The Walt Whitman Award: Looking Back

Different kinds of literary awards and prizes seem to be everywhere these days, but thirty years ago it was a different story. There were only a handful of prestigious awards for poetry back then – namely, the Pulitzer, the Bollingen, the National Book Award, the Yale Younger Poets prize, the Lamont, and the Walt Whitman.

I had the good fortune to receive the Whitman Award in 1980 for the manuscript of my first poetry collection, Work, for the Night Is Coming, which was chosen by Galway Kinnell, and published in the following year by Macmillan. Last week, at the annual conference of Associated Writing Programs  (AWP), I appeared on a panel with other previous Whitman winners who had been invited to reminisce about the award and what receiving it had meant to them.

AWP met in Washington, DC, this year, and it was a big deal.  I have no idea what the total attendance was – somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 or 6,000, maybe – but there were 700 panels and workshops, over 1,300 presenters, close to 500 Bookfair exhibitors, a 330-page catalog, and literally thousands and thousands of books on display.

It was fascinating to stroll through the Bookfair encountering old friends and making new acquaintances. On first arriving I ran into Jim Kates, of Zephyr Press in Brookline, Massachusetts, and subsequently went out to dinner with him and his co-director Leora Zeitlin from Las Cruces, and also visiting New Zealand publisher (Cold Hub Press) and artist Roger Hickin, along with Brent Sverdloff of the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco.

The next day, as I continued to wander through the maze of Bookfair exhibitors, I met up with Poetry Flash editor Joyce Jenkins, who has the memory of an elephant, since she recalled that the two of us had attended the annual Bisbee, Arizona, poetry gathering in 1982. Her editorial colleague from the Bay Area, Sharon Coleman – also a presenter – was helping to mind the booth. 

The two of them gave me a copy of the latest issue of the Flash, now celebrating its fortieth year of publication, and surely one of the most important literary journals in the country. Joyce also presented me with a copy of Reading the Sphere: A Geography of Contemporary American Poetry by her longtime editorial colleague, the poet and critic Richard Silberg.

On the opposite side of the hall I had the pleasure of chatting with Ohio’s Jennifer Groce, founder of Pudding House Publications, which over the years has grown to the dimensions of a publishing conglomerate, and is one of the treasures of the American poetry scene of the last thirty years.

Snow, icy conditions, and cancelled flights throughout the Midwest had prevented several presenters from attending the conference. My old friend Bruce Guernsey had put together a panel discussion honoring the poet John Haines, but Bruce was snowed in and couldn’t get a flight, and as it turned out Haines couldn’t make it, either. 

They were ably represented, nonetheless, by Baron Wormser and Sheryl St. Germain, and by Steven Rogers, who chaired the panel. Emeritus NEA director and poet Dana Gioia gave a most interesting overview of Haines’s life, career, and importance as a poet,  The session concluded with a 12-minute video interview with John Haines, which showed him returning to his old haunts in Alaska.

On Friday evening I attended a joint poetry reading by Claudia Rankine and Charles Wright. On Saturday morning I took in Zephyr Press’s panel – readings and discussion by Bakhyt Kenjeev and Quyang Jianghe. The latter, one of China’s foremost poets, read from his long poem “The Glass Factory,” and was interpreted by his translator, Austin Woerner. Kazakh-born Kenjeev, a top poet from Russia, read a number of poems in Russian and also in English, with commentary by his translator, Jim Kates.

But it was the Friday-morning panel on the Whitman Award that brought me to the conference, so I should tell you a little about it. First of all, bad weather prevented two of the participants – Judy Jordan (1999) and Stephen Yenser (1992) – from attending.  That left four of us to speak – J. Michael Martinez (2009), Nicole Cooley (1995), Eric Pankey (1984), who presided, and myself (1980).

The key phrase for the four of was that the Whitman Award “opened doors.”  That it did. The prize for a first book of poems is given annually by the Academy of American Poets. In addition to the recognition it bestows, the prize distributes copies of the poet’s book to a national audience. Among those attending that morning, representing the Academy, was the president and executive director, Tree Swenson.  

Eric Pankey had explained that the four of us would speak in reverse chronological order, which meant that I was last. When it came my turn, this is approximately what I said:

Remarks to the AWP on the Walt Whitman Award

To begin, I should point out that of the six recipients scheduled to be here this morning, I am by far the oldest. In fact, the time in which I received the Whitman Award was so long ago that there was no e-mail. There was no texting or Twitter, either. 

How, you’re wondering, did we communicate in those days?  Well, we did have the telephone, and for important matters we had telegrams. As a matter of fact, all of this was so long ago that among the first congratulatory telegrams I received, one of them was from Walt Whitman himself.  

I still remember his telegram quite well. “I greet you,” he wrote, “at the beginning of a great career.” That was a good line, and I thought maybe I could use it as a blurb on my book. Unfortunately, at about that time, Fort Sumter was fired upon, and the Civil War began, and Walt and I drifted apart. 

The war held everything up. My book was eventually published a hundred and twenty years later, in 1981, by Macmillan, and while that might seem like a long time, there are those of you who will know that actually it was pretty fast for a New York publisher.

After all those years, then, what has receiving the Whitman Award meant to me?  It certainly opened a lot of doors, and it enabled me to meet a lot of people. But I think I’m proudest of the long history of the award itself.

As you know, the Whitman Award only received its current name in 1975.  Prior to that year, the Academy’s prize for a first book was called the Lamont Poetry Selection. The Lamont started as a first-book prize in 1954, and then that name was appropriated for a second-book award in 1975. In 1995, the Lamont in turn was rechristened the James Laughlin Award.

What all of this name-swapping means is that the Academy’s award for a first book of poems goes all the way back to 1954, some fifty-seven years ago. That’s a very long time, and a lot of excellent poets have been recipients of the Lamont-Whitman. We’re talking Donald Hall, Donald Justice, and dozens more.

So for me, that’s among the Academy’s most admirable achievements – to have awarded a first-book prize for poetry for well over half a century.  Then and now, I’m delighted to have been a small part of that endeavor.

[I went on to read three of my poems that have something to do with snow – “Snow,” “Improvisation,” and an unpublished poem, “Clouds.”]

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