The Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize for Young Writers, now in its twelfth year, recognizes an outstanding single poem by a high school sophomore or junior. It was an honor to select this year’s winner and finalists from a large and impressive pool of entries. As always, we at the Kenyon Review are grateful to Ms. Grodd for endowing this series, which would not be possible without her generosity. We are also consistently impressed by the drive and creative ambition of all the young poets who submit their work, and we are thrilled to present the following three exceptional poems to our readers.
A poem has two lives: one on the page, and one in the air. With her winning poem “Tlingit Farewell: Glacier Bay, 1966,” Caitlin Chan has proven she knows this well. This is an ambitious piece, adeptly dramatizing a single scene on a single day in order to depict the end of a larger era and the depletion of an ecosystem, a culture. Chan makes strong use of imagery, from the red knots pumping their wings, to the speaker shivering in a deerskin coat, to the “tired cobalt sky.” At the same time, Chan has given us a poem that succeeds out loud, a poem built of somber music. “Tlingit Farewell: Glacier Bay, 1966” pulses forward with measured authority; in phrasings like “I hear the glacier roar and gnash, this beast / who has wrenched us from our lands” we hear a rhythm that echoes the steady rush of the surrounding water. Chan also makes astute use of irony throughout when she writes “In my language / there is no word for good-bye,” at once invoking the sense of ending and a resistance to that ending; the speaker, in observing that there is no way to say good-bye, must nonetheless dwell on the word, on the concept. Here, as when Chan writes, “Who would want to be / forgotten in this place of so many lost?” she shows herself to be a commanding young writer who is unafraid to elevate small details and wrestle with vast concerns.
In addition to the winning poem, two particularly strong pieces deserve recognition as finalists. Gavin Murtha’s “I Spent a Lot of Time in There” stood out for its spare, eerie quality and unabashed moroseness. The “there” of the title refers to a funeral home without actually saying the phrase “funeral home,” a skillful move that kicks off the poem’s simultaneous confrontation with and evasion of the idea of death. The gallows humor of the sign—“Funeral Home— / Pay Before You Stay”—quickly gives way to somber self-reflection, with the speaker comparing his coming-of-age in the funeral home to “a bird / turning from sparrow / into crow. . . .” Crows are familiar metaphorical stand-ins for death, but the injection of the sparrow and this odd metamorphosis makes the comparison new again. With highly controlled language and a voice that is at once critical of the situation at hand and resigned to it, Murtha has given us a rare, fresh take on mortality and growing up.
Emily Zhang’s poem “Story for the Salt” is arresting from the first couplet, which powerfully compares an exhausted woman stooping over a sink to “the arm / of a salt-marsh tree.” Zhang writes with a haunting lilt, unafraid to braid intellectual inquiry with imagination: “all humans can live to be two hundred, // but we choose not to— / that would require sitting in a giant glass bottle, // reeling to a god that takes what a god gets. . . .” This poem is composed of a litany of moments both artfully constructed and emotionally authentic, as when the figure of Ma “dips her hands in the sink and says / the most difficult thing: that these hands // are her hands.” “Story for the Salt” offers the reader a sophisticated engagement with aging, a particularly impressive feat for a writer so young.
Congratulations to the winner and finalists, and many thanks to each of the young writers who shared a poem with us this year.