It's a great pleasure to receive his medal from the fine poet Mark Doty. I am tremendously honored by the legacy of writers who have received this award, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Eudora Welty, Studs Terkel, Toni Morrison, writers who broke ground, worked against the grain, made other kinds of writing possible. I thank those who have helped me persevere. My publishers of 40 years, the venerable employee owned by WW Norton, my editor, Jill Bialosky, my literary agent, the great Frances Goldin, and my everywhere-enabling representative Steven Barclay. Above all my sons David, Pablo, and Jacob Conrad, and Michelle Cliff, my companion of 30 years.
In his 1821 essay “The Defense of Poetry,” Shelley claimed that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Piously over-quoted, mostly out of context, this has been taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power in a vague, unthreatening way. In fact, in an earlier political essay, Shelley had written that poets and philosophers are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The philosophers he was talking about were revolutionary-minded Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft. And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him, there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the struggle between revolution and oppression. His west wind was the trumpet of a prophecy driving dead thoughts like withered leaves to quicken a new birth. He did not say poets are the unacknowledged interior decorators of the world.
I am both a poet and one of the everybodies of my country. I live in poetry and daily experience with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion, and social antagonism huddling together on the fault line of an empire. I hope never to idealize poetry. It has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed, necessity, for both Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for Audre Lorde and Aime Cesaire, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. Poetry like silk, or coffee, or oil, or human flesh has had its trade routes, and there are colonized poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not easily traced. Poetry has sometimes been charged with aestheticizing, being complicit in the violent realities of power, of practices like collective punishment, torture, rape, and genocide. The accusation famously invoked in Adorno is “After the Holocaust lyric poetry is impossible,” which Adorno later retracted and which a succession of Jewish poets have in their practice rejected. But if poetry had gone mute after every genocide in history, there would be little poetry left in the world. If to aestheticize is to glide across brutality and cruelty, treat them merely as opportunities for the artist rather than structures of power, to be described and dismantled, much hangs on that word “merely.” Opportunism isn’t the same as committed attention. But we can also define the aesthetic not as a privileged and sequestered rendering of human suffering, but as news of an awareness, a resistance which totalizing systems want to quell, art reaching into us for what is still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.
In North America, poetry has been written off on other counts. It is not a mass-market product. It doesn't get sold on airport newsstands or in supermarket aisles. The actual consumption figures for poetry can't be quantified at the checkout counter. It’s too difficult for the average mind. It’s too elite, but the wealthy don’t bid for it at Sotheby's. It is, in short, redundant. This might be called the free market critique of poetry. There's actually an odd correlation between these ideas. Poetry is either inadequate, even immoral in the face of human suffering, or it's unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet, in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together and more. Because when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder, we can be to an almost physical degree touched and moved. The imagination’s roads open again, giving the lie to that slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum. There is no alternative. Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness. What's pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the images? Is it literalism, fundamentalism, professionalism -- a stunted language? Or is the great muscle of metaphor drawing strength from resemblance in difference. Poetry has the capacity in its own ways and by its own means to remind us of something we are forbidden to see, a forgotten future, a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, torture and bribes, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom. That word now held in house arrest by the rhetoric of the free market. This ongoing future written-off over and over is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented through collective action, through many kinds of art. And there's always that in poetry, which will not be grasped, which cannot be described, which survives our ardent attention, our critical theories, our classrooms, our late-night arguments. There's always (I'm quoting the poet-translator Americo Ferrari) an unspeakable where perhaps the nucleus of the living relation between the poem and the world resides.
Thank you all very much.