being so controlled." To my mind at least, since I often find it difficult to separate words from their social context, the word "mastery" carries some baggage. It reminds me of the long history of the "master-slave" relationship. "Mastery" conjures up images of power, control, force, coercion, domination, etc. I don't know if you would want to give an award for it, even if "mastery" in the art of poetry is possible.

I say, "even if 'mastery' in the art of poetry is possible," because I highly doubt that it is. I think that what distinguishes the work of many of the winners of the Wallace Stevens Award -- e.g. Adrienne Rich, Jackson Mac Low, Ruth Stone, etc. -- is not "mastery" but a constant innovation of form and susbtance. The poets, through a lifetime of work, have exemplified a certain restlessness, a desire for greater understanding of the multiple facets of poetry, an originality that builds upon the past. I can't say for sure, but I am skeptical whether any of the honored poets, or the poet-judges who honored them, would claim that they have achieved "mastery in the art of poetry," because mastery suggests an endpoint whereas the award honors work that is capable of much interpretation, vital, and enduring.

Third, as a quick note, I think that one might observe that no racial minorities and only two female poets have won in the twelve year history of the award. Though quite a few female and African-American poets hve been judges, John Yau is the only Asian-American to have been a judge. Similar observations may be made of the Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Award in poetry. This is not a critique but merely a caution to remain conscious of "who" we designate as our "masters" in the art of poetry, race and gender being two elements of who we are. Mastery is singular, whereas poetry is for all.


Blogger Lyle Daggett said...

Roger, I appreciate your comments about this.

Makes me think of the occasion, a number of years ago, with the Motion Picture Academy decided to give one of their Lifetime Achievement Oscars to Akira Kurasawa. After screening a series of brief stunning excerpts from Kurasawa's films on the giant video screen above the stage, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg introduced Kurasawa -- to a warm standing ovation -- and formally gave him the award.

Kurasawa (speaking through an interpreter) thanked the Academy, and then said "I don't feel that I truly understand cinema." An audible ripple of shock and disbelief went through the room, and he continued, "I don't feel that I understand the essence of cinema." He then briefly and passionately pledged to continue working to improve his skills in making films. He then thanked Lucas and Spielberg by name, bowed to them and to the audience, and returned to his seat -- to wild roaring standing applause.

As a side note, Wallace Stevens seems to me an odd choice as the poet for whom the award is named. If I were to accept for a moment the notion of "proven mastery" (and I have lots of the same questions about it that you expressed), I personally wouldn't hold up Wallace Stevens as the definitive example. That's obviously a matter of taste, to one degree or another, but there it is.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Lyle, thanks a lot for the comments on Kurosawa and Stevens.

I think that another question that your comments raise is whether one should name a kind of lifetime achievement poetry award in the name of a poet in the first place.

Also, what should we think of the meaning(s) behind giving a "named" poetry award to a poet in terms of the connections between the person whom the award is named after and the poet who receives the award? What are the connections between, e.g., Adrienne Rich and Wallace Stevens?

4:04 PM  
Blogger Kev Minh said...

Good, thoughtful post, Roger.

I'm normally skeptical of superlatives such as "excellence" and "best", especially when they're attached to awards. As you've alluded to, I ask myself, where does one go from there?

If someone is handed an award for being the "best" or a "master" of something, does that mean this person will always embody the award conferred upon him/her? Don't we have to assume that since we're human we're going to have our off days, too? Or, perhaps that person produces just one good poem (or book) in his/her life.

Nothing in life is permanent.

I try to read The Best American Poetry series whenever I can. But, usually I enjoy only a handful out of the whole collection. And, even the handful I wouldn't consider the "best" that I've ever read.

So, subjective. And, yet, many of us place so much weight on these awards.

10:01 PM  

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