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Acceptance Speech on December 19, 1995


I'm very sorry not to be with you all today, as this event seems to me not so much about Peter Matthiessen and myself as it is about community. I would like to celebrate it by seeing your faces and touching some hands. I have lived in York State for 45 years now, and parts of it are very dear to me, and I'm awed to find myself acknowledged, for the next two years, as one of the official voices of our shared experience. Thank you in advance for your faith in me. I want to take this opportunity to salute the former State Poets--Stanley Kunitz, Robert Creeley, Audre Lorde who spoke for so many, and my immediate predecessor--Richard Howard. My thanks to them for their generous and distinguished examples. My thanks also to everyone at the Writers Institute who made it possible for me to participate today even if at a slight remove. And finally, thanks to Grace Paley, the first State Writer and my old, dear friend, for reading these words.

I feel very honored to be given any award that bears the name of Walt Whitman. Especially at this moment, when Federal programs to sustain the poor and disabled, the elderly and above all children, not to mention the environment, are being cut to the bone, New York State and its legislators need to remember what Whitman stood for. "This is what you shall do," he wrote. "Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches ... stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others...have patience and indulgence toward the people." And he added, "[The poet] shall go directly to the creation."

The place of poetry in such a political season may seem negligible or even irrelevant, but in fact poetry has never been so needed. What else can so vividly and succinctly tell us who we are? What else dramatize who we are right now? Once in the late sixties I had a magical dream. I dreamed I was standing in front of a class, and as I stood there the walls of the classroom dissolved and the room became enormous, till it included figures sitting or lying on the grass outside, and some standing in clusters almost at the horizon, and I heard my own voice saying solemnly, as if it were the most important statement in the world, "Poetry is a means of expanding consciousness.”

That seemed funny enough when I woke up, but in fact poetry--like any art--exists to give everyone more life, and a people deprived of the arts will not know its own worth. This is the best and simplest reason I know to speak up for continued public arts funding, and it's what makes an organization like the New York State Writers Institute so valuable both practically and as a symbol. For poetry not only tells me who I am, it makes it possible for me to enter into the reality of others, to experience their sufferings and joys, to share their anger and their passion. It confirms the moment and it goes beyond the moment. It gives us a language for what we might otherwise never know we knew so well. It allows me to call Whitman my brother and Dickinson my sister, and as it transcends time, so it transcends the boundaries of race, class, and nation. Poetry is in fact the original melting-pot. It is therefore a very suitable medium for New York, the New York we all want to believe and walk around in.

Stanley Kunitz, who has just turned ninety, said recently, "I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through and see the world." For the poet, the act of making a poem is a marvelous exercise in freedom. Disparate elements come together, there is indeed a sense of expansion and the possibility of change. But ultimately, it is the reader's poem. For the reader too there must be the dance of meaning and relationship. The reader of a true poem may feel first a rush of pleasure, then a sudden access of power. What is that about? We talk a lot these days about empowerment. At the heart of the democratic process lies the conviction not just of the worth of each person but of each person's autonomy. In trusting us with its secrets the poem breathes responsible life into the words. Thank you once again for being here. I am very grateful and very honored to accept the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit as New York State Poet for 1995-1997.