Presenter of the National Book Awards

National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Wallace Stevens, Winner of the 1955 National Book Award in Poetry
for The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens

When a poet comes out of his cavern or wherever it is that he secretes himself, even if it is a law office or a place of business, and suddenly finds himself confronted by a great crowd of people, the last thing in the world that enters his mind is to thank those who are responsible for his being there. And this is particularly true if the crowd has come not so much on his account as on account, say, of a novelist or some other figure, who is, as a rule, better known to it than any poet. And yet the crowd will have come, to some extent on his account, because the poet exercises a power over life, by expressing life, just as the novelist does; and I am by no means sure that the poet does not exercise this power at more levels than the novelist, with more colors, with as much perception and certainly with more music, not merely verbal music, but the rhythms and tones of human feeling.

I think then that the first thing that a poet should do as he comes out of his cavern is to put on the strength of his particular calling as a poet, to address himself to what Rilke called the mighty burden of poetry and to have the courage to say that, in his sense of things, the significance of poetry is second to none. We can never have great poetry unless we believe that poetry serves great ends. We must recognize this from the beginning so that it will affect every thing that we do. Our belief in the greatness of poetry is a vital part of its greatness, an implicit part of the belief of others in its greatness. Now, at seventy-five, as I look back on the little that I have done and as I turn the pages of my own poems gathered together in a single volume, I have no choice except to paraphrase the old verse that says that it is not what I am, but what I aspired to be that comforts me. It is not what I have written but what I should like to have written that constitutes my true poems, the uncollected poems which I have not had the strength to realize.

Humble as my actual contribution to poetry may be and however modest my experience of poetry has been, I have learned through that contribution and by the aid of that experience of the greatness that lay beyond, the power over the mind that lies in the mind itself, the incalculable expanse of the imagination as it reflects itself in us and about us. This is the precious scope which every poet seeks to achieve as best he can.

Awards and honors have nothing to do with this. The role of awards and honors in the life of a poet is simply to bring him back to reality, to remind him, in the midst of all his hopes for poetry, that he lives in the world of Darwin and not in the world of Plato. He does not accept them as a true satisfaction because there is no true satisfaction for the poet but poetry itself. He accepts them as tokens of the community that exists between poetry on the one hand and men and women on the other. He accepts them not for their immediate meaning but as symbols and it is their secondary value that makes him the richer for having received them.

And having said this much, I feel better able to express my obligation to this body and to the judges for the privilege of being here today and for the honor they have done me and to say that I am grateful to them and thank them. And I am grateful to my publisher, Alfred Knopf, and his staff, and thank them for the notably handsome job they made of the Collected Poems.