By YVONNE FRENCH
Poet Alice Fulton, the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry winner for 2002, read on March 19 at the Library from her prize-winning book of poems, "Felt."
In introducing Fulton, Poet Laureate Billy Collins said even the title of the book "has a wonderful sense of doubleness: you can take the high sense or the low sense of the word … the poems are written in a voice that is teasingly shifting, that shuttles back and forth, that is strangely cerebral at one point and then there's an eruption of the personal … there's plenty of ‘good strangeness' in these poems."
"Good Strangeness" is the title of an essay by Fulton, who has written one other essay and four other books of poems. "'Felt' [is] her best book so far," wrote the judges who selected the 2001 book published by W. W. Norton & Company. The prize includes a $10,000 award.
Fulton said the title refers to the fabric, with its tangled fibers, as well as to the sensation of feeling. In reading from the book, she alternated between long and short poems and gave a brief introduction about what was going through her head at the time that she wrote them.
She said the title of one poem, "Maidenhead," refers not only to virginity but to the head, that "inviolable terrain of the mind, the most private place." Her intent in writing it was "to consider emotion, untoward emotions, extreme emotions for which there are no words," and to examine loneliness, privacy, and failure in three lives, including that of Emily Dickinson, who she said was a favorite of hers since high school. She speaks directly to Dickinson in the following stanzas:
… My aunt lived alone, as you do,
and if that sounds presumptuous, I meant it
in the sense that your head is mostly cloistered
though symptoms of your innerness leak out.
You know, the blush of a pink diamond
is caused by structural strain.
But her aloneness was deeper, I think,
than your own. Hers extended miles below
the surface, down, deep down
into pleats where no interfering rays
can reach and thought is not veiled
so much as sealed. A cap of lead.
Fulton said she included gemology terms in her poem because Dickinson often referred to gems in hers.
She dedicated the poem "Close (Joan Mitchell's ‘White Territory')" to "unrecognized artists among us and to the many great artists and writers elsewhere who will never win a prize," adding, "the poem is about proximity and the power to leave a residue behind." She said it sprang from an assignment to write about something in the University of Michigan museum, where she discovered in the museum archives a slide of a big, abstract expressionist painting by Joan Mitchell. She viewed it in storage, very close up. "I was almost in the painting, / a yin-driven, frost-driven thing / of mineral tints … It put me in mind of winter." She continued, "It was a home for those who don't go out / for sports: the closeted, oddball, marginal / artists in the storage of the world's indifference … I could see the artist's hairs / in the pigment–traces of her / head or dog or brush."
In selecting "Felt," the judges wrote that it is "full of animated, charged poems … that strike first with physical, then with intellectual and then emotional wallop."
"If I had autocratic powers and could dispense with the committee [appointed by the Librarian, the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, a publisher named by the Academy of American Poets, and a literary critic nominated by the Bobbitt family], I would have reached out and touched her on the shoulder myself," said Collins.
The jury for the 2002 prize was composed of three poets: David Baker, Eamon Grennan and Heather McHugh, all of whom Collins called "smart and discriminating."
Fulton is currently a professor of English at Cornell University, and in 1990 received the Henry Russel Award in teaching at the University of Michigan.
It was the seventh awarding of the biennial poetry prize, which is privately funded by the family of the late Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt of Austin, Texas, in her memory. She was the sister of President Lyndon B. Johnson and once worked at the Library of Congress, where she met her husband, who with his son, Philip Bobbitt, established the national poetry prize after her death "to draw attention to the use of poetry in the service of human understanding," said Prosser Gifford, director of the Library's Office of Scholarly Programs.
Philip Bobbitt said in introductory remarks that because the prize is in its 14th year, perhaps it should be renamed "the Becky." The prize is given in even-numbered years. Previous winners are James Merrill (1990), Mark Strand (1992), Louise Glück (1992), A.R. Ammons (1994), Kenneth Koch (1996), Frank Bidart (1998), and David Ferry (2000). The Library plans to mount the Bobbitt readings on the Web as a way of providing national access to them. Originally slated for Dec. 5, Fulton's reading was delayed by snow until March 19.
On that day, Bobbitt, a historian, and military historian Sir Michael Howard held a discussion of the complexities of loyalty, war, and the future of market states in a discussion of Bobbitt's book, "The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History."
Yvonne French is senior writer/editor in the Office of the Librarian.