By DONNA URSCHEL
Celebrated poet W.S. Merwin received the 2006 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry and read selections of his work at the Library of Congress on Oct. 31.
The prize, the ninth to be given, was awarded to Merwin for his book “Present Company,” published in 2005 by Copper Canyon. The 2006 Bobbitt Prize was awarded for the most distinguished book of poetry published during 2004 and 2005.
The biennial $10,000 prize recognizes a book of poetry written by an American and published during the preceding two years, or the lifetime achievement of an American poet. The prize is donated by the family of the late Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt of Austin, Texas, in her memory, and is awarded at the Library of Congress.
In “Present Company,” Merwin uses a technique called the “poem of address.” There are poems addressed “To My Teeth,” “To My Soul,” “To the Knife,” “To the Unlikely Event” and many other subjects.
The prize ceremony and poetry reading were held before a capacity crowd at 8 p.m. in the Mumford Room. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington offered opening remarks, referring to Merwin’s poems as “memorable and compelling.” Benefactor Philip Bobbitt, son of Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt, also spoke, explaining the history and significance of the prize.
When Merwin took the podium, he related a number of anecdotes. He mentioned how he wanted to be a poet since the age of 16, and how at the age of 18 he made a trip to Washington, D.C., to hear Ezra Pound. He explained to Pound that he wanted to be a poet, and Pound said, “If you want to be a poet, you have to take it seriously.” For a number of years afterward, Pound sent the young Merwin postcards with words of encouragement.
Merwin also talked about the reasons for writing poetry. “You can’t talk about real grief, real love and real anger. They defy words, and that’s why people turn to poetry.”
Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt was Lyndon B. Johnson’s oldest sister. The president was one of five siblings, with three sisters and one brother. While a graduate student in Washington, D.C., during the 1930s, Rebekah Johnson met college student O.P. Bobbitt when they both worked in the cataloging department of the Library of Congress. After a charming romance amid the filing cards, including bits of poetry exchanged during the courtship, they married and returned to Texas. Sometime after her death in 1978, her husband and son decided to endow a memorial in her honor. The Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry was established in 1990.
William Merwin was born in New York City in 1927 and educated at Princeton University. From 1949 to 1951, he worked as a tutor in France, Majorca and Portugal.
For many years thereafter he made the greater part of his living by translating from French, Spanish, Latin and Portuguese. In 1952, his first book, “A Mask for Janus,” was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. “The Carrier of Ladders” won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize, and “Migration: New and Selected Poems” (2005) won the National Book Award. He also has nearly 20 books of translation, numerous plays and four books of prose. He lives in Hawaii.
From 1999 to 2000, Merwin served at the Library of Congress as Special Bicentennial Consultant in Poetry, along with Rita Dove and Louise Glück. The three poets helped mark the Library’s 200th anniversary in 2000.
Merwin has received the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the PEN Translation Prize and the Wallace Stevens Award, among others. He has held fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation.
The winner of the 2006 Bobbitt National Prize was chosen by jurors Betty Sue Flowers of Austin, Texas, and Sherod Santos of Chicago. Liam Rector also served as a juror until his death in August 2007.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.