National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

W. H. Auden, Winner of the 1956 National Book Award in Poetry

In an award, as in any piece of good fortune, there is an element of luck of which the recipient cannot but be humbly conscious. That your choice for poetry should have fallen upon me is, of course, as gratifying personally as it is surprising, but it is as a representative of all who practice what has become, in the eyes of most, a peculiar craft rather than as a successful candidate that I now speak, and it is for the recognition you have given to our Muse rather than for the honor you have paid one of her servants that I would thank you.

That I should be standing here at all gives the lie to an essay of G.K. Chesterton’s which began, “Now Barabbas was a publisher.” Winners along with me are a writer of fiction and a writer of non-fiction who are, I haven’t the slightest doubt, valuable property – but what, in the name of profit, dear foolish publishers, kind unworldly booksellers, am I doing here, out of whom you know as well as I you will never make enough to pay the wages of one incompetent typist. I can only suppose that something inside you whispers that poetry has some value when common sense and your accountants tell you that it has none, and I shall devote the rest of my remarks to saying why I think you are right.

The poet is perhaps the only kind of person who can truthfully say, and with full knowledge of what he is saying, that he would rather have been born in an earlier age – very much earlier – an age, I’m afraid, in which publishers and booksellers did not yet exist – an age when the statement, “The real man speaks in poetry,” seemed as self-evident as the statement, “Men really speak in prose,” seems today.

The real meant “sacred” or “numinous.” A real person was not a personality but someone playing a sacred role, apart from which he or she might be nobody. A real act was some sacred rite by the re-enactment of which the universe and human life were sustained in being and reborn. The individual, the particular, the novel, the secular was of no account. Particularity existed but only as the particulars of a rite; thus it was important that Hercules should have neither more nor less than twelve labors; and that iambics should be used for curses and satires.

In such an age and culture, the poet has no problem of subject matter – the sacred occasions are public and shared by all – no problems of communication, and, in addition, is a highly honored and rewarded social figure.

The concern of the poet in 1956 A.D. is still the same as it was in 1956 B.C. That is to say, he is not interested in personalities or psychology or progress or news -- the extreme opposite of poetry is the daily newspaper. What moves him to write are his encounters with the sacred or numinous, in nature, in human beings -- nothing else. By the sacred, I do not, of course, mean only the good. "La belle Dame sans Merce" is as sacred as "Beatrice." The sacred can arouse terror and despair as well as awe and wonder or joy and gratitude. Nor is the sacred confined to the romantically mysterious fairy lands forlorn. Indeed every set of verses, whatever their subject, are by their formal nature a hymn to Natural Law and a gesture of astonishment at that greatest of mysteries, the order of the universe. No one and nothing becomes sacred, and hence a poetic subject, by their own efforts; it is rather the sacred that chooses them as agents through which to manifest itself. Vice versa, the poet cannot feel its presence by wishing to. To say that good poetry must be inspired means, not that poems are a sort of automatic writing enticing us to work, but that the stimulus to a good poem is given the poet - he cannot simply think one up.

The essential difficulty for the poet in the present age is not that he has some peculiar experiences which others do not have. No, all of us, readers and nonreaders alike, are in the same boat. We all have experiences of the sacred, but fewer and fewer of them are public, so that the present-day reader of poetry has to translate a poem into his own experiences before he can understand it in a way that readers in earlier times did not.

Before people complain about the obscurity of modern poetry, they should, I think, first ask themselves how many profound experiences they themselves have really shared with another person.
One further point. I am inclined to think that the rhythmical character of poetry is, in a technological civilization, an obstacle. Rhythm involves repetition and today I fear that the notion of repetition is associated in most people’s minds with all that is most boring and lifeless, punching time clocks, road drills, etc.

But enough – I’m getting boring myself. For your award, ladies and gentlemen, my thanks: for the dollars I shall never bring you, my apologies.