National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Marilyn Hacker, Winner of the 1975 National Book Award for PRESENTATION PIECE

I am more pleased and honored than I can say to be here this evening, accepting this award.

I’d like to say a word for an oppressed and diffident minority group. I’d like to say something for the poets. Everybody knows we aren’t in it for the money – there is not much money in it for us. The impetus to write poetry is a very personal and peculiar relationship with language, one that isn’t the same for any two poets, I’d surmise. The poem on the page, or its possibilities in the voice, are the poet’s primary rewards. But there is another reward which I don’t think any artist would discount, and that is the response of an audience. We writers do like to be listened to. The traditional twentieth-century idea of the poet is that she or he, especially she, is not heard, and, if heard, or perhaps overheard, will be muttering something incomprehensible or irrelevant to the auditor. It’s a far cry from the days when Lord Byron was Top of the Pops for a homogeneous reading public of a couple of thousand literate Britons –that is, everyone there who could read. But I think things are changing again. Millions of people can and do read. They even read poetry. There are many kinds of poets, speaking in many voices, to a public which is becoming accustomed to hearing different vocabularies, different rhythms of song and speech. They’ve learned them from books. They’ve learned them from films. They’ve learned them from the real Top of the Pops, and folk songs, and blues. They’ve learned them at last and hardest, from listening to the amazing ranges of speech around them. They can accept the poet’s words and matter as a reflection of, and even as a counterpoint to, their own.

Feminist poets are not talking to themselves. They are talking to other women, who are listening. And they are talking to a larger audience of women and men who will admit the importance of the textures, struggles, words, of a woman’s experience, a woman’s relation to language, a woman’s discourse with the world.

Black poets are not talking to themselves. June Jordan wrote, “I expect a distinctively Black poem to speak for me as part of an us.” The range of Black experience and its relationships with language are being explored in vocabularies as divergent as Sonia Sanchez’ and Derek Wollcott’s, from the colloquial to the classical. These poets are speaking to their people and to as many people as are willing to listen. And more people are listening. Students read poetry, feminists and Black activists, and advertising copywriters, die-hard New Yorkers and confirmed Californians, and even some people in between do, surprisingly, read poetry.

Our publishers still tell us ‘poetry doesn’t sell,’ the last, damning word. When things are tight at a trade publisher’s we know what will be the first cut – the poetry list. Such cuts are being made now at several major publishing firms, and of course I, as a poet, am unhappy about it. I wonder if that traditional inaccessibility of poetry isn’t becoming a physical, not an intellectual, problem. Books of poetry, of interest, I persist in thinking, to a surprisingly wide range of readers, are simply not visible where those readers can find them, or priced so those readers can buy them. I’d like to see books of poetry you could afford even if you were young, or old, and poor; on a student’s budget or a bus driver’s or an unsupported mother’s. And I’d like to see those books, cheap and attractively packaged, distributed and displayed where students and mothers and bus drivers could see them. Poets are talking to an audience. I think the audience is responding. I hope circumstances stop conspiring to keep us apart.