National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches
Robert Bly, Winner of the 1968 National Book Award in Poetry
for The Light Around the Body
I am uneasy at a ceremony emphasizing our current high state of culture. Cultural events, traditionally, put writers to sleep, and even the public. But we don’t want to be asleep any more. Something has happened to me lately. Every time I have glanced at a bookcase in the last few weeks, the books on killing of the Indians leap out into my hand. Reading a speech of Andrew Jackson’s on the Indian question the other day -- his Second Annual Message -- I realized he was the Westmoreland of 1830. His speech was like an Administration speech today. It was another speech recommending murder of a race as a prudent policy, requiring stamina. Perhaps this coincidence should not have surprised me, but id did. It turns out we can put down a revolution as well as the Russians in Budapest, we can destroy a town as well as the Germans at Lidice, all with our famous unconcern.
As Americans, we have always wanted the life of feeling without the life of suffering. We long for pure light, constant victory. We have always wanted to avoid suffering, and therefore we are unable to live in the present. But our hopes for a life of pure light are breaking up. So many of the books nominated this year -- Mr. Kozol’s on education in the slums, Mr. Styron’s, Mr. Rexroth’s, Mr. Mumford’s, Miss Levertov’s, Mr. Merwin’s -- tell us from now on we will have to live with grief and defeat.
We have some things to be proud of. No one needs to be ashamed of the acts of civil disobedience committed in the tradition of Thoreau. What Dr. Coffin did was magnificent; the fact that Yale University did not do it is what is sad. What Father Berrigan did was noble; the fact that the Catholic Church did not do it is what is sad. What Mitchell Goodman did here last year was needed and in good taste; the fact that the National Book Committee, in trying to honor those who told the truth last year, should have invited as a speaker Vice President Humphrey, famous for his lies, was sad. Isn’t the next step, now that individual people have committed acts of disobedience, for the institutions to take similar acts? What has the book industry done to end the war? Nothing. What have our universities done to end the war? Nothing. What have our museums, like the Metropolitan, done? Nothing. What has my own publisher, Harper & Row, done to help end the war? Nothing. In an age of gross and savage crimes by legal governments, the institutions will have to learn responsibility, learn to take their part in preserving the nation, and take their risk by committing acts of disobedience. The book companies can find ways to act like Thoreau, whom they publish. A publishing house can take space in the New York Times to announce that it opposes more men being sent to Vietnam, or to announce that it thinks Dr. Spock and Dr. Coffin are right; it can refuse to pay taxes.
These concerns are not unconnected with such a ceremony as this. For if the country is dishonored, where will it draw its honor from to give to its writers? I respect the National Book Awards, and I respect the judges, and I thank them for their generosity. At the same time, I know I am speaking for many, many American poets when I ask this question: Since we are murdering a culture in Vietnam at least as fine as our own, do we have the right to congratulate ourselves on our cultural magnificence? Isn’t that out of place? You have given me an award for a book that has many poems in it against the war. I thank you for the award, and for the $1,000 check, which I am giving to the peace movement, specifically to the organizations for draft resistance. That is an appropriate use of an award for a book of poems mourning the war. Thank you very much.