National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Wallace Stevens, Winner of the 1951 National Book Award in Poetry
for The Auroras of Autumn

Not long ago I was listening to a conversation between two men about modern poetry. One said to the other, “Do you really think that any of these publishers enjoy Sir Walter Scott? How many of them when they go home tonight are likely to sit down and read a volume of Scott? All the old Scotch poetry is like the scenery of a play that has come to an end. It has been tucked away and stored away somewhere on the horizon or somewhere just a little below the horizon.”

In short, the world of Sir Walter Scott no longer exists. But comparison of the poetry of today with the poetry of a century or more ago is not a question of comparative goodness. It is like comparing a modern soldier, say, with an ancient one: like comparing Eisenhower with Agamemnon. I have just used the words “modern poetry.” These words are intended to mean nothing more than a poet of the present time. The word “modern,” to whatever it may be attached, as for instance a “modern” shop, usually implies a sense of the present.

However that may be, one of our desires, above everything else, is to be nothing more than poets of our time. I think it may be said that the poet, by means of his own thought and feeling produces what seems to be the poetry of his time, as differentiated from the time of Sir Walter Scott or the poetry of any other time, as distinct as Eisenhower’s soldiery from that of Agamemnon’s. I say it is by his own thought and feeling. The reason for this is that the only place for him is in his own thoughts of other people, of which he becomes consciously aware; his awareness may be limited. But there is about every poet a vast world of other people from whom he derives his responses. What he derives from his generation he returns to his generation as best he can. His poetry is their poetry, reflecting the interaction between the poet and his time, his thoughts and feelings set down for many others in the world to broaden and deepen.

I am happy to receive this afternoon’s award and appreciate the honor that has been done me. I should like to thank the judges for their great generosity, at the same time I should like to thank them for the pleasure they have given me, and for their good will, which is in itself a distinction.