National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Marianne Moore, Winner of the 1952 POETRY AWARD
for COLLECTED POEMS, January 29, 1952

President Griswold, Mr. Brown, members of the National Award Committee, and guests:
To be trusted is an ennobling experience, and poetry is a peerless proficiency of the imagination. I prize it, but am myself an observer; I can see no reason for calling my work poetry except that there is no other category in which to put it. Anyone could do what I do, and I am the more grateful that those whose judgment I trust should regard it as poetry.

Someone at a poetry conference at which I was present complained of modern poetry and said he could not read it; he could only read Dante. And R.P. Blackmur said, “But we don’t come in that big size.” A pleasing statement, yet perspective occasionally does come in large sizes. And Wallace Stevens, in his book, The Necessary Angel, puts his finger on this thing poetry, it seems to me, where he refers to “a violence within that protects us from a violence without.” We have it in Chaucer’s heady epitome: “I think I thirst the more the more I drink”—an intensity which finds a way of surpassing intensity—in which “I think” means I know and understatement is emphasis. In poetry, metaphor substitutes compactness for confusion and says the fish moves “on winglike foot.” It also says—and for “it” I had better say Confucius—“If there be a knife of resentment in the heart, the mind will not attain precision.” That is to say, poetry watches life with affection. In poetry the light touch is the strong touch, as when La Fontaine says:

And if I have failed to give you real delight,
My excuse must be that I had hoped I might.

I could cite contemporary counterparts to these instances of what I think of as poetry. The thing certainly has not died with Dante; nor has courtesy died with King Arthur, as is apparent in the chivalry of this audience, listening patiently to me as I speculate on the “secret experimental activities” which are responsible for the art of poetry. “Secret experimental activities” is, I should say, a phrase of Harold Rosenberg’s.

I am much aware of the luster shed by preceding recipients of this award upon those who follow, and thus upon myself. I am more indebted to the judges than I know how to say, for regarding potential achievement in the instance of my work as synonymous with performance. As already implied, tremendous incentive is afforded one in being trusted by those whose judgment one trusts. And we have a very great debt, I feel, to the National Book Award Committee, for its liberality in caring to create in our midst an atmosphere conducive to poetry.