Presenter of the National Book Awards

National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Richard Wilbur, Winner of the 1957 POETRY AWARD for THINGS OF THIS WORLD

When a poet is being a poet— that is, when he is writing or thinking about writing— he cannot be concerned with anything but the making of a poem. If the poem is to turn out well, the poet cannot have thought of whether it will be saleable, or of what its effect on the world should be; he cannot think of whether it will bring him honor, or advance a cause, or comfort someone in sorrow. All such considerations, whether silly or generous, would be merely intrusive; for, psychologically speaking, the end of writing is the poem itself. As Robert Frost put it, "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows."

A woman with child can afford to dream of its future, because the child is already formed, and nature may be trusted to bring it into the world. A poem is also a natural thing, but what nature uses to bring a poem into the world is the entire attention of a poet. The poet can dream of nothing beyond the poem itself, the object, the thing he is making. This fact has always troubled the orthodox religious poet; this is why Herbert apologized to God for addressing Him in rhyme, and this is why Hopkins once burned his poems. A poem cannot be a prayer, because it is too much of an end in itself.

There are many callings in which the need for an exclusive concern for the thing itself is obvious. If a shoemaker were making me a pair of shoes, I would not want him to think as he worked of his social role or of his reputation; I'd want him to stick to his task. If I ever had to go under the surgeons' knife, I would want the surgeon to think only of surgery. And when I’m told Madame Curie discovered radium for the sake of humanity, I refuse to believe it: she had enough to think about without thinking about humanity. To quote Robert Frost again, “You do more good by doing well than by doing good.”

Like the surgeon or the shoemaker, the poet must focus on the thing itself; and yet in his case there is some public reluctance to see the necessity. Anyone who has participated in public symposia on poetry will know with what curious resentment the psychology of the poetic act is regarded. People seem to want the poem to be more transitive in intention than it is; they would like it to be a direct communication. They don’t want the minutes of a meditation; they want oratory. They don’t want the love-poem; they want love-making itself. In a society where poetry is little used or understood, this is an understandable and human reaction, but unfortunately it amounts to a repudiation of the art.

Then again, this is the age of the ball-point pen and the plastic toy, of the quick sale and the early replacement; the age of the degradation of the thing. In such a time, it may be hard for some to conceive that any product should be made not to sell, not to please, but for the sake of its own perfection. The poet, in such a time, may well seem guilty of what the Marxists call “commodity fetichism.”

And yet, of course, poetry is a deeply social thing— radically and incorrigibly social. It is only the obliquity, the indirectness of its sociality that make it seem otherwise. It is true that the poet does not directly address his neighbors; but he does address a great congress of persons who dwell at the back of his mind, a congress of all those who have taught him and whom he has admired; that constitute his ideal audience and his better self. To this congress the poet speaks not of peculiar and personal things, but of what in himself is most common, most anonymous, most fundamental, most true of all men. And he speaks not in private grunts and mutterings but in the public language of the dictionary, of literary tradition, and of the street. Writing poetry is talking to oneself; yet it is a mode of talking to oneself in which the self disappears; and the product is something that, though it may not be for everybody, is about everybody.

Writing poetry, then, is an unsocial way of manufacturing a thoroughly social product. Because he must shield his poetry in its creation, the poet, more than other writers, will write without recognition. And because his product is not in great demand, he is likely to look on honors and distinctions with the feigned indifference of the wallflower. Yet of course he is pleased when recognition comes; for what better proof is there that for some people poetry is still a useful and necessary thing— like a shoe.

I am grateful for this award; and that it comes from the book industry makes it all the pleasanter to receive.