THE REPUBLIC OF POETRY:
May 19, 2007
To the graduates, their families, the faculty and staff of Hampshire College: Congratulations. I would particularly like to salute the Baldwin Scholars graduating today. James Baldwin delivered the commencement address here at Hampshire twenty-one years ago. That day, he said: “The reality in which we live is a reality we have made, and it’s time, my children, to begin the act of creation all over again.”
In that spirit, I welcome you to the Republic of Poetry. The Republic of Poetry is a state of mind. It is a place where creativity meets community, where the imagination serves humanity. The Republic of Poetry is a republic of justice, because the practice of justice is the highest form of human expression. This goes beyond the tired idea of “poetic justice,” because all justice is poetic.
In the words of Walter Lowenfels, “everyone is a poet, a creator, somewhere, somehow…It’s in the sense of helping to create a new society that we are poets in whatever we do. And it is our gesture against death. We know we are immortal because we know the society we are helping to build is our singing tomorrow.”
You, the graduates of Hampshire, are the poets of this republic. I do not mean that you must act like a stereotypical poet. You do not have to borrow money from your friends and pretend to be in a coma the next time you see them. You do not have to wear a coat three sizes too large so you can shoplift books. You do not have to drink until you lose control of your bladder. You do not have burst into tears at the sight of a mayonnaise jar because you love the letter M. You do not have to lock yourself in the bathroom and refuse to come out because your haiku is too short. You do not have to speak in riddles like Woody Allen’s fictional poet, Sean O’Shawn, considered “the most incomprehensible and hence the finest poet of his time.”
I know you can build your own Republic of Poetry, because I have seen it. I saw it in Chile, where the citizens overcame seventeen years of military dictatorship to rebuild their democracy, ultimately electing a socialist woman president. (If the people of Chile can survive nearly two decades of General Augusto Pinochet and take their democracy back, then we can take our democracy back too.)
Chile is a nation of poets, and in Chile poetry is inseparable from the struggle for democracy. When I visited Isla Negra and the home of the great poet Pablo Neruda, I remembered an incident that took place there after the military coup of September 11, 1973 (the first 9/11). I wrote a poem about it called, “The Soldiers in the Garden.”
After the coup,
the soldiers appeared
in Neruda's garden one night,
raising lanterns to interrogate the trees,
cursing at the rocks that tripped them.
From the bedroom window
they could have been
the conquistadores of drowned galleons,
back from the sea to finish
plundering the coast.
The poet was dying;
cancer flashed through his body
and left him rolling in the bed to kill the flames.
Still, when the lieutenant stormed upstairs,
Neruda faced him and said:
There is only one danger for you here: poetry.
The lieutenant brought his helmet to his chest,
apologized to señor Neruda
and squeezed himself back down the stairs.
The lanterns dissolved one by one from the trees.
For thirty years
we have been searching
for another incantation
to make the soldiers
vanish from the garden.
In the Republic of Poetry there is no war, because phrases like “weapons of mass destruction,” “shock and awe,” “collateral damage” and “surge” are nothing but clichés, bad poetry by bad poets, and no one believes them. They bleed language of its meaning, drain the blood from words. You, the next generation, must reconcile lans
No one asks
where I am from,
I must be
from the country of janitors,
I have always mopped this floor.
Honduras, you are a squatter's camp
outside the city
of their understanding.
No one can speak
I host the fiesta
of the bathroom,
stirring the toilet
like a punchbowl.
The Spanish music of my name
when the guests complain
about toilet paper.
What they say
must be true:
I am smart,
but I have a bad attitude.
No one knows
that I quit tonight,
maybe the mop
will push on without me,
sniffing along the floor
like a crazy squid
with stringy gray tentacles.
They will call it Jorge.
This little drama did not take place at a church in Alabama. This took place at a church in that bastion of liberalism, Harvard Square. We must keep our own churches, and houses, clean. Speaking of which, let us thank the janitors of Hampshire College.
In the Republic of Poetry, everyone has shoes. Here we have Jack Agüeros and his “Psalm for Distribution:”
on 8th Street
between 6th Avenue and Broadway
there are enough shoe stores
with enough shoes
to make me wonder
why there are shoeless people
on the earth.
You have to fire the Angel
in charge of distribution.
You, the next generation, have to fire the Angel in charge of distribution. To accomplish this, you may have to fire the president, or a senator, or a governor; you have that right in a democracy. However, they are also representatives of a larger economic system. You must radically transform that system so that everyone has shoes, so that everyone has the opportunity to realize his or her full human—that is to say, poetic—
potential. Walter Lowenfels sums it up: “When the tragedy of the world market no longer dominates our existence, new gradations of being in love with being here will emerge.”
Any republic should be measured by the way it treats its most vulnerable people. Make sure that compassion is the guiding principle of your republic, the pulse of your poetry. Walt Whitman, the bard of prisoners, prostitutes, and slaves, insists that, “whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to/ his own funeral dressed in his shroud.”
To dwell in the Republic of Poetry you must continue to read and ask questions. You graduate today, but in fact, you should never stop being a student, never stop asking, doubting, dissenting, or the republic dies. This was never more true than today, in the age of the Illiterate Presidency.
In the Republic of Poetry your vote counts, because the voting machines actually work. In this republic your dollars pay for schools and hospitals instead of bullets and bombs, because every poem by our greatest poets is scientific proof that living is better than dying.
Now, for those graduates who think there are no more assignments, I have news: The Republic of Poetry is hard work. Poets re-write what they have already re-written, and stay up all night to do it. We are insomniac zombies. In fact, I am presently working on a screenplay called, “Night of the Living Dead Poets’ Society.”
Such will be the case for you, too, if you want to live in a more democratic—and thus, poetic—world. Marge Piercy captures the joy of sitting through one more meeting with yet another committee:
This is true virtue: to sit here and stay awake,
to listen, to argue, to wade on through the muck
wrestling to some momentary small agreement
like a pinhead pearl prized from a dragon-head oyster.
I believe in this democracy as I believe
there is blood in my veins, but oh, oh, in me
lurks a tyrant with a double-bladed ax who longs
to swing it wide and shining, who longs to stand
and shriek, You Shall Do as I Say, pig-bastards.
No more committees but only picnics and orgies
and dances. I have spoken. So be it forevermore.
In the Republic of Poetry, the poet is the true self, whoever that may be. The poet within us rebels against conformity, decorum and obedience, saying the unsayable before the moment passes. I give you Julia de Burgos, who confronts herself—the false self—in this poem:
Who rises in my verses is not your voice. It is my voice,
because you are the dressing and the essence is me;
and the most profound abyss is spread between us.
You, honey of courtesan hypocrisies; not me;
in all my poems I undress my heart.
You are like your world, selfish; not me,
who gambles everything betting on what I am.
You curl your hair and paint yourself; not me;
the wind curls my hair; the sun paints me.
You in yourself have no say; everyone governs you;
your husband, your parents, your family,
the priest, the dressmaker, the theatre, the dance hall,
the auto, the fine furnishings, the feast, champagne,
heaven and hell, and the social “what will they say.”
Not in me, in me only my heart governs,
only my thought; who governs in me is me.
The Republic of Poetry is a place where, as Walt Whitman says, “your very flesh shall be a great poem.” It is a place where you are your own greatest creation, your own most inspired invention. It is a place where you make of your life an epic poem. You may discover that medicine is your poetry, or law is your poetry, or education is your poetry, or journalism is your poetry, or music is your poetry, or poetry is your poetry.
The Republic of Poetry is a place of miracles. You carry the engine of miracles with you everywhere, in your head, and don’t even realize it. Pablo Neruda fell down, hit his head, and had an epiphany:
How often in my mature years,
in travels, in love affairs,
I examined every hair,
every wrinkle on my brow,
without noticing the grandness
of my head,
tower of thought,
pulses of reason, veins of sleep,
gelatin of the soul,
the miniature ocean
of the mind,
the wrinkled convolutions
of undersea mountains
and in them
will, the fish of movement,
the electric corolla
the seaweed of memory.
You who believe in this republic will be accused of daydreaming and utopianism. To these crimes you must plead guilty as charged. Tell them: Yes! I did it! I was daydreaming of a more just world instead of something more age-appropriate and consumer-oriented, like a $200 pair of Nikes.
This is Eduardo Galeano on the subject of utopia: “She’s on the horizon…I go two steps closer, she moves two steps away. I walk ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps ahead. No matter how much I walk, I’ll never reach her. What good is utopia? That’s what: it’s good for walking.”
A century ago, when your father’s grandfather was a child, the eight-hour workday was utopian; the eradication of polio was utopian; the end of lynching and segregation in the South was utopian. The next generation writes the poetry of the impossible.
You will make the impossible possible. Yet, no change for the good ever happens without being imagined first. The last poem today is about the bread of the table, the bread of poetry, the bread of justice, the bread of this republic. It’s called, “Imagine the Angels of Bread:”
This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year
that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.
This is the year that those
who swim the border's undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side;
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts the vine,
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery;
this is the year that the eyes
stinging from the poison that purifies toilets
awaken at last to the sight
of a rooster-loud hillside,
pilgrimage of immigrant birth;
this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded
in the ear of an infant;
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.
If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.
So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.