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National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches
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Conrad Aiken

Winner of the 1954 National Book Award in Poetry for
COLLECTED POEMS

Read by Cheryl Crawford

It goes without saying, and unhappily without my being able to say it in person, that I feel that the National Book Award is a very great honor: I must express my regrets with my gratitude, therefore, and along with these my further thanks ot the very kind lady who has volunteered to act – if I may use her own language – as my stand-in. As I am probably the world’s worst speaker, this is something for which we should all be humbly grateful.

But poetry now… For I suppose, in the circumstances, I’m supposed to say something about poetry. I’ve racked my brains about this, for, like most of us, I”ve talked an awful lot about poetry, and an awful lot of nonsense, too, some of it very, very young; and in the ned it seems to me that I can’t do better than exhume for you, or partially exhume, to make it sound a little more grisly, some remarks I made in The Nation about a quarter of a century ago. This was for a series of articles, which the editors had requested of a series of writers, and mine was supposed to be about the future of poetry, or what, in my opinion, I thought the future of poetry ought to be. And looking back at this now, past the depression, and the war, and the cold war, and the recession, I’m really surprised – maybe I should be frightened – to find how little my views have changed.

That a young man of forty, who admitted to being middle-aged, took, on the whole, a pretty rosy view both of American poetry, as it then was (with compliments to Eliot and Stevesn) and as he envisaged its becoming. He quoted with approval a passage from Santayana’s Three Philosophical Poets which I would like to quote, in part, again. “Focus a little experience, give some scope and depth to your feeling, and it grows imaginative; give it more scope and more depth, focus all experience within it, make it a philospher’s vison of the world, and it will grow imaginative in a superlative degree, and be supremely poetical… Poetry, then, is not poetical for being short-winded or incidental, but, on the contrary, for being comprehensive and having range.”

Well, Santayana was talking, of course, about Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe; and hwile I don’t think we can lay claim to any poets even remotely comparable in stature, nevertheless I think it is not inconceivable that we will have such, and when we do, it will be on those qualities of range and comprehensiveness that they will inevitably have to draw. What we have been witnessing during this half century, as I perhaps prematurely pointed out in 1930, is a renewed growth of poetry toward its rightful inheritance of greatness. It has been once more, slowly and somewhat painfully, learning to think. I do not mean by this that it must or can be strictly logical or unambiguously rational: for, as Santayana said, it can only move, and have its being, in the scope an depth of the imaginative; but this imaginative play should rest on, and spring from, a maximum of controlled and controlling awareness, with, I think also, a maximum of freedom from orthodox, or merely inherited, dogma or belief. The system, or lack of system, if that is what it is, will not much matter, so long as it provides immensities of perspective. It must be a promontory from which the poet can view, in a glance, the whole world of his experience. The angle of vision, in the light of our ever-increasing and ever-changing knowledge of physics and psychology, may alter, or even in the item be provably wrong; but altitude and magnitude will remain.

For in fact what has been happening is that poetry is once again staking a claim to its true province, which is nothing less than the kingdom of all knowledge. It shows signs of reconquering those borderlands lost to the drama and the novel, and to philosophy, religion, and science as well. And this should not surprise us, either; for poetry has always kept easily and beautifully abreast with the utmost man can do in extending thehorizon of consciousness, whether outward or inward. It has always been the most flexible, the most comprehensive, the most farseeing, and hence the most ultimately satisfactory and successful, of the modes by which he can accept the new in experience, realize it, and adjust himself to it. Whether it is a change in his conception of the heavens, or of the law of gravity, or of the workings of the human psyche, or, more basically, of the nature and limits of consciousness itself, it has always been in poetry, at last, that man has given his thought its supreme expression – which is to say that most of all in poetry he succeeds in making real for himself, and bringing alive, the profound and all but inexplicable myth of existence and experience. In the end, as in the beginning, is the word.

And therefore, in this sense, poetry must think: at any given moment in time, it must embody, or at any rate by implication refer to, the full consciousness of man. It cannot afford to lag behind the new explorations of knowledge, whether inward or outward: these it is its function to absorb and transmute. What made Elizabethan poetry great, above all, was the fearlessness with which it dived into the problem of consciousness itself: no item of man’s awareness was too trivial to be illuminated, too terrifying to be laid bare. Shakespeare’s poetry is everywhere vascular with this multicellular consciousness of self, thought carried violently into the realm of feeling, and feeling as boldly into the realm of thought. Poetry was then, and is again becoming today, the advance guard in man’s conquest of the knowable: a portrait of homo incipiens: man, with the sweat on his brow, the blood on his hands, the agony in his heart: with his gayeties, his obscenities, his absurdities: his beliefs, and perhaps, his doubts.

A tall order? – I don’t think so. Now, even more than a quarter of a century ago, the signs are abundant that we may be witnessing the first beginnings of one of the most exciting poetic periods in history. The lack is certainly not of poets, nor of young and fine poets, etiher. If the lack is anywhere, it is in that sustaining and affectionately directive guidance which only a rich and deeply grounded criticism can provide, and which, as yet, for the most part, we do not have. In the twenties, we had in this field The New Republic, The Nation, The Freeman, The Dial, The Criterion, The Seven Arts, Hound and Horn – a galaxy quite unmatchable today, and of inestimable value to the poets who were then first trying to step off the ground. We have the quarterlies, of course, with much erudite close-analysis of text and mode, but unfortunately these circulate in a very limited way, do not bring to poetry an audience which is not already engaged, and do not attempt, or pretend, to cover more than a fraction of the ground. Unfortunately too, these admirable journals tend just a little too much to take in each others’ washing, and hang on each others’ lines. No, what we need is something on the order of London’s Times Literary Supplement, something with a large circulation and a consistent and continuing aesthetic policy, a policy which is not subject to the dictates of caprice, on the one hand, nor to htose of mere news-value on the other. The poets are awaiting; but what we need now is the critics, a first rate journal for the critics, preferably a low-cost weekly. I suggest that this is a serious need, and none that might well be recommended for investigation by one of the Foundations.

 

 



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