Poet Mary Jo Bang wins National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry

Poet Mary Jo Bang, professor of English and director of The Writing Program, both in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry.

Bang was recognized for “Elegy,” a book of 64 poems that chronicles the year following the death of her son. Published in October 2007 by Graywolf Press, “Elegy” is her fifth book of verse.

The National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced March 6 at a ceremony in New York City. 

Bang said she was “surprised” to learn that her book had been chosen from among five “very impressive” finalists. “I was touched to be honored by people who read widely and take writing seriously,” she said.

“My family thinks I’m a star. I remind them that if I am, it’s in a very small sky. I mean, it is poetry!” Bang said.

Calling the award a “bittersweet honor,” Bang said that poets write elegies for many reasons. “They distract one from grief for a moment here or there. They are failed attempts to keep the loved one alive a little longer. For me,” she said, “it was especially a way of continuing a conversation that had been going on with my son for 37 years and had been suddenly interrupted. The poems were a way of talking to him.”

The book has been well received. According to Publishers Weekly, “Elegy” is a “powerful fifth collection…. Bang interrogates the elegiac form and demands of it more than it can give, frustrated, over and over again, with memory, which falls pitifully short of life.”

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