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Saying No

In response to:

On Being Awarded the Pulitzer Prize from the June 3, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

As a fellow citizen whose views on American foreign policy are, I should guess, pretty much the same as his, as a fellow poet and, let me add, an admirer, and as a one-time member of the Pulitzer Poetry Prize jury, I feel it is my duty to say that, in my opinion, Mr. W.S. Merwin’s public refusal to accept the prize money, as reported in your Review of June 3, was an ill-judged gesture.

To begin with, it implies that the Pulitzer juries are politically official bodies, which they certainly are not. On the contrary, if there were, as, thank God, there is not, a living American poet of major importance who openly supported our intervention in Vietnam or George Wallace, as Yeats came out in favor of Macduffy’s Blueshirts, I think it highly unlikely that he would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Secondly, Mr. Merwin has no right, if he does not wish to receive the money, to dictate to others how it shall be spent. I should have thought the obvious thing for him to do, feeling as he does, was to accept the money and then privately donate it to the causes he has at heart.

Lastly, the impression made on the reader by his gesture is the exact opposite of what, I am certain, he intended: it sounds like a personal publicity stunt. His position, if carried to its logical conclusion, would require him to abstain from any publication in the United States, for every time a magazine publishes a poem of his, or a member of the public buys one of his volumes, a poet receives “public congratulation.”

W.H. Auden

Hinterholz, Austria

W.S Merwin replies:

I’m sorry to learn of Mr. Auden’s admiration for my writing from a statement that calls in question the intelligibility of a piece that I was at pains to make as clear—though as brief—as possible.

I don’t see how my comment on receiving the Pulitzer Prize (June 3 issue) implies that the juries are “politically official bodies.” (The organizers of concerts in Spain are not, I imagine, “politically official bodies” either, most of them, and yet the meaning of Casal’s refusal to play in Spain seems plain to most people.) On the other hand the prize is one of the two or three that receive most attention in this country, and for that reason I was moved, in a way that I am sure is familiar to Mr. Auden, to direct what public attention there might be, in my case, toward what seems to me most important in my present relation to the public of the country in which I was born.

I can’t see what was “ill-judged” in that, nor why it should be any more surprising than my feeling about the war itself. On the contrary, if I had behaved, in the circumstances, as though I thought that the only permissible response to the award was silence, there would have been real grounds for questioning my respect for those connected with the giving of it. Is it, after all, dishonoring the present distinction to use it to register once again an abhorrence at being swept along, as we are, and most of the time anonymously, in this evil?

I thought I had made it clear that what I did was not intended as a comment upon or a prescription for the behavior of anyone connected with the prize. If I did not, I meant to do so by implication, and I mean to do so still more directly now.

Then, I did receive the money. I “dictated” how it was to be spent only to my bank. I imagined, rightly or not, that the purpose for which I did so would be better served by making the act public. I didn’t and I don’t believe that that could be construed—except willfully—as a publicity stunt. If anything of the kind had been my intention, surely I might have gone about things differently.

As for what Mr. Auden terms the “logical conclusion” of my position (i.e., not publishing at all) I’ve thought of that, too, logically or not—haven’t we all? But the logic of many kinds of mourning would be to die. And yet we mourn, at times, and still hope to go on living. I’m sorry if he was troubled by it, but what I did was an act of mourning, and I can’t regret the form of it.

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