More than 40 years after it was forbidden to award literary prizes, the Library of Congress yesterday named poet James Merrill the first winner of the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry.
Merrill, 64, a leading contemporary American poet, was honored for his 1988 collection, "The Inner Room." Known for his learned, elegant and at times eccentric poetry, Merrill has won the Bollingen and Pulitzer prizes.
The award to Merrill is the first artistic honor given by the Library of Congress since 1948, when the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, which it then administered, was given to Ezra Pound for his "Pisan Cantos." Pound had been indicted on a charge of treason during World War II and at the time of the award was interned at St. Elizabeths Hospital. His selection ignited a controversy in Congress, which passed a resolution prohibiting the library from giving any more honors.
Along with the Bollingen (now administered by Yale University), the library lost awards for chamber music and prints.
Congress did not reverse itself until 1988. This year the Bobbitt family endowed a prize of $10,000 to be given every other year in memory of Rebekah Bobbitt, a sister of Lyndon B. Johnson who loved poetry.
"I think we were pleased that we could choose a poet -- first on our list anyway -- who would himself give honor to the prize," said J.D. McClatchy, a poet and critic who served on the three-person panel that selected Merrill. "That pleased us because a prize like this that is just starting up is given even more importance by the choice of the honoree."
Philip Bobbitt, son of Rebekah Bobbitt, said when the prize was established that he was troubled by the lack of an official national honor for books of poetry. But poet Amy Clampitt, who also served as a judge, said last week that in light of recent controversy over federal aid to the arts, the government imprimatur initially caused her some unease.
"Any poet, any writer of any kind, is very wary these days because you just don't know," she said. The furor over the National Endowment for the Arts, she said, "was very much in my mind. We didn't talk about it, but I'm sure the others were thinking about it too."
McClatchy said that although the prize is designed to honor a book, the jurors felt "you are, in effect, recognizing an entire career."
"More goes on in a Merrill poem than goes on in a poem by almost anyone else," McClatchy said. "It's filled with surprises, and he has over all this time refined his technique to the point where he can say the simplest things -- by that I mean the hardest things to say. He gets to the truth of the heart and deals with themes in this new book of love and death, of loss and recovery, in ways that are consistently ambitious and witty and moving."
Merrill's reputation for eccentricity was enhanced during the many years when he and his companion, David Jackson, toyed with a Ouija board and Merrill transformed the messages into poetry. Merrill described meeting a menagerie of humans and animals, including many lost friends, through the Ouija board and four years ago said the visits to the board would continue "as long as friends keep dying."
AIDS has added to those numbers, and in "The Inner Room" Merrill returns again and again to the pain of death. In one group of pieces that moves from prose to poetry and back, a trip to Japan coincides with the fading of a friend's life back home.
"The feeling behind those pieces, it's all colored by leaving with the knowledge that I was leaving a very dear friend in very fragile health behind," Merrill said in an interview. "By the time I was able to get back and see him, he no longer knew me. Everything I saw, there was a filter of personal grief through it."
But if the disease is new, the subject is not.
"Anyone who lives long enough discovers that -- what's Elizabeth Bishop's line? -- 'The art of losing isn't hard to master,' " he said.