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The Lion and the Unicorn 29.3 (2005) 427-441
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It Could Be Verse:
The 2005 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry
Joseph T. Thomas, Jr
In her introduction to the 2004 edition of The Best American Poetry, Lyn Hejinian makes clear that she doesn't "believe in 'bestness.'" She initially resisted editing the collection, only agreeing after she had come to see her job as a cartographer of sorts, one responsible for giving readers a taste of the "dynamic, ever-changing" terrain of poetry as "a site of perpetual transitions and unpredictable metamorphoses." She writes, "there is no end point in poetry. Indeed, American poetry has always been so full of energy and inventive that it is impossible to define poetry once and for all or to delimit its space. What is or isn't a poem? What makes something poetic? These questions remain open" (9). Her anthology—like all the collections in the Best American series—completely ignores children's poetry. Even the most radically inclusive poets and critics of poetry tend to ignore children's poetry and leave it outside [End Page 427] the world of "real" poetry, that is, poetry for adults. So it is especially heartening—and crucial—that 2004 marks the inauguration of The Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry, a continuation of Signal's venerable award, which, sadly, ended in 2001 shortly before the journalceased publication with its one hundredth issue in 2003. Unlike Signal, which considered only books of poetry published in Great Britain, The Lion and the Unicorn Award focuses on North American poetry. But like Hejinian's anthology and the Signal poetry award, this new award similarly resists the idea of "bestness" and focuses instead on excellence in children's poetry. We are not choosing the "best" book of poetry for children. We would find it hard to choose between Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (1997) and Stephen Mitchell's The Wishing Bone (2003) had they had been published the same year. Both are excellent, but which is best?
In reading the North American poetry for children published in 2004, we were faced with similar questions, though we did arrive at a winner: Marilyn Nelson's Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem, a moving collection that we unanimously selected as the most interesting and complex of the books we received from publishers. The four honor books are not ranked, for they are all so different, so satisfying and impressive that ranking was impossible. These books suggest how diverse and multiple poetic expression can be as they participate in an array of poetic modes and traditions, each working from quite different aesthetic assumptions: there are lyrics, elegies, narratives (two call themselves "novels"), historical narratives, literary nursery rhymes, and, of course, light verse. We did wish there were more formally experimental works. The one collection of concrete poetry (Technically, It's Not My Fault, by book and magazine designer John Grandits) wasn't an especially interesting example of the form. Our list of finalists is heartening, nonetheless. The state of children's poetry in North America isn't as depressingly limited as most of the seventy-seven books we received might lead one to believe. However, while we resist easy notions of "best," we still find pretty useful the notion of "bad."
Our winner, Fortune's Bones, and our four honor books forecast a promising and stylistically...