Hello and congratulations to the 2021 Whiting Award winners, writers of achievement, originality, promise, and urgency; writers whose voices, imaginations, and sense of conscience make it easier for the rest of us to keep doing the difficult but essential work of feeling, hoping, trusting, remembering, and contributing, each in our own way. Which is to say, your work coaxes something awake in us, and awake is how the world needs us to be. Activated, stirred up, in possession of a potent and deliberate animus: I think that's the state in which this unruly time is best met. I've been trying to think of an alternate narrative with which to describe the moment we've been living now for more than a year because we know the central story; the way, from one day to the next, we found ourselves at the epicenter of a pandemic of such magnitude it outpaced even our experts' most sobering projections. The devastating loss of lives that we endured, the more than 500,000 lives lost to Covid and the inequities that Covid exacerbated, and the ever-increasing number of lives lost to the ravages of hatred, violence, and injustice. All of that experienced while in the strange and isolating holding pattern of quarantine, lockdown, and day-to-day social distancing. A state where time itself seems to be both speeding up and screeching to a halt, all at once. There's more, of course, to the collective story of this ongoing moment. A generation of activists awakened, galvanizing to bring our nation and its institutions into the light of justice, the bald of our national division, the havoc of our hatred, and democracy rallying to write itself like a patient struggling to breathe, to speak, to rise; it rallies, still. There is what we know, what we have struggled to process, and even to affect in the last 12 or more months. But what is the alternate narrative I want to offer to you on this festive occasion, this moment when we promise you that what you have built thus far our of words will last, that it will help us to continue doing the human work of love and hope and struggle?
Early in the pandemic, I received a strange text message from an old friend. We've known each other long enough to trust that lapses of communication don't change the love we feel for one another. It had been a long time since our last interaction, more than a year if I'm remembering correctly, long enough that I no longer had a handy point of reference for her message, which read, "Have you heard from the ancestors lately?" Let me correct myself: I mean, I no longer had a shared point of reference for her message, but her message reached me clearly in the active muddle of my own thoughts, fears, wishes, and my mounting sense of need because I felt lost, helpless, abandoned by the structures and processes that had given me the sense of surety back when the world was operating as it was supposed to. The vocabulary of my friend's question--"Have you heard from the ancestors lately?--reminded me that the psychic or spiritual longing that had begun to stir in me during quarantine, the wish to tap into knowledge--no, not knowledge, but unknowing capable of freeing me from my fear and my fury, that--that wasn't new. In fact, I'd intimated it to her years earlier over lunch in SoHo one afternoon. I told her that I wanted to become one of those people who knows, who hears, who listens to the ancestors. Not metaphorically, but for real. People like the great poet Lucille Clifton and the memoirist and historian Cornelia Bailey. I texted my friend back, and ever since, we've been in a long, logic-transcending conversation about listening, seeing, meditating, and yes, hearing from the ancestors. Which is to say that one alternative version of the story we've been living this past year can be told not in fidelity to the forward movement of time, but rather in acknowledging time's ability to fold in upon itself, so that moments separated from one another by centuries and generations can seem almost, when the conditions are right, to align and to touch. How many are we? Many are we. What have we been led here to learn, to teach? We have been led to learn, to teach. Is life within our grasp? Life within is in our grasp. Have we ever felt death so near as we do this year? Have we ever--near, dear, year upon year.
That's what my ancestors sound like. Their answers to my questions refuse to solve anything, but they dissuade me of the need for quick resolution. They insist that I put myself into proper alignment with eternity, so I can keep taking the small but necessary steps only I can take. Yes, it is hard; yes, I feel haunted, even hunted sometimes, but I must keep at it. Together, they and I and you and everyone else laboring in earnest at being human must cover every inch of distance, though it be endless. This is one version of the work you are being honored for doing.
You are mapping your allotment of eternity. You are laying the infrastructure for some frazzled soul somewhere, ages and ages hence, to pause, to seek, to receive, and to continue on. We recognize at this ceremony your unique capacity to do this work in such a way that it bears fruit in the here and now while also extending roots into the farthest layers of human experience.
The winners of the 2021 Whiting Awards are: Joshua Bennett, Jordan E. Cooper, Steven Dunn, Tope Folarin, Donetta Lavinia Grays, Harwa Helal, Sarah Stewart Johnson, Silvia Khoury, Ladan Osman, and Xandria Phillips. We congratulate you all. Thank you and be well.
Tracy K. Smith received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Life on Mars. She is the author of four books of poems and a memoir, Ordinary Light, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Smith served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States. She is the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University and Chair of Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts. She received a Whiting Award for Poetry in 2005.
Photograph © Rachel Eliza Griffiths