Presenter of the National Book Awards

National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Robert Lowell, Winner of the 1960 POETRY AWARD for Life Studies

Robert Lowell (left) pictured at the 1960 National Book Awards with Richard Ellmann (center) and Philip Roth (right). Photo © National Book Foundation archives.

Last Monday when I was telephoning my editor for a little instruction and coaching for this speech, the secretary seemed reluctant to put my call through. “What Mr. Lowell,” she asked, “what firm does he belong to?” Bruised and blocked, I said, “None. I mean, your firm. I am one of your authors.” Then the telephone operator broke in with, “He says he is one of your orators.” It’s hard for an author to be an orator, and it is hard to find modest, memorable words to thank my judges and sponsors, all these various bookmen and booksellers. I am grateful for my award. I like to think that my book was a reasonable choice among several reasonable choices.

I am afraid that writing verse rather atrophies one’s faculties for communication. Our modern American poetry has a snarl on its hands. Something earth-shaking was started about fifty years ago by the generation of Eliot, Frost and William Carlos Williams. We have had a run of poetry as inspired, and perhaps as important, and sadly brief as that of Baudelaire and his successors, or that of the dying Roman Republic and early Empire. Two poetries are now competing, a cooked and a raw. The cooked, marvelously expert, often seems laboriously concocted to be tasted and digested by a graduate seminar. The raw, huge blood-dripping gobbets of unseasoned experience are dished up for midnight listeners. There is a poetry that can only be studied, and a poetry that can only be declaimed, a poetry of pedantry, and a poetry of scandal. I exaggerate, of course. Randall Jarrell has said that the modern world has destroyed the intelligent poet’s audience and given him students. James Baldwin has said that many of the beat writers are as inarticulate as our statesmen.

Writing is neither transport nor a technique. My own owes everything to a few of our poets who have tried to write directly about what mattered to them, and yet to keep faith with their calling’s tricky, specialized, unpopular possibilities for good workmanship. When I finished Life Studies, I was left hanging on a question mark. I am still hanging there. I don’t know whether it is a death-rope or a life-line.