National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Gerald Stern, Winner of the 1998 POETRY AWARD
for This Time: New and Selected Poems

I'm speechless, as always. We poets— I was going to write an acceptance speech on the back of my menu, but nobody at my table had a pencil, so I'll have to wing it. We poets have an advantage over the poor prose writers. We can give you a taste of our poetry in a few lines, a few words, if necessary, and if it doesn't seem too presumptuous, I would like to recite a very short poem of mine which is the first poem – if I can remember it – from This Time, my selected poems, which is a collection of nine or ten books, starting in the late '60s, 30 years of poetry.

Let me first just start my comments by reciting that poem to you and probably butchering it. I can't remember what I called the poem but it's about the hare and the tortoise,* and it goes something like this, because I published late:

I didn't start taking myself seriously as a poet
until the white began to appear in my cheek.
All before was amusement and affection—
now, like a hare, like a hare, like a hare,
I watch the turtle lift one horrible leg
over the last remaining stile and head
for home, practically roaring with virtue.
Everything, suddenly everything is up there in the mind.
all the beauty of the race gone
and my life merely an allegory.

I want to give thanks and praise to a number of people, as those before me did. To my dear love, Anne Marie Macari, to my dear editor, Carol Houck Smith, who— what was the phrase, something about rubies?— who was sitting beside me all evening, putting her left or right thumb up in the air, I forgot which one, and to my first editor from commercial presses, who generously came over to my table to support me, and who supported me in my first three books, at Houghton Mifflin and Random House, where he used to work, Jonathan Galassi.

I want to pay tribute to the poets who I competed with this time around, all of them good friends of mine, and people whose work I deeply, deeply respect, without question, and not just proforma to say this, each of them worthy of this or any other award. Pete Fairchild, whom I had the joy of discovering for the first time, and whose magnificent poems, extraordinary poems, I had the joy of reading over the last few days, and Alicia Ostriker, whom I have known for dozens of years, and whose work I celebrate, and who I love, and Linda Pastan, a master craftsman, a magnificent poet, and Carl Phillips, whom I've known for a long time, and whose beautiful language, soul, and spirit I celebrate.

I apologize for winning over you. I mean that sincerely. I don't know who else to thank. I feel like my bar mitzvah, and I should thank my dear grandparents. I thank you all.

*Note: Stern is referring to his poem, “The Bite”