National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

John Berryman, Winner of the 1969 National Book Award in Poetry
for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

Thank you very much, sir. And my thanks to the benevolent Committee, as also to my wife and several friends, especially Saul Bellow and Bob Giroux, who sustained and even endured me during the 13-year labor.

I remember that a predecessor of mine in this award, Mr. W.H. Auden, expressed surprise that poetry should figure at all in these awards, where actual money, sales-money, is at stake. I share that surprise, in an increased degree, since the award this time is for that abomination of bookseller and bookreader alike, a long poem—or at any rate the second volume of one. Worse still, the award is made to a person not perfectly respectable, myself, whose first long poem, called Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, was accused by a certain eminent critic of lacking “inherent imaginative grandeur.” Think of that! I wonder I dared ever lift my head and trouble the public again. “You lack inherent imaginative grandeur,” I said severely to myself over my Grape Nuts: “down with you!”

Needless to say, I attended with rigor the next poetry reading given in my vicinity by this eminent critic, wondering if he too (who so glibly accused me) might lack inherent imaginative grandeur. To my astonishment the question never came up. His tidy little poems followed each other tidily into silence. Nothing large or continuous—much less grand—was ever attempted. He had no gall. He couldn’t succeed, on any serious scale, because he couldn’t fail.

Both the writer and the reader of long poems need gall, the outrageous, the intolerable—and they need it again and again. The prospect of ignominious failure must haunt them continually. Whitman, our greatest poet, had all this. Eliot, next, perhaps even greater than Whitman, had it too. Pound makes a marvelous if frail third here. All three dazzlingly original, you notice, and very hostile, both Pound and Eliot, to Whitman. It is no good looking for models. We want anti-models.

I set up the Bradstreet poem as an attack on The Waste Land: personality, and plot—no anthropology, no Tarot pack, no Wagner. I set up The Dream Songs as hostile to every visible tendency in both American and English poetry—in so far as the English have any poetry nowadays. The aim was the same in both poems: the reproduction or invention of the motions of a human personality, free and determined, in one case feminine, in the other masculine. Critics are divided as to the degree of my success in both cases. Long may they rave!