The 2024 Morgenthau Prize

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Passager’s first book prize for a writer 70 or older, with poems by its previous winners Dennis H. Lee and Mark Elber, and judge David Keplinger.
7 minutes


After a long and prestigious career as a writer and a producer of public television series, Henry Morgenthau III began writing poetry in his 90s. He said, “Writing poetry for me is a celebration of the evening of a long life, a coda, a strikingly new expression of my inner being that surprises me as much as those who know me.” After Henry died, his children established a prize in his name for a first book of poetry by a writer 70 or older. The next submission period for the Morgenthau Prize is open now and closes January 15.

Dennis Lee won the first Morgenthau Prize in 2020. Here’s his poem “Grab Ash!”

I can’t remember the stadium steps
at the Hoolings Bay High School football
field. Orange. I believe they were painted
orange. But Simador Kliven-Jay always
seemed to be there at the wrong time to
yell at us (who was he anyway to yell at us?).
Orkin and Mel and Nuzzy and Little-Pete and
Moonshine and I liked to meet under the stadium
seats and talk about women. Nuzzy smoked
unfiltered cigarettes and lit his matches with one hand.
Little-Pete coughed near smoke and was always moving
away from anyone who lit up. Mel smoked menthols.
But Moonshine smoked the worst-smelling, skinny cigars.

Simador was the exchange student. I don’t know
what country he was from. Nuzzy called him KJ.
We saw him all over doing some kind of clean-up thing.
I don’t think he had to. Orkin, our smart friend, said
that Simador Needed to express his grand appreciation
for being allowed in this country.
 Mel thought he was nuts.
Anyway it was a very still spring day, not a leaf was blowing,
and Moonshine was trying to break his all-time record for
not losing the ash from the end of his cigar, and well, you know,
Simador, he just kept pointing and yelling at Moonshine.

Dennis Lee’s poem “Grab Ash” from his Morgenthau Prize winning collection Tidal Wave.

The most recent Morgenthau Prize winner was Mark Elber. Here’s his poem about what was happening in the world the day his father turned 14. “February 5, 1922.”

On my father’s 14th birthday, the ink was drying on Rilke’s notebook
The Sonnets to Orpheus having found the fingers to release them

Nine years before Dali’s clocks began to droop, weep, drape the landscape
The German mark was being unmoored and all Europe would pay

When heads of axes were being buried in the thick bark of trees
Forearms bulging in the grip of angry muscle
My father’s inflammatory hair, his polyglot silence
Were simmering in the eastern ends of Poland

Before broths began to thin
Tubers dominate dinner
And the beer halls turn rowdy
In the year of the birth of the Soviets
In the year Ulysses spoke English in Paris with a brogue

From Mark Elber’s Morgenthau Prize winning book Headstone, “February 5, 1922.” That last line “In the year Ulysses spoke English in Paris with a brogue” refers to James Joyce’s book that was rejected by several English publishers but was finally published in France due to the influence of Sylvia Beach, owner of Paris’s Shakespeare and Company bookstore. Sylvia Beach, by the way, was a Baltimore native, not unlike Passager’s editors Kendra Kopelke and Mary Azrael.

Passager has been honored to have David Keplinger as judge for the past two Morgenthau Prizes. David has published eight books of poetry and has won numerous national and international awards, including the Emily Dickinson Award, the C.P Cavafy Poetry Prize, the T.S.Eliot Prize, and the Colorado Book Award. AND he was Henry Morgenthau’s poetry teacher. We’ll close this edition of Burning Bright with David Keplinger’s poem “Almost.”

A man almost an old man was in my house,
painting walls. The paint, satin white

he stirred with a stick. The work, about
finished, felt heavy in me, a tactile weight

similar to gulping heavy cream. I said
to him looks like you’re wrapping up to which

he said almost and turned to face me.
The paint crept down the wall where

he’d last touched it. That was ten years
ago. I had a friend who made the faces

she witnessed as a war photographer
come alive for others who had no knowledge

of what the war could have been like. One picture
was a child who had no face to speak of

Many plastic surgeries glommed the
making of an almost-face against

what was his face. My friend stood back
and took the picture. That was her job.

I think of all the work that must be done,
none of which I will have done. It will be

painted over by other work. The hall was bright
and drying when the painter left. The friend

just kind of vanished from my life.
With no known effort I can trace, I am

still here in the same house, touching
with my hand the wall, the hardened

teardrop of the paint where the painter said
almost and turned around to look at me.

”Almost” by 2020 and 2022 Morgenthau Poetry Prize judge David Keplinger from his newest collection Ice. Thank you, David, for being our debut Morgenthau judge and for your loving attention to the integrity and the quality of the competition.

To learn more about the Morgenthau Prizeto enter the competition, and to subscribe to or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to You can download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts and various other podcast apps.

For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne, and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr.