Thanks to Ezra Pound, the U.S. government has been fearful of poetry awards for more than 40 years. But thanks to a romance between Lyndon Johnson's sister and a fellow student amid the filing cards of the Library of Congress, that is about to change.
Pound was the last American poet to receive an official national prize for his work. After he was awarded the 1948 Bollingen Prize, given by the Library of Congress, for "Pisan Cantos," a controversy erupted over the bestowal of government approval on a man who had been indicted for treason and detained for pro-Italian activities during World War II. Congress soon moved to forbid the library from awarding prizes and the Bollingen was passed on to Yale University.
But this October, the library will reenter the realm of poetry prizes with the first $10,000 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry. The award will be for a new book of poetry, and like the Bollingen will be given every two years.
"My mother loved poetry, and when I realized there was no national poetry prize -- that struck me as not right," Philip Bobbitt said yesterday. "France has a national prize. Britain has a national prize. Even China does."
Such thoughts occurred to Bobbitt soon after his mother died in 1978. While packing some of her possessions at her Austin, Tex., home, he came across a number of small filing cards with neatly typed messages and quotations and snatches of poetry. Intrigued, he went to his father for an explanation.
"They had been married almost 40 years -- my father is still completely besotted with my mother -- so I think this was a very difficult moment for him," said Bobbitt. But despite the pain, his father told him about how he met a certain Rebekah Johnson from Texas. It was the '30s, Rebekah's brother Lyndon was not yet famous, and she and O.P. Bobbitt were students making some extra money by working in the filing department of the Library of Congress.
"His campaign to win her was plotted out, first winning her confidence and becoming friends," said Philip Bobbitt. "While they were supposed to be typing reference cards, in fact they were slipping each other these notes.
"It's a sweet story," said the son. And because he and his father were looking for a way to commemorate Rebekah's life, the sweet story led to a plan that took 12 years to realize. Despite the decades that had passed and the presence of a poet laureate within the halls of the library, there was still resistance to the idea of a national prize -- memories of Pound did not fade quickly. But in 1988, Librarian of Congress James Billington persuaded Congress to rescind its prohibition against prizes and the Bobbitts promised a gift of $8,000 a year for 20 years.
The prize will be selected by a four-member jury, which will be named by the librarian of Congress, the poet laureate and a critic chosen by the Bobbitt family. Initially, Princeton University professor of comparative literature Clarence Brown will fill the critic slot.
"Combined with the poet laureate and the existing program in poetry and literature, this seemed a good way to strengthen that whole area, and call yet further attention to the desirability of giving some recognition to poetry nationwide," said Prosser Gifford, director of scholarly programs at the library.
For Philip Bobbitt, the prize is both a memorial to his mother and to his own love of poetry. A lawyer who teaches at the University of Texas in Austin and Oxford University in England, Bobbitt is a serious reader of poetry, although his tastes differ from those of his mother. "She liked Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash," he said. "She also read Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Keats and the other romantic poets, but I think she especially liked the racy '20s stuff." Bobbitt prefers modernists such as John Berryman and the troublesome Ezra Pound.
Sitting on a bench in Lafayette Square yesterday morning, Bobbitt was a refined and deferential figure in a crisp seersucker suit and suavely fashionable crimson tie. He looks not at all like his famous uncle, and he and other relatives say -- at least at first -- that beyond her height, his mother also bore little resemblance to her politician brother.
For the next several months, Bobbitt is working at the State Department. He prefers not to talk about himself ("I'm not interesting.") or even his mother ("other people would be more interesting to talk to about her"). But when pressed to describe her, he said, "She had a certain formality -- very ladylike -- and a real vitality." He interrupted himself -- that vitality reminded him of Rebekah's brother. "I see a connection there -- a great joy in life. There are all sorts of stories of my mother giving things away. If you said you liked something, she just gave it to you."
Lady Bird Johnson remembers Rebekah Johnson as "a woman of very distinctive style. The house was always full of books. She didn't talk about it much, but I found it very delightful, all the bits of poetry she had sent her husband during their courtship."
Philip Bobbitt would like to believe there will be no new Pound episode, that the new prize comes at a time when poetry and politics can be separated. "I hope we're in a period now, having gone through the '50s, when we can be more discriminating -- 'Yes, we admire you for your art. Your politics we can take or leave.' "
He may be a trifle optimistic on this point, but Bobbitt is given to optimism on the subject of poetry.
"It wouldn't surprise me to see a real rebirth of poetry in this society," he said. "The economy and the sublime vision of poetry are the things the nation is desperately in need of and isn't able to get elsewhere. I think in the future people will be trying to get more out of their own experiences rather than getting more experiences, and the written word has got to play a critical part in that."