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This review is taken from PN Review 120, Volume 24 Number 4, March - April 1998.

PRIZE DAY JOHN BALABAN, Locusts at the Edge of Summer (Copper Canyon Press)
FRANK BIDART, Desire (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
SARAH LINDSAY, Primate Behavior (Grove Press Poetry Series)
WILLIAM MEREDITH, Effort at Speech (TriQuarterly Books)
MARILYN NELSON, The Fields of Praise (Louisiana State University Press)

Book prizes no longer have the genteel, hieratic quality which once allowed a welldefined literary establishment to arbitrate high- and middle-brow literary standards, guiding the general public to what was acceptable. Nowadays a prizegiving ceremony is liable to be either a literary knife-fight (the Booker) or the scene of commercial desperation as publishers vainly try to interest a dwindling reading public in 'serious' work; a public dwindling precisely because of the mass tendencies of those very publishing conglomerates and abetted by their retail outlets. Authors ritually bemoan both the cult of personality and the commercialism of the award 'process' but they still show up. Very few prizes are turned down even though everyone agrees that they create invidious distinctions, slight emerging talent, are too trendy, not trendy enough, are racist, pander to racial victimisation, etc. etc. etc. Despite or perhaps because the prizes aren't really about the writing itself, prize nominees are still a reliable indicator of the state of play in contemporary literature; you just have to ignore all the persiflage and remember the books. So it proved with the poetry nominations for this year's National Book Awards, one of the big three of American book prizes. The other two are the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner and the NBAs exist uneasily between the former's brand-name stature and the latter's patina of avant-garde internationalism.

Superficially, this year's poetry nominees confirm a conservative's nightmare of politically correct judges apportioning a multi-cultural slate balanced by identity politics: William Meredith, ...

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