Category Archives: Prizes

Poets and Prizes (and what about this Pulitzer Prize anyway?!)

The Best Poet…?

A while back someone told me that there is old adage among poets and that is “the best poet never wins.”  This was in regard to poetry contests including standup slams, I believe.  It’s a humbling thought for the person who does come in first place and also a conciliation for those who don’t.  I’ve always thought this perspective kind of levels the playing field somehow.

Recently with the woman poet, Tracy K. Smith, winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry it made me think about this saying.  Strangely, however, for me is one of the reasons I started this blog was my puzzlement concerning the author, Harper Lee, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel (!) a To Kill a Mockingbird and how she never published another book since.  So what is this Pulitzer Prize anyway?  Is this similar to winning a writing or poetry contest?  It doesn’t seem so.  Is it for a cumulative body of work?  Not necessarily, as in the situation of writer, Harper Lee.

When the Pulitzer Prize began to be awarded in 1917, it was for several categories of the written word: best American novel, best American drama, best books of biography, history and (since 1921) poetry, all of these works having been published by American authors.  In 1962 the category of nonfiction was added for works that did not fit into the other categories.

The Pulitzer is also awarded to the best work done in several distinct fields by American journalists during each year.  In 1942 a Pulitzer Prize in Photography was added to the journalism awards and this was further subdivided into two different types of photography awards in 1968.  Beginning in 2007 online writing awards in all the journalism categories excluding photography were added.  A prize in music composition was also added in 1943 based on Joseph Pulitzer setting aside money for a music scholarship that later it was decided to make it a prize also.

So how did the Pulitizer Prize begin?  It started when Joseph Pulitizer, an American newspaper owner and philanthropist, bequeathed a fund of money in his will in 1911 for the establishment of the Columbia University School of Journalism.  In the creation of this fund Joseph Pulitzer requested that the annual interest be used for prizes in writing.  Currently winners receive a certificate and $10,000.

Looking at a list early literary winners it turns out that most of the novels and plays sound familiar (i.e., The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton; The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder; “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams, etc.).  A more recent lists of winners includes Beloved by Toni Morrison; A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan; “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson; and “Wit” by Margaret Edson.

Just to keep things a bit interesting prizes aren’t always granted in each category.  In fact, announced just this week for the year 2012, no Pulitzer Prize for the best novel was granted; evidently there was not an agreed upon consensus concerning the novel entries for this award.   This has not happened since 1977 and has caused a bit of a stir in the writing and publishing realm.  Journalist Jimmy So writes about this situation in the Daily Beast:

Thankfully in poetry this year there is Tracy K. Smith — she won for her third book of poem, “Life on Mars.”  Twelve years ago in the year 2000, another Princeton poet/professor C.K. Williams also won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his poetry book “Repair.”