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Wash U professor Carl Phillips wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Hear him read 'Then the War'

Poet Carl Phillips also teaches at Washington University.
Reston Allen
Poet Carl Phillips also teaches at Washington University.

Washington University professor Carl Phillips has won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his most recent book, “Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007-2020.”

The collection chronicles an era of American culture roiled by crises of politics, identity and the pandemic.

Phillips, 63, becomes the fifth Wash U faculty member to win a Pulitzer Prize. He has taught English at the St. Louis private university since 1993. He is also a four-time finalist for the National Book Award and has received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Jackson Poetry Prize.

Carl Phillips reads "Then the War" on St. Louis on the Air

In the collection’s title poem, Phillips contrasts a blooming life he envisions with a partner with war and the rigid order exerted by “mounted police/parading” across a field. The lovers in the work turn to each other — ”they closed their eyes/if gently, hard to say how gently” — and turn their back on the bigger world: “Then the war was nothing that still bewildered them, if it ever had.”

The image in his mind as he wrote the poem was not a battlefield but the southeast end of Forest Park that houses St. Louis’ Mounted Patrol Unit, a favorite spot of his, he recalled last year onSt. Louis on the Air

Carl Phillips' March 2022 conversation on "St. Louis on the Air"

“I love watching them bring the horses out,” he said. “So that entered here. I hadn't been planning to have ‘war’ in this at all — but having thought about the scene of tenderness and making a home with someone, and then thinking, ‘But it could easily be disrupted.’”

As a Black man living in St. Louis, Phillips said he has wondered about his interactions with police. He’s been pulled over a few times — twice, he said, because the police wanted to make sure the car he was driving was his. “As soon as I gave them my Wash U ID, it was fine,” he said. “They said: ‘Oh, no problem. Sorry to disturb you. We just have to be vigilant.’”

After the deaths of Michael Brown and George Floyd, he finds himself more aware of the need to be defensive — “to not have anything lying around that even looks like it could be problematic.” In the words of the poem, the idyll can so easily be disrupted.

This article includes reporting from Sarah Fenske that was originally published on March 10, 2022.

Brian Heffernan is the digital editor and special projects editor at St. Louis Public Radio.