- A New Parliament of Fouls: The 2015 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry
Award judges love to argue.1 It’s one of the perks of the job. We delight in the mandate to bicker about poetry, prosody, and the distinctions among the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. We love the thrill of discovering a new voice and situating it within our diverse poetic traditions. And we love disagreeing. Disagreement provides us with an opportunity to marshal our expertise and resources to champion our favorites. The judges’ disagreement on the value of Nan Forler’s Winterberries and Apple Blossoms in the 2012 essay, for example, and Adam Jameson’s 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time in the 2014 essay, provided entertaining and instructive discussion. Aside from The Signal poetry award, now long gone, the Lion and the Unicorn is the home of the only award featuring an essay in which its judges explain their decisions, discuss the best among the worst, and survey the land that produced a given year’s crop of contenders. The ever-changing trio of L&U Poetry Award judges (who welcome Kate Pendlebury to their ranks this year) like to imagine that by explaining what is good about a collection of poems—and pointing out what is weak—we might inspire editors and publishers to stop paying quite so much attention to the noisy, algorithm-driven dictates of marketing [End Page 331] departments and to listen instead to the quieter song of the poems worth reading and remembering. The profit a book reaps shouldn’t be gauged by the revenue it generates; children profit from access to the poetic language with which they can learn to think, language they can use to critique, shape, and—sometimes—praise their world. Poetry worth reading sticks, at times inspiring real children to become real writers.
This year, however, we couldn’t initially find anything to argue about. Worse, we couldn’t even find much to talk about. Our long-suffering and patient editor, Joseph Thomas, prodded us gently but repeatedly to launch a debate as we dutifully read all the shiny new books that turned up so promisingly on our doorsteps. But much of this year’s seventeen submitted books inspired only apathy. Mere weeks before deadline we had generated little more than an annotated list, and Craig, rattled by Lissa and Kate’s petition for a no-award, no-honor book year (indeed, we thought to title this essay “The Not Good-Enough Award”) hastily scoured his local bookstores for more promising candidates. He found some (one of our honor books as well as two “almost honor books”). And Lissa turned up a recommendation for another of our honor books, Marilyn Nelson’s How I Discovered Poetry (thank you Richard Flynn).
Only once previously in the ten year history of the award have the judges decided not to name a winner: in 2010, when the judges, Michael Heyman, Angela Sorby, and Joseph Thomas, worried that the “field of children’s poetry [was] shrinking with the national economy” (354). They also noted that the submissions that year seemed to “hearken back . . . to older commercial traditions,” especially “nature-study.” Our first response to this year’s crop of books was that they were “for the birds.” Like the female eagle in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fouls who chose not to choose among the unsuitable suitors with whom she was presented, we chose not to award the prize and to wait instead for next year’s flock to arrive:
A yeer is not so longe to endure, And ech of yow peyne him, in his degree, For to do wel; for, God wot, quit is she Fro yow this yeer; what after so befalle, This entremes is dressed for you alle.
And so, while we liked the thoughtful head tilt and playful hop, hop of this book (Girls...