I had decided to pair some pleasant TV with my dinner, and channel-flipping landed me at C-Span’s Book TV. There I received the gift of seeing a replay of the National Book Awards. I was filled with pride and delight that South Carolina poet Nikky Finney won the 2011 Award for Poetry. Even though I have her award-winning book, this awards ceremony was too good to have missed. Her speech, and what host John Lithgow had to say, are things I won't soon forget.
Here are some words from Joy Priest in Kentucky Kernel:
As Nikky Finney began her acceptance speech for “Head Off and Split” — the 2011 winner of the National Book Award for Poetry — on Wednesday evening, one might have mistaken it for a poem.
But it was just Finney, the Provost’s Distinguished Service Chair Professor of English at UK, being who she was and living, “the only life I’ve ever wanted, that of a poet,” she said.
“A fine of $100 and six months of prison will be imposed for teaching a slave to read and write,” Finney began her speech, reading from the 1739 slave codes of South Carolina. She talked about how blacks were forbidden to be literate in her home state and across America for a part of history.
John Lithgow, actor and host for the evening, took the podium over from Finney in front of an audience responding to her acceptance with a standing ovation.
“That was the best acceptance speech for anything I’ve ever heard in my life,” Lithgow said. “That’s also the loudest I’ve ever heard people cheer for a poetry award.”
Indeed. And isn't that marveous?! I hope it's the sign of greater appreciation of poetry. I suspect the enthusiasm, in this case, was for the poet herself, every bit of it richly deserved. Shine on, Nikky Finney.