Bennett Award speech

Bennett Award Acceptance Speech, 1982

The citation in which the judges praise the body of lyric poetry which earned me the honour of the Bennett Award is generous and lyrical itself. And speaking of the judges, I can truly say that never was the old reliable connection between Flower and May more welcome to me—though in fact it was Paula Deitz’s letter which first brought me the good news, so from now on her name too will be connected in my mind with a certain springtime rapture. I was astonished at the unlooked-for honour of being chosen as this year’s winner and abashed, though admittedly not for very long, at the unexpected windfall of the prize money itself.

To put it at its most general, prizes like this are society’s way of ratifying the artistic enterprise. Money changes hands and by this simple, universally interesting transaction, even the most philistine among us can recognize that something important must be afoot. Just as the gods could once gild human beings with a momentary numinous presence, so the publicity attaching to literary awards can highlight the name and face of a poet for the day, and glamour him away into the element of the successful.

Which is why, of course, writers who receive awards and, notoriously, those who do not, harbour something like suspicion in these auspicious and gratifying circumstances. A conviction remains that the solitary encounter with more intractable and unpresentable aspects of ourselves and our world is the truly redemptive activity of the imaginative man or woman, and any writer will be superstitious about releasing himself too headily from those claims. We are reluctant to connive too much with the success story aspect of things.

Yet the slave in the chariot of the triumphant Roman general who kept reminding him that he was a mortal did not, I am sure, completely spoil the general’s ride. To remind myself and you of the responsibilities of the creative life at this very moment when I am sweetened and fortified by one of its most enviable rewards is to re-enact, in the context of this less martial triumph, that ritual which must strike us all as just, pleasing and precautionary.

I thank and congratulate the sponsors of this prize for ratifying in such an open-handed way that covenant we all hope for between artist and audience. I thank the editors and staff of The Hudson Review for their unfailing grace and hospitality since the start of our recent happy connection. And again, I thank the judges.

I have been lucky that my work has been welcomed by many readers and critics and audiences in this country, and have no doubt that my being Irish has been a factor, one way or another, in the relationship. So on this occasion I would remind you that I am only one of many mightily gifted poets now writing in Ireland whose creative effort, north and south, I share and learn from: an effort to live amphibiously between Ireland and elsewhere, between our past and our future, between our common culture and our free-willed time-bound selves. And as lyric poets we continue in the faith that this good adventure will be well served by what the Russian poet called “the steadfastness of speech articulation.”