National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

James Merrill, Winner of the 1967 National Book Award in Poetry
for Nights and Days

I feel quite blissfully innocent as to what – apart from accepting the award, which I now promptly do, and with delight – is further expected of me at this moment. My publisher and friend, Harry Ford, who so far as I know has never lied to me in either capacity, telephoned Athens nine days ago with the news. It was nearly midnight there. Between the bottle I was finishing when the phone rang and the one I opened after hanging up, a nagging detail intruded. Somehow it wasn’t enough merely to accept; I should have to say so, at length, before a large audience. Now, one reason I stay in Greece months at a time is that, discounting the occasional gossip with American friends, the occasional reassuring letter home, and the English one speaks to those whose mother tongue it is not, my main contact with our language is through reading, and writing poems. It is a curious, possibly a dangerous, luxury, but it has borne fruit of a sort. The Greek I mostly speak, if I speak at all, is at once fluent to the ear and infinitely primitive: no question, even in my own mind, of overtone, allusion, irony, word play. Only the happiest accident allows me to say anything I don’t mean, and I can’t begin to tell you how refreshing that is. Of course I haven’t reached the same level in English, and certainly not for the purposes of any public intercourse with the mother tongue, but I’d like to think that I was getting there slowly. Be that as it may, the phone rang and here I am – as I said, meaning it, delighted.

I’m delighted especially to have been chosen from among such distinguished company as the other nominees. Mr. Ashbery, Miss Howes, Miss Rich and Mr. Smith are poets whose work I have known and treasured for years. Any one of them would have done particular honor to this Award. Miss Moore is another matter. Not even in Greek could I find words to accept a prize won in competition with her, if it were not plain as day her magical supremacy has, this one time, simply been taken for granted by absolutely everybody involved, including all of us here this afternoon. I am sorry that, under the circumstances, I cannot very well praise the excellent taste of Mr. Auden, Mr. Nemerov, and Mr. Dickey. The most I can say is that I would be hard put to name three other poets whose critical intelligence I have admired more on previous occasions. Their faith in my work comes as a most pleasurable shock. Of the three, I believe only Mr. Dickey has written anything about me – a stern and tonic paragraph still vivid after seven years. It did me a world of good.

In closing I want to thank them, the judges, for the distinction they have conferred; the sponsors of the award for their generosity; my publishers and Mr. Ford in particular for their constant faith; friends I shan’t begin to name for their encouragement; and all of you for what looks remarkably like patience and good will.