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A Poet's Protest: An Address by W.S. Merwin at SUNY, Buffalo, October 1970

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Preamble:   I am only partly familiar with the works of American poets, and can cite few other than Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, and bits of Longfellow, all of whom we had read in school back in India in the 1970s.   Jawaharlal Nehru, I am told, had Frost's famous lines, The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep, under glass in his Prime Minister's office.   We were also rather familiar with the dark poetic images of Edgar Allen Poe, and the limericks of Ogden Nash.   Other than a few of these, for us occidental poetry came overwhelmingly from Europe.   When I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa in the 1980s, I became familiar with the literary and poetic influence exerted by Paul Engle, founder of the renowned Writers' Workshop.   Later, I came to know somewhat more about Sylvia Plath, Robert Bly and Robert Lowell.   I also came to know about prominent black poets including Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Maya Angelou during my years in graduate school and thereafter.   Of W.S. Merwin, while the name was familiar, I knew little else.   

For me, it has always been a treat to discover someone of prominence that takes a courageous stand against injustice and tyranny, exhibiting uncanny powers of the intellect, and upholding the noble ideals that have moved human beings everywhere throughout the history of civilization.   This is not often evident in daily life; while this fact has disappointed me much over the years, I have come to conclude that this is not so because the great minds and sensitive intellects have fallen silent, but much more so because the corrupt powers of money and tyranny have marginalized or dimmed those beautiful voices amid the cacophonic din of mindless consumerism, glorified gossip and frightful doses of propaganda.   What else, after all, can one expect in a society where the daily information and nourishment for the mind comes from Rupert Murdoch's empire, and other clones (CBS, NBC, ABC, and just about every other one of these) that try desperately to keep up with the slime and hatred that are tools of their pillage?

   Now, while I have serious reservations about the many socializing tools of the worldwideweb (an invention of science and technology arising from fields I myself specialize in), and frequently see signs that it (the internet) is likely turning into a convenient new forum for gossip and banter, there are certainly quite a few positive aspects to it.   The ability to find information, nuggets of wisdom, discover or re-discover history, and, of course, when done right, hunting for documents on an auction resource such as ebay -- these are clearly some of the redeeming features of the internet.   It was on ebay, therefore, that I recently came across a printed and signed copy of a speech by Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin that was presented to an audience at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1970.   The content of the speech, which spoke about the Poet Laureate's refusal to sign a "humiliating" declaration, as he puts it, immediately drew my attention.   Out of great curiosity, I took possession of the document, and having read it, was moved enough by both the principled position displayed by a noble human being, and also by the striking relevance of portions of it to political and social affairs today that I feel impelled to present it here for dissemination to the caring and sentient world.   I am convinced that Poet Laureate Merwin will be sympathetic to my taking the liberty to present his words here, since I find these to be words of uncanny and highly relevant wisdom, and their educational value is immeasurable.

   In what follows, I present Poet Laureate Merwin's speech as it appeared in the printed document, verbatim.   While the text speaks eloquently as it stands, I have interspersed occasional commentary of my own, which I have italicized and placed in parentheses.


A Personal Statement Read before Poems at the

State University of New York at Buffalo, October 14, 1970

W. S. Merwin

   I must ask your forbearance for not following that introduction at once with poems, as I had expected to do, and would have preferred to do.   There are a few things that I feel I have to say first.

   I was invited here last August, to spend the best part of three days, give a reading of my poems, and talk with students twice in some manner that might be construed as lecturing them.   I did not know, when I accepted, that there was a string attached.   I must say at once that the members of the faculty here who invited me were unaware of this string when they did so, that they told me about it at once, and with shame when they discovered it a couple of weeks ago, and that they have since tried their best to disentangle it.   It was not until a few hours ago that it became clear that the string was inseparable from the pocketbook.

   This was the form of it.   When I came here I would be asked to sign the following, pursuant to Section 3002, Education Law of the State of New York, as amended:

   "I do hereby pledge and declare that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the position of ___________ (in my case, I understand, the wording here would be "visiting lecturer') according to the best of my ability."

   [We may note that this was at a time when the relentless bombardment of Vietnam and some of its neighbors was going full swing during the first Nixon administration.   I have since found that many prominent American poets and intellectuals, to their lasting credit, strongly protested these obscene and genocidal imperial campaigns.]

   Words have something essential to do with my having been asked here in the first place -- but not this kind of language.   I suppose I understand the purpose of the demand for such pledging and declaring.   I mean, I cannot imagine what other purpose it can have than to serve as a trap for such teachers as might be tempted to voice political views unwelcome to those currently in positions of political power.   At least while the teachers are within the walls of what are probably still the freest institutions of our society.   (I mean, in case anyone wonders what institutions I am referring to, the universities- even the state universities.)

   [Here, I wish to add parenthetically that I have been associated with academic life throughout my career, and have seen sadly little of the dissent or moral indignation towards warmongering, war crimes and violations of human rights by the corporate war machine that existed in the "60s and "70s at UC Berkeley, UW Madison or Kent State, in this new century of smart bombs and drone-killings.   This unconscionable silence or tendency towards self-preservation over all principles is a clear marker of the lowering of the moral soul of humanity that perhaps science, technology and easy access to material comforts have wrought.]

I have not asked who else may have signed this statement nor for what reasons.   That is none of my business.   Others perhaps stand to lose things of real value to them, by refusing to sign.   As for me, I was told that it could be made easy for me; that I might append to my signature my reservations, whatever they might be.   But I saw no reason why I should be thus maneuvered into rendering my signature meaningless -- for that is what it would have come to -- for the sake of money.   In my own case, if I did not sign I could not be fired.   I would merely not be paid the money that I had been offered when I was invited to come here.   The money is Caesar's, and those are Caesar's terms.   It seemed to me that I had no choice, and I will not sign this thing.   I believe I owe those who framed this condition no explanation for my refusal.   I am not sure that they would understand one.   I am not sure, to tell the truth, that I can fully explain my refusal to anyone, but I want to take this occasion to try to set down a few of my reasons, not for them, nor for anyone who might have been paid to sit here tonight, but for us.   Well, yes, for them too; for all of us.   I hope you will bear with me if my reasons, as I try to formulate them, seem to you -- as Thomas Jefferson put it -- self-evident.

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Monish R. Chatterjee received the B.Tech. (Hons) degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering from I.I.T., Kharagpur, India, in 1979, and the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering, from the University of Iowa, (more...)

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