National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Randall Jarrell, Winner of the 1961 POETRY AWARD for
THE WOMAN AT THE WASHINGTON ZOO

Sometimes I read, in reviews by men whose sleep I have troubled, that I'm one of those poets who've never learned to write poetry. This is true: I never have learned. Sometimes a poem comes to me -- I do what I can to it when it comes -- and sometimes for years not one comes. During these times the only person who helps much is my wife: she always acts as if I'd written the last poem yesterday and were about to write the next one tomorrow. While I'm writing poems or translating Faust I read what I have out loud, and my wife listens to me. Homer used to be led around by a little boy, who would listen to him: all I can say is, if Homer had ever had my wife listen to his poems, he would never again have been satisfied with that little boy.

It is customary for poets, in conclusion, to recommend poetry to you, and to beg you to read it as much as you ought instead of as little as you do. The poet says this because of the time he lives in -- "a time," writes Douglas Bush, "in which most people assume that, as an eminent social scientist once said to me, 'Poetry is on the way out.'" Now poetry -- if by poetry we mean what Frost and Dostoevsky and Freud and Ingmar Bergman share -- isn't on the way out, unless humanity is on the way out; when poetry "goes out of a place it is not the first to go, nor the second or third to go,/It waits for all the rest to go, it is the last." Poetry doesn't need poets' recommendations. And perhaps it is a mistake to keep telling people that poetry is a good thing after all, one they really ought to like better; tell them that about money, even, and they will finally start thinking that there's something wrong with it. Perhaps instead of recommending poetry as a virtue poets should warn you against it as a vice, an old drug like love or dreams. We say that virtue is its own reward-know it too well ever to need to say so. Let me conclude by saying, about poetry, my favorite sentences about vice. They come out of Crime and Punishment. The murderer Raskolnikov is shocked at Svidrigaylov's saying that he has come to St. Petersburg "mainly for the sake of the women." Raskolnikov twice expresses his disgust at Svidrigaylov's love of "vice." Finally Svidrigaylov says with candid good-humor: "It seems to me that you have vice on the brain.... Well, what about it? Let's say it is vice. There is something permanent about this vice; something that is always there in your blood, like a piece of red-hot coal; something that sets it on fire, that you won't perhaps be able to put out for a long time, not even with years. You must agree it's an occupation of a sort."

Poetry, art -- these too are occupations of a sort; and I do not recommend them to you any more then I recommend to you that tonight, you go home to bed, and go to sleep, and dream.