Literary awards, when you really think about them, are paradoxical things. It is customary for the recipient of an award to say that he or she is grateful for it. At the same time, however, the award itself is an expression of gratitude, a way of recognizing how thankful we are for the work being honored. In a sense, what is being judged in the giving of any award is primarily the judgment of the judges. And when you look at the list of poets who have received the Aiken Taylor Award—from Howard Nemerov, Maxine Kumin, and Gwendolyn Brooks to Richard Wilbur, Wendell Berry, and Louise Glück—you realize that the judgment of these judges has been exacting.
Any writer would be proud to join such an illustrious company, and perhaps it is the feeling of having been admitted into company that really appeals to writers when they desire recognition. Poets often write, or used to, about their longing for the recognition of posterity. But posterity is faceless, an abstraction, compared to the past, which we can know intimately in the persons of the poets we love. Dante fantasized about meeting Homer, Ovid, and Virgil in the afterlife; and Keats mused, “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death.” Tellingly, for both, it was only in the next world that such encounters could take place. Prizes are this world’s substitute or equivalent for that kind of recognition; they are a way of saying to a poet that we believe he would be welcomed by the company of his peers.
No poet working today deserves that welcome more than Christian Wiman—in part because few poets have been so eloquent on the subject of the rareness and loneliness of the poetic vocation. “Poetry arises out of absence, a deep internal sense of wrongness, out of a mind that feels itself to be in some way cracked. An original poem is a descent into and expression of this insufficiency,” Wiman writes in his essay “A Piece of Prose.” Indeed, if poets long for the companionship of the dead, it is because they very often have trouble feeling at home in the company of the living. Today it is unfashionable to insist that being a poet is a kind of fate, and an ambiguous one at that, a fate that involves separation and suffering as well as lucidity and achievement. For a fate is something given, not chosen—as the Romans said long ago, poeta nascitur, non fit: a poet is born, not made. In America today, of course, we tend to take the opposite view: the idea that you have to be born with a gift sounds undemocratic, elitist, contrary to our ideal of openness.