For 58 years, poetry ran like a silver thread through the center of Kingsley and Kate Tufts' love affair.
The accountant married the Hollywood doctor's daughter in 1933, and from the start they shared a passion for verse. They filled their home with Byron, Browning, Wordsworth and Whitman. And Kingsley Tufts wrote couplets of his own--odes to the coyotes that howled in the Hollywood Hills, rhymes for Santa Monica's fishermen and always, always, love poems for Kate.
For all the pleasure they took from poetry, the Tuftses dreamed of giving something back. It was an idea they talked about often: Whoever outlived the other would try to endow an annual prize--enough, they hoped, to put bread on a worthy poet's table for at least a year, to free a working artist to think and write full time.
On Monday, 82-year-old Kate Tufts saw to it that their dream came true. Just 16 months after her husband's death, she awarded $50,000 to a New York-born poet named Susan Mitchell--the first recipient of what is to be the annual Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, one of the world's largest poetry prizes.
No matter, Kate Tufts said, that to create the award she had to sell the house in which she was born, a 14-room Craftsman at the base of the Hollywood Hills. No matter that she now lives in a condominium the size of her former living room. Kingsley Tufts was the love of her life, she said. And this was his fondest wish.
"Poetry is of being. Not sight alone. But seeing," Kate Tufts said at the afternoon award ceremony at the Claremont Graduate School, her soft voice wavering only slightly as she read from one of her husband's poems. "Poetry is this: Not kiss alone. But bliss."
Mitchell, who will only say she is in her 40s, received the Tufts award for her book "Rapture," which was selected from among 545 books or unpublished book-length works by American poets. The author of one other book of poetry, "The Water Inside the Water," Mitchell teaches creative writing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton and is a member of the faculty at Vermont College.
"I am thrilled, very honored and also very moved by the generosity of Kate and Kingsley Tufts and by their vision," Mitchell said, adding that she hoped the award would encourage a wider audience for poetry in general. "It sends out a signal that poetry has value."
The new prize is the second significant poetry award to be established in Southern California in recent years. Since 1989, the Los Angeles-based Lannan Foundation has granted prizes to authors of fiction, nonfiction and poetry--awards that this year will pay 10 chosen writers $40,000 each.
But such largess is not the norm, particularly for poets midway through their careers. Last week, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize--which had been $25,000 since its creation in 1986--tripled its offering, to $75,000. But the Lilly prize traditionally rewards lifetime achievement.
The Tufts award seeks to reward writers who are still building a body of work--who are, perhaps, on the brink of becoming known.
"Poetry does not need money to legitimize it as an art form. But it is nice to have the recognition of one's peers," said Herb Leibowitz, editor and publisher of Parnassus, a semiannual magazine of poetry and criticism, and one of the Tufts award's five judges. "There's something to be said for giving the recipient time off to devote to their great passion."
Rare is the poet who feeds his family with words. Wallace Stevens was a full-time insurance executive, William Carlos Williams a full-time doctor. And Kingsley Tufts, an Indiana farm boy who made California his home, was no different.
Throughout his life, between stints as a certified public accountant and an executive in Los Angeles' shipyards, Tufts wrote short stories and poetry that appeared in the New Yorker, Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post, among other publications. He loved writing, and he considered himself lucky to know a lucrative skill that bought him the time to do it.
"Most poets don't have his advantage of being able to make money," Kate said the other day, holding up a handsome black book with gold lettering--one of several collections of her husband's poetry that he had privately printed. "They can't put out a book like this, so their poetry goes down the drain."
It was 1966 when Kate and Kingsley Tufts hit upon the idea of creating a prize to help save talented poets from such an anonymous fate. Kate's father, a physician, had just died, leaving behind 10 1/2 acres in the Hollywood Hills and a big rambling house. Though Kate and Kingsley loved living in Santa Monica, they saw opportunity in the two-story home where Kate was born.
"My father had paid $11 an acre in 1906. But we knew that place was getting pretty valuable," Kate said, recalling why she and Kingsley were quick to adopt the place. "We felt that was the only way we could make a prize that really could send somebody off, give them time to concentrate."
Located just north of Franklin Avenue near Runyon Canyon Park, the overgrown grounds were home to all sorts of animals, many of which cropped up in Kingsley's straightforward, often rhyme-filled verse. His poem called "Hollywood Coyotes" started this way:
Through purple sage at dusk I hear
Coyotes on the nearby hills
Singing to fire engine sirens
Songs of love and rabbit kills
As inspiring as the vast property often was, as the Tuftses grew older they sometimes found it a strain. From driveway to doorstep, there were 39 steep stone steps to climb. About five years ago, when both Kate and Kingsley stopped driving, they relied exclusively on taxis to connect them with the world.
Sometimes, after carrying a week's worth of groceries up the stairs, Kate recalls they would ask themselves: "How long can we make it here?"
But they hung on, inspired by the knowledge that the longer they waited, the more the property would bring on the auction block. Kingsley continued to write, often in the mornings. Then, at lunch, he would read to Kate his poems about memory, divinity and growing old.
Kate calls his work old-fashioned. But sometimes he tackled distinctly modern themes, as in poems titled "Safe Sex" and "Political Correctness."
On Christmas Day, 1991, Kingsley was sitting in his favorite armchair, smoking a pipe and reading one of his newest poems to some friends. Suddenly, he turned to his wife. "I feel dizzy," Kate remembers him saying as a massive heart attack seized him, knocking the pipe from his hand.
Kate was devastated, although now she sees Kingsley's death as "perfect, elegant--quite in keeping with his life." Almost immediately, she set about creating a lasting legacy to the man she had loved for nearly six decades.
"I knew what I had to do," she said.
At first, she offered the prize to Stanford University, where Kingsley had studied philosophy and economics. But when university officials said they wanted the winner to spend a semester in Palo Alto, Kate balked--she did not want such constraints on the poet's time. When Kate learned of the university's plan to pick judges solely from the Stanford faculty, she decided to take her money elsewhere.
To ensure that the prize was truly national in stature, she wanted five judges from a variety of backgrounds--including one Southern Californian, an editor at a general interest magazine on the East Coast, an academic and an editor of a poetry review.
Through a cousin, she contacted the Claremont Graduate School, which agreed to her terms. And late last year, having sold her house and most everything in it, she made good on her promise, creating a $1.25-million endowment that will fund the award into perpetuity.
Now, Kate Tufts lives in a small condominium crowded with books. In the study is Kingsley's big solid desk, his five books of quotations, his Underwood typewriter.
She has, she admits, just the slightest ulterior motive for the prize. Maybe, she says, it will prompt some interest in her husband's work. Maybe, she hopes, more people will discover some of the lines that continue to touch her so deeply.
"He was a good poet," she said. "He really deserves to be read."
Excerpts from the Winner
Poet Susan Mitchell is the first recipient of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, one of the largest such awards. Here are some excerpts from "Rapture," the prize-winning book:
"The Hotel by the Sea"
In the hotel by the sea a man is playing the piano.
The piano wants to be played
like a pinball machine, it wants the man to lean his weight
against the music until the sound tilts. But the man
wanders inside the piano like someone looking
for an elevator in a drafty building
or like a drunk who can't find
his way in a song he keeps repeating.
"The Child Bride"
I am leaving the hospital, thinking of the woman Poe
almost married, and if he had, there wouldn't be that story
of the child bride, eight years old when Edgar
fell in love with her, same age as Dante's Beatrice.
Paradise is what Dante did with loss. But try
to imagine what it would be like to break
bad news to Poe, stare him straight in the eyes