18 October 2006
Washington State Book Awards, Seattle
Thank you all for the honor given, through me, to Literature by this award. It makes me happy, of course, because writers live on praise; and because it is regional, and I love the Pacific Northwest. But I feel above all that I’m here as a proxy, a stand-in, for Literature. Literature is too busy to come collect her prize, and she’s too big to get into the building, even this building which was built for her. Literature is huge — they can’t fit her even into the Library of Congress, because she keeps not talking English. She is very big, very polyglot, very old, even older than I am by about 3000 years, and she weighs a lot. When we come to judge civilisations we see how heavy Literature weighs in the balance. Whole peoples are dismissed as ’savage’ or ’primitive’, meaning they didn’t write things down, while others are seen as supreme because they left a literature. Take the Ancient Greeks. If it weren’t for Homer and Sophocles and Thucycides, all we’d know of them is that they were awfully good with marble. We wouldn’t know that they invented tragedy and democracy. We might not even know that democracy had been invented.
There have been governments that celebrated literature, but most governments dislike it, justly suspecting that all their power and glory will soon be forgotten unless some wretched, powerless liberal in the basement is writing it down. Of course they do their best to police the basement, but it’s hard, because Government and Literature, even when they share a palace, exist on different moral planes. Each is the ghost in the other’s bedroom. A government can silence writers easily, yet Literature always escapes its control. Literature cannot control a government; poets, as poets, do not legislate. What they can do is set minds free of the control of any tyrant or demagogue and his lies and disinformation.
The Greek Socrates wrote: “The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.” Evil government relies on deliberate misuse of language. Because literary skill is the rigorous use of language in the pursuit of truth, the habit of literature, of serious reading, is the best defense against believing the half-truths of ideologues and the lies of demagogues.
The poet Shelley wrote: “The imagination is the great instrument of moral good.” Believing that, I see a public library as the toolshed, the warehouse, concert hall, temple, Capitol of imagination — of moral good. So here — right here where we are, right now — is where America stands or falls. Can we still imagine ourselves as free? If not, we have lost our freedom.
Thank you for celebrating, through this honor to my work, the invaluable unruliness of literature, the essential liberty of the imagination.