Poet Carl Phillips, professor of English at Washington University, was honored Monday with a Pulitzer Prize for “a masterful collection that chronicles American culture as the country struggles to make sense of its politics, of life in the wake of a pandemic, and of our place in a changing global community.”
The author of at least 18 books, Phillips, 63, won for “Then the War: and Selected Poems 2007-2020,” published last year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He’s long been admired and won various prizes since he came to St. Louis in 1993.
“At this time in my career it’s maybe especially gratifying because it feels like a signal that my work remains relevant,” Phillips said by email Monday, pointing to the fact that the book contains both new and selected earlier work. “It feels like a confirmation that I have been steadily writing well, continuing to evolve.
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“I like to think the book resonated because I write about what it means to live in a human body at any given moment in time — that’s something that we all are experiencing differently and together.”
The citation for the Pulitzer Prize says that “’Then the War’ is the next step in that meaningful process of self-discovery for both the poet and his reader. The new poems, written in a time of rising racial conflict in the United States, with its attendant violence and uncertainty, find Phillips entering deeper into the landscape he has made his own: a forest of intimacy, queerness, and moral inquiry, where the farther we go, the more difficult it is to remember why or where we started.”
Besides the new and selected poems, the collection also contains a lyric prose memoir, “Among the Trees,” and a chapbook, “Star Map With Action Figures.”
Finalists for the prize were “Blood Snow,” by dg nanouk okpik (Wave Books), and “Still Life,” by the late Jay Hopler (McSweeney’s).
In a Post-Dispatch story in 2004, Phillips, who lives in the Central West End, said that he grew up on Air Force bases. He went to Harvard to be a veterinarian but didn’t like science classes like organic chemistry. He switched to classics and later taught high school Latin.
Phillips didn’t start writing poetry until he was about 30. He relatively quickly received encouragement and a Massachusetts artist fellowship. Soon, he was being mentored by poet Robert Pinsky in the writing program at Boston University. Pinksy also urged Phillips to try teaching in the creative writing program at Washington University.
In 2004, Phillips said: “Poetry is a way to drive a wedge between myself and things I find unbearable. To me, success is nailing down some kind of question. Some poets find success in publications, getting reviews, etc. But for me that’s not the purpose. I write poetry in order to live.”
Among other honors, Phillips received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award in 2002 for “The Tether” and the Jackson Poetry Prize in 2021.
Abram Van Engen, chair of the English Department at Washington University, said: “Carl Phillips is a unique talent with a gift of insight that flashes out from gorgeous melodies across his work. The Pulitzer Prize recognizes this rare and abiding combination of music and wisdom — a mode and a mood, a singular voice, that draws his readers (like me) to each new poem he writes. I’m thrilled for Carl and honored to be his colleague.”
Other poets associated with Washington University have won the Pulitier Prize in their field. Mona Van Duyn won in 1991 and Howard Nemerov in 1978.