The following poem was commissioned by Dean Leslie Flemming of the College of Arts and Sciences to be read on the occasion of the Distinguished Alumni Ceremony on September 19, 2003 in the Baker Center Ballroom. The poem and preface were published in the program for the evening.
A preface to a short poem can betray fecklessness or self-infatuation. And yet, prefaces can also be charitable acts, calculated to prepare audiences for what's in store for them, which is merciful insofar as poems are often perplexing when they are heard rather than read. So it's this I have in mind in providing the following introduction:
How can one pack the life of a 200-year-old university into a poem? Best not try, is the prudent answer; but, here, prudence is of limited usefulness; so that, when I was asked to do precisely this, I was happy to throw myself into the task. The result is a 2-page poem (if I had striven for historical balance, that would be one page a century) of closely rhymed pentameters.
Why rhymed? Because it is focused upon that gifted renaissance man who, in effect, started it all--Manasseh Cutler; and the verse most appropriate to him is that which he would most likely understand and appreciate if he were to hear it. More than that, however, such closely rhymed verse announces itself defiantly as artifice, rejecting the latent imposture of unrhymed, unmetered verse as a simulacrum of living speech, for poetry is not speech, but an elaboration upon the artifice of speech.
In addition to all this, however, to the modern ear there's always something faintly playful, frolicsome--even hilarious--about closed rhymes. It's hard to take them altogether seriously. Laughter is in their echoes, as surely as in the syllables, "Ha ha!" But no intellectual worthy of the name would ever deny the importance of laughter, for more often than not, laughter is nothing but a response to irony, and irony is intrinsic to language itself; and language defines our world.
ON LEARNING TO SEE
By Jack Matthews
Ohio University's my theme,
An institution intellectuals planned
When Ohio was a wilderness, for they deemed
This to be the time and this the land.
It remained in isolation as it matured,
Silent and remote from most appeals
Of fame and noise, and in this way abjured
The insidious power that relevance conceals.
By nature universities aspire
To that which some in part achieve by chance;
But we far more than most this end acquire--
Being an institution of irrelevance.
What perspective is better from which to see
The world than from some vantage point apart?--
For this remoteness in itself will free
The mind and with it liberate the heart.
Without some distance, nothing can be known;
There is no fixedness without some motion;
Knowledge derives from antithesis alone--
No fish could ever understand the ocean.
Great numbers of distinguished men and women
Have studied in these halls; but I will summon
Only one who did not study here at all,
Yet left his mark indelibly, withal.
I speak of Manasseh Cutler, eponym
Of Cutler Hall, that still remains a hymn
Of architectural elegance, one Jefferson
Himself would have put his name upon.
For Manasseh Cutler was a man
Much like Jefferson in his great command
Of knowledge--of philosophy and plants,
Of engineering, theology and dance,
Of physics, poetry and classic drama,
Of grammar, syntax, the function of the comma.
He was, in short, un Uomo Universale,
And as much as any human exempt from folly.
He understood the complexity of things
And how much satisfaction knowledge brings.
He understood the molecule and atom
And sensed those elements too deep to fathom.
So how do you open a university?
Manasseh Cutler did it with a key--
To wit, he consulted and studied the college charter
Of several, including Yale, his Alma Mater;
So our "Harvard on the Hocking"--as some have hailed it--
He patterned on its nemesis, he yaled it.
It was in his encyclopaedic brain
That a university was born, to gain
Its true and plenary self beyond his knowing--
As always the richest seed transcends its sowing.
This impulse in his mind became the brick
Of buildings in which debate, arithmetic
And botany were passionately instilled
In the young, ambitious to be skilled
In eastern sophistication, while retaining
Some frontier innocence and remaining
Idealistic in the firm belief
That in knowledge, and that alone, is our relief--
visionary in their firm conviction
That wisdom is the ultimate benediction.
For learning of this sort to be completed
a passionate attentiveness is needed.
We need the world of things to love and study
As surely as the mind requires a body.
To fervidly attend to what's provided
By a teeming world of things is to be guided
By the instinct of the mind, the signal feature
Of that thinking reed, the human creature.
How much there is we see but do not see;
How often things are instruments that we
Fail to honor with that rapt attention
The world deserves--I speak of deep absorption,
Of profound allegiance to the morality
Of understanding; I speak of responsibility;
Of how it is through learning that we seek
To better understand the world; I speak
Of Manasseh Cutler, whose son reported that
"He learned to see what he was looking at."