No poetic justice for the US?

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In the US this year, much angst has been focused on the subject of the Nobel Prize and the disinclination of the Swedish judges to offer the award for literature to an American. But, says critic David Orr, in a piece in tomorrow's New York Times, there's actually an even more surprising snub to consider.

"While American fiction and theater can boast of at least a few Nobel winners (nine, to be precise)," writes Orr, "no American poet has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Not one, in more than 100 years."

Orr deals with the obvious questions. First, what about T. S. Eliot, Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz, all of whom did win the Nobel?

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Answer: Eliot lived most of his adult life in England and was no longer a US citizen when he received the prize in 1948. Brodsky and Milosz, although both US citizens at the time that they won, were both political exiles whose work was rooted in their homelands and not the US.

Next, is the exclusion perhaps justified? According to Orr, no. He cites Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg as worthy contenders over the years.

But perhaps the obvious answer to Orr's concern comes in another statistic he cites toward the end of his piece: "In the 20th century, only five poets from the English-speaking world pleased the Swedish Academy — Kipling, Yeats, Eliot, Walcott and Heaney — while three Swedes won."

Is there really any need to say more?

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