By YVONNE FRENCH
A Library love story involving LBJ's sister spawned a poetry prize 10 years ago. This year, that prize, the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt prize, was awarded Oct. 22 to Frank Bidart.
Mr. Bidart won the prize for his book Desire (1997, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). To commemorate the 10th year of the biennial prize, three former winners also read.
Louise Glück, Kenneth Koch and Mark Strand, who won in 1992, 1996 and 1992 respectively (Ms. Glück and Mr. Strand shared the prize), read for 10 minutes each before Mr. Bidart's longer reading. James Merrill, who died three years ago, and A.R. Ammons, who was too ill to make the trip, are the two other past winners.
"This is a distinguished prize awarded to distinguished poets," said Dr. Billington.
Said Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Robert Pinsky: "There is a risk in establishing a poetry prize as a memorial. Prizes can be baloney. A prize is as good as the people who win it. This prize has a wonderful, wonderful record."
The $10,000 privately funded poetry prize is given on behalf of the nation. The prize is donated by the family of the late Mrs. Bobbitt of Austin, Texas, in her memory, and established at the Library of Congress. While she was a graduate student in Washington during the 1930s, Rebekah Johnson met O.P. Bobbitt when they both worked in the cataloging department at the Library. Bobbitt had matriculated to Washington from Texas by train on a ticket purchased from the sale of a cow. They later married and returned to Texas.
Their son, and LBJ's nephew, Philip C. Bobbitt, told the Montpelier Room audience of 250 people:
"I discovered a cache of old index cards apparently used as surreptitious notes passed by my parents to each other under the eyes of a superintendent who supposed perhaps that Mother was typing Dewey decimals. ... On each was typed an excerpt from a poem. The long campaign by which my father moved from conspiratorial co-worker to confidant to suitor was partly played out in the indexing department of the Library. Sometime after my mother's death, my father and I decided to endow a memorial in her honor, and owing to the history I have described, the Library of Congress was suggested as a possible recipient of this memoriam."
Said Dr. Billington: "The family relation to the Library is a great love story and it is too good not to want to savor, commemorate and celebrate." He explained that until the Bobbitt prize, Congress had placed a 40-year ban on Library prizes following controversy over the Library's awarding of the 1948 Bollingen National Prize for Poetry to Ezra Pound for his Pisan Cantos. Following the public outcry at the time of the award to Pound, the Joint Congressional Committee on the Library of Congress in 1949 adopted a policy prohibiting the Library henceforth from granting any more awards or prizes.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the Bobbitt Prize, Mr. Bobbitt unveiled a bronze bust of his mother by sculptor David L. Deming, president of the Cleveland Institute of Art. It will reside at the Library "where the staff can see it," Dr. Billington said.
Also at the reading, a letter was read from Hillary Rodham Clinton, who addressed "each gathered to honor Frank Bidart, who through his work enhances and strengthens the American spirit. ... Poets are the eyes and ears who silence the white noise around us. Their voices are instruments, their souls, libraries."
In introducing Mr. Bidart, Mr. Pinsky compared his poems to opera, saying their "voices speak in extreme passion and their drama characterizes moments of passion." He described Bidart as "a philosophical poet with a fervor about moral categories" and praised the "intellectual seriousness of his work."
Mr. Bidart said, "I am honored to win this award."
He prefaced one of the poems he read as having "eerie aptness" as it is titled "Lady Bird." It ends, "So when we followed that golden couple into the White House/I was aware that people look at/the living, and wish for the dead." Mr. Bidart said he never met Mrs. Johnson but was inspired to write the poem by a PBS program, "A Life: The Story of Lady Bird Johnson," in which the first lady's administrative assistant, Bess Abel, quotes her as saying what became the closing words of Mr. Bidart's poem.
"It seemed to me an amazing thing for her to say," said Mr. Bidart.
He went on to read part three from his long poem "The Second Hour Tonight," based on an essay he had read the first collection of papers published in English on phenomenological psychotherapy. The poem is about Ellen West, who was afflicted with bulimia before it was a classified disease. "I tried to give her a voice in prose. She was not allowed in her own life to have a voice in verse," Mr. Bidart said. After taking dozens of pills she is committed to a sanitarium. The narrative alternates between the dispassionate medical notes of a team of psychiatrists that ultimately acquiesces to her request for discharge and her own painful, obsessive introspection.
"At 12, pancakes became the most terrible thought there is. ... I hate it when they weigh me. ... Trying to stop my hunger with food is like trying to appease thirst with ink," read Mr. Bidart in a high voice, with clenched teeth, one shoulder hunched to his ear. After her discharge, Ellen West, who weighed 92 pounds, had one good meal and then committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills, Mr. Bidart said.
Ms. French is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.