(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 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 may 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.
And at the head of my own hurried and necessarily incomplete statement I would like to quote (correctly, I hope, because I’m doing it from memory) a question which I think must be described as rhetorical, from the Stoic Epictetus:
Can the soldiers’ oath be compared to ours? For they have sworn to obey Caesar before everything, but we to respect ourselves first of all.
Let me deal first with a few minor quibbles. Legal language presumably has a precision of its own, perhaps even when it sounds—as it does here—to mean not, but blunder round about a meaning. What are these duties of a visiting lecturer which I am to discharge faithfully, in the opinion of heaven knows who among the politicians of this sovereign state? I asked no favor of them, and I am not grateful to them for being put in a position in which it might appear as though I had. I was asked to come here. It seems to me that I am, at the moment, faithfully discharging my duty in addressing anyone, including myself: I am trying, in a given situation, to tell the truth. As for the reading or speaking of my poems, I will not be accountable to these faceless worthies on that subject for the sake of money, even though it were more money than they can pretend to command.
Next, the signer pledges himself to “support” these two constitutions. I take the provision seriously—perhaps more seriously than the framer of the oath. And I have to confess, for one thing, that I am not at the moment deeply conversant with the constitution of the State of New York, and would scarcely have had time to study it properly between being told the conditions under which I might be paid, and this evening. I have a longer acquaintance—of an amateur sort—with the Constitution of the United States. It is one of the many subjects that we are frequently told should be left to professionals to interpret—unless it’s a question of swearing to support it, despite the limitations of our private understanding.
Speaking from my own limitations, I cannot believe that the framers of the Constitution of the United States meant it to be a humiliating experience to be an American citizen. I find the existence of this oath, and the demand to sign it, here, now, for such reasons, humiliating, and I would find it still more shaming if I were to sign it, in these circumstances. It seems to me, in my position as an ordinary, relatively helpless citizen who has never sought public office, that I could not better support the Constitution of the United States—whatever about it I respect, and whatever its authors meant to protect—than by refusing to sign a statement which is clearly a small legislative outrage against individual liberty, perpetrated in its name.
I believe that what the legislators who framed and adopted this condition had in mind was not the Constitution but only the interpretation of it that suited their immediate convenience. I am far from sure that I could promise to support that, when they apparently saw no inconsistency between the Bill of Rights and the loyalty oath in question, in a situation like this.
I know that someone can usually be paid to argue more quickly, more cleverly, more deviously, probably more convincingly, than the ordinary citizen. In a society based on buying and persuading to buy, this is a phenomenon that we watch daily, and that compounds the temptation to despair. One virtue of the situation, perhaps, is that it drives us back—if we had needed to be driven back—to things that cannot be bought. I was asked to come here not because I am, in fact, a visiting lecturer (that was simply the category in which I was put, for administrative purposes) but because those who invited me thought of me as a poet. What does that have to do with buying and selling? If I am a poet—and I say that with complete seriousness—what responsibilities, what loyalties does that entail? I hope I wouldn’t presume to prescribe them for anyone else. Occasionally, in my own case, I think I know. I remember Bertrand Russell saying that if a poet can’t be independent, no one else can be I’m not sure he had that the right way around. It seems to me that in so far as a man prizes some spring of independence—independence from the cant of economics and the tyranny of history—in himself, the hope of being fully human, which is integral to all poetry, remains alive.
As for me, whatever independence I can bear seems precious to me, something not to be sold for a bit of money or a bit of security, or the approval of a few of the leaders of a corrupt and desperate society. I am not what is sometimes called “politically minded.” Politics in themselves bore me profoundly, and the assumption of the final reality of the power to manipulate other men’s lives merely depresses me. But injustice, official brutality, and the destruction on a vast scale of private liberties are all around me and I cannot pretend that it’s not so, nor that I can accept such things, when I have a chance to say no to them. Section 3002 of the Education Law of the State of New York, as amended, seems to me, layman that I am, a deliberate degradation of all that the authors of the Bill of Rights had in mind.
It is not really surprising to me that such a situation should obtain at a time when the laws of the United States, as currently interpreted, apparently condone the continuation of an undeclared, racist war conducted against small countries—heaven knows how many of them at this moment—halfway around the world, and when the laws of the State of New York permit police entry without warning, and the holding, month after month, without trial, of the Panthers in New York City. Is it, after all, those who protest these circumstances, or those who perpetuate them, who are displaying the real contempt for the Constitution of the United States—and, for all I know, that of the State of New York? I hope there is never a better time to say that I believe that the insistence on individual liberty and poetry itself rise from the same source—what Keats called the truth of the imagination, and what others have called the human spirit. And I hope I may never hesitate in placing my loyalty to that source, as and when I can recognize it (for no one else can recognize it for me) before my loyalty to any state document or institution.
Those, at any rate, are some of the reasons why I refused to sign. I have spoken of them to no one else here, and the responsibility for what I have said cannot be laid in whole or in part upon any member of the faculty of this university. Now I am going to read anyway, and you will all know what I mean if I call it a free reading.