Michael Palmer Wins Wallace Stevens

Write this. We have burned all their villages

Write this. We have burned all the villages and the people in them

Write this. We have adopted their customs and their manner of dress

Write this. A word may be shaped like a bed, a basket of tears or an X

--Michael Palmer, from "Sun"
As proof that major awards can still offer an occasional pleasant surprise, the Wallace Stevens Award, with a $100,000 prize, is this year going to Michael Palmer.

I met Palmer at Bread Loaf in the summer of 2000. I'd never heard of him before that. Early in the conference, we ended up sitting beside each other during a reading, and I had no idea he was one of the faculty members, because he seemed like a relatively ordinary human being, certainly not a poet, maybe somebody from town who had come to visit. We got to talking, and he asked what I was there for, and I said fiction, and he said, "That's the stuff that goes all the way over to the right margin, isn't it?" I chuckled nervously, not sure if he was serious, and said, "That's about as good a definition as I've come up with."

I don't remember if I learned he was a poet then, but I vividly remember going to his 9am lecture later. It blew the top of my head off. At 9am, there he was giving a challenging and erudite examination of poetics that made reference to (among others) Paul Celan and Velimir Khlebnikov, two writers I, in my provincialism, thought were my own personal discoveries, basically unknown to the world at large (and to the world at large, I suppose they are, but still...) Many other people seemed to be bored and wanting something more amusing and accessible at that time of day, but the lecture so energized me that I could barely think about anything else for the rest of the day.

I've since read a lot of Palmer's work, particularly The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995, which I return to frequently when I need a jolt of imagery, the zing of a perfect phrase -- Palmer is an enigmatic writer, yes, but the effect of his words on me is similar to that I got when I was a kid and discovered REM, bewildered by the apparent lack of sense, bewitched by the effect of the rhythms and words on the part of my brain that responded to something other than sense. (Which is not to say Palmer's writing is senseless; after spending so much time with it, I've found plenty of ideas and implications within it, but that was not what I could access first, and so was not what I responded to.)

Here are some links for anyone who wants to know more:

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