(The following is a statement made by Mr. Merwin before reading his poems at the State University of New York at Buffalo on October 14.)
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.
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.)
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 …