2005 National Book Awards Winner

W.S. Merwin

Migration: New and Selected Poems

Copper Canyon Press

Photo credit: Mark Hanauer

Acceptance Speech


Good evening. I’d like to thank, first of all, my fellow judges, John Balaban, Carol Frost, Lawson Fusao Inada and Julie Kane for their passion about the art of poetry, their commitment to the art and their sense equally of integrity and duty and of an openness to the many possibilities as to what an American poetry might be, as we read our way together through months and more months and then some of poetry volumes. On the panel’s behalf, I thank the National Book Foundation for the honor of being able to serve. An honor, but of course, a task as well, a serious one, and one we found variously difficult, exciting and challenging, in large part because of the nature of American poetry itself.

At this point, American poetry has no particular base, gender, no single cast of mind or mode of expression. To define the poetry would be like defining our national identity, absolutely impossible. If anything, it is this organic richness of possibility, the seeming limitlessness of how to make a poem, that can be said to characterize American poetry. Certainly, the five deeply accomplished books of tonight’s finalists speak at once to and from this ever-expanding tradition in the diversity of subject and of strategy for wrestling for meaning and for how to deploy that meaning on the page.

They range from John Ashbery’s highly associative elegies for an innocence that perhaps never existed to Frank Bidart’s chiseled and chilling meditation on the making of art and its seemingly necessary psychic toll on the maker to Brendan Galvin’s celebration and poems by turn mythic, comic and lyrical of an increasingly threatened yet ever resonant natural world to W.S. Merwin’s calibration of intimacy and urgency in poems that argue for a life on earth as visionary quest charged with moral responsibility to the hushed clarity of Vern Rutsala’s poems, patient and careful distillations of a lost life, one of dignity, hope and a rescuing humor in the face of cracked dreams. Congratulations to all five poets for their powerful and memorable art.

The winner of the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry is W.S. Merwin for Migration: New and Selected Poems. [Applause] Mr. Merwin is unable to be here tonight. Accepting, I hope, the award on his behalf is John Burnham Schwartz. Is that you?


Well, I apologize for not being W.S. Merwin. On the plus side, I’m not Sally Field either so we’ve got that going for us. William is my stepfather, I’m proud to say. He unfortunately could not be here but he sent me some words to speak on his behalf from him.

“I would have liked to be able to say thank you in person for the honor of this award and to say here that the honor is enhanced by the company of those poets with whose writing my own has been associated in this year’s choice. The honor, of course, bears with it the luster given it by the poets to whom the award was given in earlier years, many of whom I have read with deepening gratitude all my life.

“After that and for that, there is nothing to say but thank you, inadequate and incomplete as the words always seem to be. I want to thank the editors and Board and staff of Copper Canyon Publishers for their years of making books of mine available, keeping them in print, and for the faith and effort they have put into this book in particular.”

Thank you. [Applause]

From the Publisher

In his career, Merwin has migrated within the universe of poetry, moving from solidly constructed, tactile, and dramatic works to airy, abstract, unpunctuated, and contemplative poems, a journey beautifully mapped here in selections from 15 previous collections, capped by a gathering of new poems.

This is the eighth National Book Award nomination for W.S. Merwin, whose career as a poet and translator spans five decades. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for The Carrier of Ladders. Among his other books are The Drunk in the Furnace, The Moving Target, The Lice, Flower & Hand, The Compass Flower, Feathers from the Hill, Opening the Hand, The Rain in the Trees, The Lost Upland, The Folding Cliffs, The River Sound, and The Pupil. He received the 2004 Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award and has also received the Tanning Prize, the Bollingen Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

Judges' Citation

The poems in Migration speak from a life-long belief in the power of words to awaken our drowsy souls and see the world with compassionate interconnection. In moments of self-awakening that might be roused by ambulance sirens from St. Vincent’s Hospital, or the rustle of a weasel in the wall of a French farmhouse, these poems offer us a place in the world where the ordinary becomes extraordinary, where “the pain of learning what is lost/is transformed into light at last.”

Carl Phillips, Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images