Speaking Through Verse
About a month after beginning my presidency here, I addressed a gathering of alumni at a site on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, for which our University is named. It is a beautiful sight, and on that magnificent evening, I abandoned for a few moments my talking points. The Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which I knew by heart, came to mind, so I recited it, thinking it would connect me with my fellow Laurentians, and connect us all to the location. An excerpt:
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I was pleased at the positive reception my impromptu recitation received on that summer night, so I decided to carry with me poems appropriate for other, similar occasions, poems that would help alumni and others connect with the University in a new way. I rediscovered poetry as an undergraduate, and am at the tail end of a generation that memorized certain poems, like “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “O Captain! My Captain!” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
So it was gratifying to find the audience so receptive. I enjoy weaving the selection into thoughts about the university today. It brings back a time when poetry was a larger part of life. It’s a way for people to hear something they don’t hear during their work day, something different from the press of business or the political swirl of the moment.
And for me, it’s a way to keep St. Lawrence centered in the lives of alumni, as verse paints a more vivid picture of their days in college.
For example, I like poems like “Chapter 1,” by Mark Aiello, or “Student” by the American Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, because they speak to what it’s like to be young and a college student. I have used both at alumni gatherings and at events where parents are present. Here is the latter poem:
The green shell of his backpack makes him lean
into wave after wave of responsibility,
and he swings his stiff arms and cupped hands,
paddling ahead. He has extended his neck
to its full length, and his chin, hard as a beak,
breaks the surf. He's got his baseball cap on
backward as up he crawls, out of the froth
of a hangover and onto the sand of the future,
and lumbers, heavy with hope, into the library
We want alumni to identify with the university today, so I look for poems that highlight traditions or things generations of students have in common. Certainly, winters in Canton, N.Y., have changed little over the years, so there is no better way to help alumni bring back that experience than by reciting “January," by the Maine native Baron Wormser, whose verses, such as, “The two best things in this world, were hot coffee and winter sunrises,” certainly evoke memories of our North Country.
I am always articulating the value of the liberal arts, and alumni today need to be reminded why we remain so deeply committed to this form of learning. “The Three Goals,” by David Budbill, speaks to this brilliantly:
The first goal is to see the thing itself
in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly
for what it is.
No symbolism, please.
The second goal is to see each individual thing
as unified, as one, with all the other
ten thousand things.
In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.
The third goal is to grasp the first and the second goals,
to see the universal and the particular,
Regarding this one, call me when you get it.
My readings also bring out suggestions from alumni with literary interests. One alumnus recommended I use the poem “The Lanyard” for commencement, but I think it would resonate at other times, too. Not only is it about a boy making a lanyard at a summer camp in the Adirondacks, but it also offers the perfect tribute to parents -- in this case to mothers -- for all they have done for their children. Every commencement speaker urges graduates to thank their parents for their sacrifices, but none do so as eloquently as this Billy Collins poem. Again, an excerpt:
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift -- not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
I think that reading a poem when speaking for the university works well because audiences listen differently to verse; they may even pay closer attention. But it also is, I believe, because poetry goes to the heart more than the head, and that, after all, is where one’s alma mater lives.
William L. Fox is president of St. Lawrence University, in Canton, N.Y.