2012 Frost Medalist Marilyn Nelson


My first thought, when got the shocking and delightful news of my receiving the Frost Medal, was to wonder if someone had gotten their Marilyns mixed up. They must mean Marilyn Hacker, I thought: she really deserves it. As the news sank in I thought of other poets equally deserving. Then I thought about how my mother would say this puts me together with Tracy K. Smith, Nikky Finney, Terrance Hayes, Natasha Trethewey, Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Dwayne Betts, and Wanda Coleman as evincing a new force in African American poetry. It was only after I'd read the list of Frost Medalists on the Poetry Society's website that I felt the humbling honor of having being granted such recognition during my lifetime. What a tremendous gift this is. I was prepared to labor alone in relative obscurity all of my life, freezing in a garret, as it were, since my writing room is in the unheated attic, wearing a muffler and fingerless gloves, and living on hope and the assurance that the true test of a poet's work doesn't come until sometime in the future. I am truly honored, and I thank the PSA's Board of Governors for bestowing this honor on me. Yet, for some twenty years, I've kept as a reminder in my planner an apothegm of Amma Theodora, one of the Desert Mothers, who, like the more numerous and more famous Desert Fathers, were ascetic hermits who lived mainly in the desert of Egypt beginning around the third century AD. I came across the Desert Mothers as I was researching my 1994 book, Magnificat. I suppose it's a sour grapes keepsake, but every time I see it, Amma Theodora's saying has reminded me to be humble, and to remember to include it in any acceptance speech I might write if I ever actually won a prize. Amma Theodora said: "Beware, lest your reputation exceed your gifts."

I'd like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the encouragement I've received over the years from loved ones, teachers, and mentors. Thanks to the Ancestors, all of them, especially to the Atwoods and Atwood descendants.  Thanks to my nuclear family. My sister, Jennifer Nelson, and my daughter, Isadora Wilkenfeld, are here this evening, so I can thank them in person. Thanks to the teachers who got me started and pushed and coaxed me along the way. I don't have an MFA; most of my poetry mentors taught me silently, from the pages of their books. But two of my undergraduate professors at the University of California at Davis, John O. Hayden and Michael Hoffman, neither of them poets, read and commented on my earliest efforts and gave me hope-sustaining encouragement. For years after I graduated, John listened patiently and carefully whenever I called in the middle of the night to read him a new poem. I'd like to thank novelist Jack Vernon, who, as a first-year graduate student, offered an unofficial poetry workshop at UC Davis, in which I first started to understand what a poem is, and that there is craft involved in writing poetry.  I'd like to acknowledge my early mentor, the late Etheridge Knight, whose "Free People's Poetry Workshop" in Minneapolis in 1975 taught me how to wrestle with the dragon. His taking us workshop students out to give unannounced readings at random hamburger joints and bars in the Twin Cities taught me how important it is to keep it real. I'd also like to acknowledge Stanley W. Lindberg, the late editor of The Georgia Review, who was another early mentor: his letters offered as much helpful guidance as any poetry workshop I've taken or taught. And I'd like to thank Daniel Hoffman, my professor in grad school at the University of Pennsylvania. I never had a poetry workshop with Dan, but as my poetry god-father, he helped me to get my first book published, and he has for years taught me by example that one may both be a good poet and strive to lead an exemplary life.

At some point in the last decade the designation of the Frost Medal seems to have been changed from "for distinguished lifetime service to American poetry" to "for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry." But of course service to craft and to other poets remains an important aspect of one's achievement. Over the course of the last ten years, I have housed and fed, free of charge, approximately one hundred mostly younger poets, most of them belonging to underserved ethnic groups, in my Connecticut home, which I call Soul Mountain Retreat. My aim was to bestow both writing time and honor. I am pleased to receive the Frost Medal as an acknowledgment of this service to the poetry of the future. Yet I am already rewarded enough, by the pride I derive from the accomplishments of the "Soul Mountaineers" whom I have tried to encourage with generosity similar to that with which I was mentored as a young writer. Kazim Ali, Sherwin Bitsui, Hayan Charara, Chin-In Chen, Santee Frazier, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Allison Hedge Coke, Ann Hostetler, Tyehimba Jess, Dante Micheaux, Michael Montlack, dg okpik, Deema Shehabi, Amy Uyematsu, Orlando White: these are just a few of the poets who have become my extended Soul Mountain family, and I'm sure the good vibes I've received from them in return have played a little invisible part in my receiving this award.

Whether the achievement reached by a poet's body of work really deserves such recognition as I am now receiving depends, to a large extent, on how, what, and whether poems contribute to what we will be twenty or forty or seventy-five years from now. Our achievement can't be determined by book sales or awards; what we achieve now won't be recognized until later. Will people be able to look back and say that our poems helped halt the degradation of the language? Will they say our poems helped undo some of the desecration of ideas, values, and institutions once held universally sacred? Did our poems remind people to value truth, faith, each other, themselves, and the planet?  Did they teach Americans to be wiser stewards? Did they help Americans rediscover America's best hope for itself? These questions suggest my highest ambition: not that I be well-known or my poems remembered, but that one or another of my poems might affect some readers enough to make them want, like "The Little Dutch Boy," to stopper with a finger one of the holes in the dike that holds back chaos.

I am one of the poets who believe poetry can make something happen, that it does matter. Not directly, perhaps, but eventually, slowly: "slant." I have been dismayed, in discussions of poetry by workshop students, to hear them ridicule earnestness and value cleverness, as if we do not live, as Brecht put it, "in the dark ages." I love words and language, and have spent my life struggling to put words together in novel and musical ways, but I cannot judge poetry by looking only at technique, as if a poem's form and its truth were separable. I don't consider myself an activist poet; nevertheless, I strive to craft poems that both praise and condemn, that are not afraid to teach. For many years I have felt peripheral to what I have perceived to be the mainstream of contemporary American poetry, which has adopted such condescension toward much of its potential reading audience that most of my non-poet friends and acquaintances – many of them university  professors, and many of those professors of English– tell me that they don't read it. A turning-point in my life and career happened when, in my twenties, I sent a sheaf of my poems to my great-uncle, Rufus Ballard Atwood, who was for some thirty years the president of one of what are now called "historically black colleges and universities." In a return letter Uncle Rufus thanked me, then he asked, "Why don't poets nowadays write poems that people like me can understand?" I was taken aback. In college I was reading the highly allusive, dense poems praised as important by the academic critics whose interpretation of poetry was made necessary by the difficult poetry of the Eliot and Pound generation. Uncle Rufus's graduate degree was from Iowa, not Harvard or Princeton, and was in agriculture, not philosophy, but when did it become necessary to hold a Ivy League graduate degree in philosophy in order to read, to enjoy, to be elevated by poetry?

Lucky coincidence led my 2002 book, Carver: A Life in Poems, to be marketed as a young adult book instead of a usual poetry book. I have continued to publish for that market because doing so has seemed to me to be a way to rebuild the diminishing readership of American poetry.  The YA designation announces that the poems will be accessible to most readers fourteen or fifteen years old and older.  As someone who first fell in love with poetry as an adolescent, I know how powerful the experience of poetry can be for a young adult reader, and I know that readers who discover poetry as young adults are likely to become lifelong lovers of poetry. The first time I went to Yaddo, some thirty years ago, the other poets in residence at the time entertained each other by commiserating over dinner that no one cares about what we write; that if we wanted to be read, we'd have to be writing country western songs. I had taken the bus to Saratoga Springs and had had several conversations with fellow passengers who confessed that they "used to love poetry." Interestingly, in light of this occasion, most of them said the last poet they really loved was Robert Frost. They quoted lines. A hunger for poetry still exists. I've tried to write poems that satisfy that hunger. I hope that, if a fifteen-year old reader falls in love with, for instance, a heroic crown of Petrarchan sonnets, in ten years that twenty-five-year old reader will still care about formal poetry.  I hope that reader at thirty-five or forty-five will still be a reader of poetry. I remember the sunny summer afternoon in Chicago when I first read James Dickey's poem, "The Sheep Child," in The New Yorker.  I was nineteen or twenty. I felt, as Dickinson put it, "physically as if the top of my head were taken off." My ambition, in publishing poems marketed to young adult readers, has been to offer a cross-over audience of young adult, as well as older adult readers, that intense and life-changing experience.

In some ways, none of us is wholly responsible for his or her poems. They seem to come from elsewhere, perhaps through the intervention of what we call the Muse. Rimbaud wrote, "One should not say I think, but I am thought…I is another. Too bad for the wood that finds itself a violin." I envy writers who know they are violins. I am immensely, deeply grateful to the Poetry Society of America for this validation of my work, and for suggesting that I have, indeed, made a little bit of music.

 
 
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