I started a project last year to read all of the Pulitzer Prize Winners in Poetry in order, and to pick up with the National Book Awards when they started in 1950. There were three prizes handed out with the Pulitzers before there was an official prize for poetry, and they went to Love Songs by Sarah Teasdale, which was good but not to my taste, The Old Road to Paradise by Margaret Widdemer, which was very good except for the God on the battlefield war poems in the early going, and Cornhuskers by Carl Sandburg, which I was very mixed on, but the better poems were great.
And then came the first Pulitzer Prize for poetry that was actually called that: Edwin Arlington Robinson’s 1921 omnibus Collected Poems. It contained eight books; six collections and two book length epic poems about the Arthurian Legends. I was not prepared to plow through the whole thing, but since it’s an omnibus edition, I was able to read them one collection or book at a time with other poetry in between to break up the pattern.
I may have discovered Robinson some day, but I was unlikely to have picked this up any time soon without the long term reading project. I have to say that I think he’s great most of the time. I’m not upset that this won the first official Pulitzer. Set the bar high. He won the award two more times, so I will probably end up reading all of his books since there would only be a few left at that point.
He excelled at both sonnets and long blank verse poems, though many of the other poems were good or great. Several times in the longer blank verse poems I started to wonder if I was going to make it through them, then by the end I was blown away. This was true most recently of the title poem in Avon’s Harvest, the final book in the collection.
I was only seriously mixed on one of the eight here, the third book, Captain Craig, though I’m willing to revisit it at some point. The rest were somewhere on the scale between really good and great.
I’ll break down where they fall for me by collection:
The Man Against the Sky - Highly Recommended
The Children of the Night - Canon Worthy
Captain Craig - Recommended/maybe pass
Merlin - Canon Worthy
The Town Down the River - Canon Worthy
Lancelot - Highly Recommended
The Three Taverns - Highly Recommended
Avon’s Harvest - Highly Recommended
If the Pulitzer Prize project only yielded this and The Old Road to Paradise, I think it would have been worth it. Having read a lot of the newer ones, though, I’m very excited for what’s coming.
During a time in which the modernists and other experimental poets were dealing with the changes of modernity in new forms of poetry, Robinson stayed away from experimentation and stuck with formal verse. He’s at his best when in an elevated prophetic or sublime mode, which, fortunately, seems to be his primary approach. I was much less fond of the battle of the sexes poems. The Aruthurian poems were a great take on the mythos, especially the first one, Merlin. Robinson in combination with Robert Frost sold me on longer blank verse poems. I loved the first sections of Paradise Lost for instance, but eventually felt I was going crosseyed as I pushed through to the ending. This has made me want to go back and give it another go at some point. In the shorter term, I’m looking forward to more of Robinson’s work.
Overall collection: Somewhere between Highly Recommended and Canon Worthy.
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