“The hunger to be heard can be crippling,” Wanda Coleman said. “Tonight, their work has been elevated to its proper place, validated, the burden a bit diminished.”
I had asked Wanda Coleman, the 2012 Shelley Memorial Award winner, what the evening had meant to her – all the words we had heard from the poets honored in the Grand Ballroom of the National Arts Club at the 102nd Annual Awards Ceremony of the Poetry Society of America, on Tuesday, May 8.
From PSA Executive Director Alice Quinn’s opening remarks and welcome through each award recipient’s reading to Frost Medalist Marilyn Nelson’s lecture, the evening was charged with intelligence, warmth, and appreciation, with readings by Wanda Coleman along with this year's Annual Award winners Lily Brown , Jehanne Dubrow, Emily Kendal Frey, Suji Kwock Kim, Lise Goett, Jennifer Maier, Bruce Smith, and Susan Terris. For a complete description of the awards and a list of winners, visit the PSA website here.
Following the Annual Award winners' readings, Marilyn Nelson rose to warm applause to deliver the evening’s Frost Medal lecture. The Frost award was established by the PSA to honor distinguished lifetime achievement in American poetry.
Nelson spoke of individuals who had mentored her, inspired and supported her. She expressed her thanks and recalled the admonition, “Beware lest your reputation exceed your gifts.” She noted that the official language accompanying the Frost award had shifted from service to to achievement in poetry and staked a claim for serving, speaking affectionately of the hundred or so who have spent time writing at her Soul Mountain Retreat.
Where does our poetry point us? Nelson asked. Where do we rediscover our best hope? Where can poetry put a finger in the dike to hold back chaos? She spoke with concern about poetry workshops that tend to ridicule earnestness and value empty cleverness, about the tendency to proceed as if poem and truth are separable. She spoke directly and movingly about the simple pleasure and deep importance of reading, enjoying, and being elevated by poetry. People continue to hunger for poetry, she said, I try to write poems that satisfy that hunger.
She recounted her experience of first hearing James Dickey’s “Sheep Child,” and read from her “13 Year Old American Negro Girl,” and from “Faster Than Light” in which The Poet and The Muse converse:
We’re dying faster than the speed of light,
our fame forgettable. Will our good deeds
vanish like molecules of exhaled breath,
to be recycled by the universe?
Girl, get on back to the raft. When you try to think,
the breeze between your ears nearly blows me away.
The Muse again. So much for my magazine.
As if you ain’t been drifting all this time.
you’d know that what lasts is the hush of space:
the hiss of orbit, and the hum of stars.
If we could launch a space probe, I wondered,
would it take my last name engraved in gold?
My puny thoughts? My hopes for the future?
If I had to remain anonymous,
would I publish? Would I write poems at all?
. . .
Leave immortality to cancer cells:
They don’t know when to stop. Just when they reach
the point of no return, the body dies,
and the cancer is returned to genesis.
Genes are programmed to reproduce and die.
Poetry, to be stuck on a synapse,
lucky to be a line remembered wrong.
Your work, projected into the future,
is pulled back to earth by dark energy,
that glue which binds the cosmos together . . .
From Stamford on, I no longer traveled alone;
my seat mates, a businessman and his cell-phone.
Find the complete text of Marilyn Nelson's Frost lecture here.
Madge McKeithen has written about poems in several essays including those collected in her book, Blue Peninsula (FSG, 2006). She initiated the One Page Poetry Circle at the NYPL and at the Darien Library. Her work has appeared in literary journals, anthologies and newspapers, The New York Times Book Review, and Best American Essays 2011. She teaches nonfiction in the Writing Program at the New School University and writes online at www.madgemckeithen.com.