Remarks at the New York State Poet Installation, 24 March 1998
Governor Pataki, President Hitchcock, William Kennedy, and Donald Faulkner of the New York State Writers Institute, Honored Guests and Friends of Writing:
Thank you so much, I am so moved and grateful to be here today.
I think that people don't imagine what each others' lives are like. I think we think we can imagine what it would be like to be someone else, but we can't.
I think that's one thing writing is for. The arts are a place where people imagine each other, even come to identify a little with others whose experience may be very different from one's own.
No one knows what poetry is. But each tribe has had it, there's never been a group without it, it's as necessary, as automatically there, as government or medicine. As a species, we seem to be in great need of imagining each other. Maybe imagining you is my first step toward respecting you, and figuring out what it's 0.K. for me to do to you and what it isn't. If I am, say, mugging you, I am not imagining being you! And that's why my theme as a representative of the hundreds of thousands of poets in New York State is outreach--reaching out the tools of imagining others (and of embodying that imagining in its music) to those who haven't come to the world of poetry--of emotional and civil consciousness--on their own.
Outreach--to bring the writing of poems into grade schools, hospitals, junior high schools, prisons, high schools, libraries, hospices, community centers. There are enough poets in New York State to have one as a resource and catalyst in every such setting in the state.
The President of my home university, New York University, Lo Jay Oliva, grew up in a home with two books in it: the Bible, and a treasury of poetry. He knew from the start the connection between literature and strong values. When today's honor came to me I had been already in training for it. At New York U, in the Creative Writing Program, our graduate students write poems with public high school students, with special education public high school students, and with children with cancer in two hospitals, on oncology wards--writing with terminally ill children, so they can sing their songs while they're here. Another New York U
program, in its 13th year, goes on at Goldwater Hospital, a 900-bed state hospital for the paralyzed. When I work on a poem there with Julia, I hold up a cardboard alphabet card, A - B - C - D, E - F - G - H, and point to letter after letter until she raises her eyes for yes: yes, this is the first letter of the first word of the first line of her poem.
Outreach. I'd like to conclude by reading a few very short poems--first, by children from P.I.T.S., Poets In The Schools, children at risk because of violence and addiction in the home. These kids were given a tool for imagining others and themselves--they were given an alternative to irreversible destructive action.
I SEEM TO BE A LIZARD
I seem to be a lizard,
but I am really a fish swimming in a
I seem to be a turtle,
but I am a snake moving on the ground.
I seem to be a nice cat, but I am
a mean dog.
I feel like a mean terrible dog and
a soft puffy cat on the outside.
HE IS THE ONE
There is the one I need to share
my humble feelings. This is the
one who throws a ball at me when
I'm playing baseball. This is the
one who's going to cry for my life
when I am put in a coffin. This
is the one I can't live with-
out when he dies. And, if he might
die, may God help him with his problems.
THE FACE AND HEART
Heart, become soft.
Face, become caring.
Heart, never die.
Face, never drink.
Face, protect yourself.
Heart, protect your blood.
Heart, provide enough blood.
Face, provide love.
When I was invited to accept this very great honor, it took me a few days to decide if I felt I could do it.
I happened to be coming here to Albany, to read, and as the train went up the Hudson I looked for a sign. And, sitting on a winter branch at the head of a great sweep of water, elegant and noble as a sacred individual, was a bald eagle. And the town we had just passed was Peekskill! So in honor of Governor Pataki and his roots, in Peekskill and Aranyosapati, lId like to read part of a poem by the imaginative passionate Hungarian poet Attila Joseph, who died during World War Two.
To Sit, to Stand, to Kill, to Die
To shove this chair away from here,
to sit down in front of a train,
to climb a mountain with great care,
to shake my bag into the valley,
to feed a bee to my oId spider,
to caress an old, old woman,
to sip a delicious bean soup,
to walk on tiptoes in the mud,
to place my hat on railroad tracks,
to stroll around the banks of a lake,
to sit all dressed up on the bottom,
to wipe the dust from myoId book,
to spit a gob into my mirror,
to make peace with my enemies,
to kill them all with a long knife,
to examine their blood gushing,
to watch a young girl as she walks,
to sit idle without stirring,
to set fire to Budapest,
to wait for birds to take my crumbs,
to hurl my stale bread to the ground,
to make my faithful woman cry,
to lift her little sister up,
if the world wants explanations,
to run away and never be seen--
O you bind me and you free me,
you who write this poem in me,
you bring laughter, you bring weeping,
O my life, you make me choose.
Attila Joseph, Tr. John Batki
And I'd like to close with Whitman, one of our fathers in poetry as Emily Dickinson is one of our mothers-- keeping outreach in mind. The poet who stops somewhere waiting for us to imagine her or him may be next to us in this room, or in a kindergarten classroom, or in a prison, or a hospice, or a high school, or in a maternity ward-- labor room, delivery room, nursery.
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me--he complains of my
gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed--I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air--I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another ,
I stop some where waiting for you.