In this letter from our archive, Mark Strand accepts an invitation to serve as the Walt Whitman Award judge and edit a Carlos Drummond de Andrade poem in the Poetry Pilot, a pamphlet the Academy of American Poets used to send members with poems, news, and updates about the Academy. He also mentions Betty Kray, legendary promoter of poetry and the Academy of American Poets first executive director.
Though Drummond may not be as known by American audiences, he is widely considered the greatest and certainly most-read poet in the history of Brazil. His poem “Canção Amiga” (“Friendly Song”) was once printed on the 50 cruzados bill, and in 2002, in celebration of the centenary of his birth, a statue of the poet was erected on the Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro. Strand became more familiar with Drummond’s work in the mid-1960s, when he visited Brazil as a Fulbright Lecturer. While there, he sometimes visited Elizabeth Bishop, who lived in Brazil for more than a decade and translated Drummond's work, and began gathering information for translating Drummond himself.
“When I went to Brazil in 1965 as a Fulbright Lecturer I had read only a few of Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s poems in translations done either by Elizabeth Bishop or John Nist,” Strand said. “I did not know Portuguese and thought—quite erroneously, it turned out—that I would learn it by doing my own translations. I had no idea how difficult that would be. Relying heavily on my limited knowledge of Spanish, I was eventually able to read it but never able to speak it with anything approaching fluency. My translations had to be checked for accuracy by someone who actually knew the language.”
Despite his initial difficulty with the language, Strand ultimately published multiple translations of Drummond’s work, including Souvenir of the Ancient World (Antaeus, 1976) and Looking for Poetry: Poems by Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Rafael Alberti, with Songs from the Quechua (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002). His translated poems also appeared alongside some Bishop translations in Traveling with the Family: Selected Poems (Random House, 1986).
As judge of the 1984 Walt Whitman Award, Strand picked Eric Pankey’s For the New Year (Atheneum) as the winning manuscript. Just twenty-five at the time, Pankey went on publish several more collections and is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation.
The Academy of American Poets first established the Walt Whitman Award in 1975 to encourage the work of emerging poets and enable the publication of a poet’s first book, and the award continues to be granted to one selected poet each year. To find out more about the Walt Whitman Award and our other prizes, visit the prize page.