National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches
Roethke, Winner of the 1959 National
Book Award in Poetry
Words for the Wind
Acceptance of the Poetry Award for Roethke by Daniel G. Hoffman, a judge from the 1959 Poetry panel.
Were Theodore Roethke here to accept this honor tonight he might have said, as he did once before when some of the poems in Words for the Wind were anthologized, “These poems – and I say this detachedly and humbly – are not, in any final sense, mine at all: they are a piece of luck (good or bad, as you may choose to judge).” His poems of course have been judged by all his readers, and by the poetry jury whose decision you have just learned. I have been asked to stand as a delegate to you of that jury. I’d like to mention some of the qualities in Mr. Roethke’s verse that led us, after praising several other very fine poetry books published this year, finally to agree on Words for the Wind.
Mr. Roethke has won acclaim as a poet who uses the original resources of his technique to extend the range of experiences, the depth of life, that his poetry can clarify for himself and can communicate to his readers.
It is always good to let a poet be his own mediator, and fortunately I can again quote Mr. Roethke himself. He recently wrote of his work,
“I have tried to transmute and purify my ‘life,’ the sense of being defiled by it, in both small and formal and somewhat blunt poems, and, latterly, in long poems which try in their rhythms to catch the very movement of the mind itself, to trace the spiritual history of a protagonist (not ‘I’ personally), of all haunted and harried men.”
He wrote that he tried in these new poems “to make this series… a true and not arbitrary order which will permit many ranges of feeling, including humor.”
The first page of these collected poems promises, in lines written twenty years ago,
My heart keeps open house
My truths are all foreknown
The deed will speak the truth
In language strict and pure
Mr. Roethke is true to this uncompromising demand upon himself. His early poems dramatized the emergence of the self in a world of growth and menace, the child’s world of his father’s greenhouses. This world he has called “both heaven and hell, a kind of tropics created in the savage climate of Michigan… it was a universe.” Then he sunk the shaft of his self-discovery into what he terms “the muck and welter, the dark, the dreck” of his later poems. Yet, he says, “I count myself among the happy poets.” And it is true that we find exhilaration in Roethke’s work, for he writes,
Being myself, I sing
The soul’s immediate joy.
He sings the joys he has earned through the strictness of truth of his poetic protagonist and the purity of diction in his poetry.
As we can do a poet no greater honor than to read his verses, I will conclude with the final stanza of the title poem from Theodore Roethke’s Words for the Wind. These words celebrate the joy that Roethke sings, being himself:
What time’s my heart? I care.
I cherish what I have
Had no temporal:
I am no longer young
But the winds and waters are;
What falls away will fall;
All things bring me to love.