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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.





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."

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