National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches
Winner of the 1995
POETRY AWARD for
PASSING THROUGH: THE LATER POEMS
I want to thank the judges of The National Book Award for presenting me with this honor even though I've waited ninety years. I've scribbled down some notes, not really expecting this, but still, who knows?
I want to thank first of all my publisher, W. W. Norton and particularly my editor, my dear editor, Carol Houck Smith who had faith enough in my work and to put it delicately, in my life expectancy, to offer me a three-book contract. I want to thank Chuck Verrill, my literary agent, who encouraged me when I needed encouragement and who -- I have to decipher my little note here in my illegible hand -- and who chided me during the preparation of this book when he suspected that I was happier in my garden than at my desk. It was true. All is forgiven, Chuck.
I want to thank my readers and despite the prevailing impression, there are actually some readers of poetry in this country, and their numbers are increasing every day as far as I can determine in the course of my travels and readings. And especially I want to thank my friends among the poets, with whom I have a long, enriching and sustaining relationship.
And that leads me to say that from one of my mentors, William Blake, I learned in my youth that real poets -- his terminology -- are not engaged in competition. None are greatest in the kingdom of heaven. It is so in poetry, he wrote.
On this occasion, which might seem to offer evidence to the contrary, I want to affirm that pronouncement. When I think of the poets who are close to me in their person or in their art, I summon up an image of solitaries engaged in passionate search for a community.
Although I have been a teacher of poetry, I do not approach it as one of the academic disciplines. As I say in the introduction to Passing Through, in an age defined by its modes of production, where everybody tends to be a specialist of sorts, the artist ideally is that rarity, a whole person making a whole thing.
Poetry, it cannot be denied, requires a mastery of craft, but it is more than a playground for technicians. The craft that I admire most manifests itself not as an aggregate of linguistic or prosodic skills, but as a form of spiritual testimony, the sign of the inviolable self, consolidated against the enemies within and without that would corrupt or destroy human pride and dignity.
I do not think that it is admirable to live by words, for words, in words. In the best poetry of our time, but only the best, one is aware of a moral pressure being exerted on the medium is the very act of creation.
By moral, I mean a testing of existence at its highest pitch. What does it feel like to be totally oneself? An awareness of others beyond the self, and a compassion for them, a concern with values and meanings, rather than with effects, an effort to tap the spontaneity that hides in the depths rather than what forms on the surface, a conviction about one's power to distinguish between right and wrong choices, even symbolic choices.
Lacking this pressure, we are left with nothing but a vacuum occupied by a technique. Thank you.