Frank Lebowitz (host): To present this year’s medal for distinguished contribution to American letters is Mark Doty. Mark Doty is the author of seven books of poetry and three memoirs, including My Alexandria, which was a National Book Award finalist in 1993, and won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and Britain’s T.S. Eliot prize. He has also published Heaven’s Coast, a memoir, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand award for First Nonfiction, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ingram Merrill, Rockefeller, Whiting, and Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Foundation, as well as from the National Endowment for the Arts. It gives me great pleasure to welcome Mark Doty.
Mark Doty (introducing Adrienne Rich): I am now so nervous about my timing. Recently, I listened to a prominent literary critic speaking to a group of young poets, many of them my students in a graduate writing program. He told them that if they didn’t like the way things were being run in this country, the thing for them to do was to devote some time each week to organizing voters and advocating social change but to be sure to keep their political concerns out of their work. As it would do, and I quote, terrible damage to their poetry as it did to the poets of the 1970’s, end quote.
My first reaction was to think that my students should be so lucky for their work to be informed by such a clear, compassionate purpose. I was taken aback by the critic’s absolute certainty, his lack of a more nuanced or complex position, and then I thought, well, critics have probably been giving precisely that advice to poets since the beginning of literary time. And poets have been ignoring them and continuing to allow what ever was central to them to shape their poems.
Adrienne Rich has been brilliantly and challengingly pursuing her passions for some five decades now. And if my students seek an example of what happens when a poet follows what matters most to her, they need look no further. Her lived commitment to questioning and revealing the structures of power and how we live within them turns out to be the deep rock shelf under her work, as Rich put once in a great poem called “Transcendental Etude.” That rock shelf is the ground upon which she has founded a sustaining poetic, a life’s work but also, the ground upon which to build her profoundly generous gift to others, a deep public valuing of the common life. Walt Whitman wrote in the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass that the proof of a poet was that he’d be absorbed into the affections of his country as firmly as he has absorbed it. A year later, after he had sold maybe two dozen copies of his book, he revised that sentence. He said, “The proof of a poet must be sternly deferred until he has been absorbed into the affections of his country.” Adrienne Rich’s volumes of poems and collections of essays I hardly need tell you have been showered by every award available to an American writer. Including the Pulitzer Prize, and that most lustrous of prizes, the National Book Award. This evening she receives the medal for distinguished contribution to American letters from the National Book Foundation. She joins Gwendolyn Brooks as the only poet ever to be so honored. Her poems are foundational texts of our time, and in the future when readers want to understand the great reconsideration of gender and power that reshaped American life in our moment, it is to Rich’s poems that they will turn. Now, I suppose this means that she has been absorbed in the way Whitman meant, but in truth that has never been her goal. She has remained a gadfly. A vigilant witness somehow both of the center and the margins of her age. When the Clinton White House invited her to come to Washington to accept a National Medal of Arts, she declined to accept an award from an administration she saw as abusing its powers. I don’t think I need to tell you that the current administration has not yet invited her to the White House. Her restless empathy for those not in positions of power, women, the poor, laborers, queer women and men, the immigrant, is the ethical basis of her art. And if the critic in his position of aesthetic purity believes that poems suffer from it then perhaps we have labored under a hobblingly narrow definition of poetry, a fiction of a realm in which words in their harmonies and shadings operate and are removed from the world in some sacred grove. That idyllic glen, if it ever existed, was entered by human traffic long ago. And where people live inequity resides. Rich has spent her entire career gazing into that difficult truth, into the well of the suffering other. Here then is an uncompromisingly moral poetry, it places the lives of others first; above beauty, above the old harmonies, above the desire for shapely resolution. In Adrienne Rich’s strong hands, the poem is an instrument for change, if we could see into the structures of power and take on the work of making a dream, the dream of a common language an actuality. As Whitman did, she calls us toward the country we could be, though she insists that we also acknowledge the country we are. There is a beautiful essay of Rilke’s called “The Vocation of the Poet” and in it, the German poet describes a journey to Egypt some time near the beginning of the 20th-century and how he saw there on the Nile an old-style boat rowed by many rowers. At its front sat a man with a drum facing the oarsmen, setting their pace. But in front of him sat someone else, a singer, whose job it was to face in the direction the boat was heading singing into the future. That is what Adrienne Rich has been doing over the long brave haul of a remarkable career. And through that singing she has helped us to see where we are and where we are heading. Her words given and given again have helped to make that future what it will be. She has lent a voice to what our best cells might make. Like Whitman, Rich has created her audience. Like her predecessor Muriel Rukeyser, she has spoken into a silence and readers have risen to her words awakened and changed. Please join me in saluting an essential American writer.
It’s a great pleasure to receive his medal from the fine poet Mark Doty. I am tremendously honored by the legacy of writers who have received this award, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Eudora Welty, Studs Terkel, Toni Morrison, writers who broke ground, worked against the grain, made other kinds of writing possible. I thank those who have helped me persevere. My publishers of 40 years, the venerable employee owned by WW Norton, my editor, Jill Bialosky, my literary agent, the great Frances Goldin, and my everywhere-enabling representative Steven Barclay. Above all my sons David, Pablo, and Jacob Conrad, and Michelle Cliff, my companion of 30 years.
In his 1821 essay “The Defense of Poetry,” Shelley claimed that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Piously over- quoted, mostly out of context, this has been taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power in a vague, unthreatening way. In fact, in an earlier political essay, Shelley had written that poets and philosophers are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The philosophers he was talking about were revolutionary-minded Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft. And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him, there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the struggle between revolution and oppression. His west wind was the trumpet of a prophecy driving dead thoughts like withered leaves to quicken a new birth. He did not say poets are the unacknowledged interior decorators of the world.
I am both a poet and one of the everybodies of my country. I live in poetry and daily experience with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion, and social antagonism huddling together on the fault line of an empire. I hope never to idealize poetry. It has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed, necessity, for both Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for Audre Lorde and Aime Cesaire, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. Poetry like silk, or coffee, or oil, or human flesh has had its trade routes, and there are colonized poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not easily traced. Poetry has sometimes been charged with aestheticizing, being complicit in the violent realities of power, of practices like collective punishment, torture, rape, and genocide. The accusation famously invoked in Adorno is “After the Holocaust lyric poetry is impossible,” which Adorno later retracted and which a succession of Jewish poets have in their practice rejected. But if poetry had gone mute after every genocide in history, there would be little poetry left in the world. If to aestheticize is to glide across brutality and cruelty, treat them merely as opportunities for the artist rather than structures of power, to be described and dismantled, much hangs on that word “merely.” Opportunism isn’t the same as committed attention. But we can also define the aesthetic not as a privileged and sequestered rendering of human suffering, but as news of an awareness, a resistance which totalizing systems want to quell, art reaching into us for what is still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.
In North America, poetry has been written off on other counts. It is not a mass-market product. It doesn’t get sold on airport newsstands or in supermarket aisles. The actual consumption figures for poetry can’t be quantified at the checkout counter. It’s too difficult for the average mind. It’s too elite, but the wealthy don’t bid for it at Sotheby’s. It is, in short, redundant. This might be called the free market critique of poetry. There’s actually an odd correlation between these ideas. Poetry is either inadequate, even immoral in the face of human suffering, or it’s unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet, in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together and more. Because when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder, we can be to an almost physical degree touched and moved. The imagination’s roads open again, giving the lie to that slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum. There is no alternative. Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness. What’s pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the images? Is it literalism, fundamentalism, professionalism — a stunted language? Or is the great muscle of metaphor drawing strength from resemblance in difference. Poetry has the capacity in its own ways and by its own means to remind us of something we are forbidden to see, a forgotten future, a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, torture and bribes, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom. That word now held in house arrest by the rhetoric of the free market. This ongoing future written-off over and over is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented through collective action, through many kinds of art. And there’s always that in poetry, which will not be grasped, which cannot be described, which survives our ardent attention, our critical theories, our classrooms, our late-night arguments. There’s always (I’m quoting the poet-translator Americo Ferrari) an unspeakable where perhaps the nucleus of the living relation between the poem and the world resides.
Thank you all very much.