W. S. Di Piero wins the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize

April 19, 2012
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For the second year in a row, a former Phoenix Poet has taken home the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize—and, for W. S. Di Piero, the legacy is a long, tall glass of water. He joins the company of twenty-six fellow poets who have soldered the experience of working class lives into indomitable verse, like Philip Levine; those who, like C. K. Williams and Adrienne Rich, have championed social issues and countered injustice; and those, like John Ashbery, who also deal in the criticism of the visual arts.

What makes Di Piero unique, in a body of work conjures the presence of divinity in everyday life, redresses the grievances of a working-class South Philadelphia upbringing, and moves with effortless comfort from plain-style speech to bold translations from Euripides and Giacomo Leopardi, is exactly what doesn’t. He tells the truth, and I think it’s fair to say, it’s not slant. Di Piero questions poets and the quotidian equally, and what he arrives at is often something close to a sense of permission.

As Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine stated the Foundation’s official announcement:

“R. P. Blackmur once said that great poetry ‘adds to the stock of available reality,’ and that’s certainly true of W. S. Di Piero’s work. He wakes up the language, and in doing so wakes up his readers, whose lives are suddenly sharper and larger than they were before. He’s a great poet whose work is just beginning to get the wide audience it deserves.”

In 1992, we published Di Piero’s fifth collection The Restorers, as part of the Phoenix Poets series.  In one of the book’s opening poems, “The Early Part of the Day,” Di Piero evokes the persons who inhabit a morning, with his trademark plain speak:

“They take their daily exercise walking the street/down from the rehab center, past my house,/unrighteous, ignoring the sluice of cars/schoolkids on bikes/buses heaving people/from the cinderblock slum two blocks beyond the center/to gardens, pools, and kitchens one suburb away.”

Born in 1945 in Philadelphia, W. S. Piero has authored ten books of poetry, including, most recently in 2011, Nitro Nights, as well as five essay collections. Professor Emeritus of English at Stanford University, Di Piero writes a regular column on the visual arts for the independent newsweekly the San Diego Reader and contributes regularly to The Threepenny Review. His poetry and translations have been published widely, including in The New Yorker, Poetry, Ploughshares, The American Poetry Review, and Agni, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, the American Scholar, Commonweal, Bookforum, and elsewhere. The recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, he won the California Book Award in Poetry for Chinese Apples: New and Selected Poems in 2007. He lives in San Francisco, California.

The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize is one of the most prestigious awards given to American poets. At $100,000, it is also one of the nation’s largest literary prizes. Established in 1986, the prize is sponsored and administered by the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine.

The prize will be presented to W. S. Di Piero at the Pegasus Awards ceremony, along with the 2012 Emily Dickinson First Book Award, at the Poetry Foundation on Monday, June 11, 2012.

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