T H E   W H I T E   H O U S E

Remarks at Millennium Evening with Poets Laureate

Help Site Map Text Only

Millennium Council

Office of the Press Secretary


The East Room

7:30 P.M. EDT

MS. LOVELL: Welcome to the third Millennium Evening at the White House. We are glad to know that outside this room, so full of anticipation, are thousands of Americans who are watching, listening and having your own discussion.

We begin this evening with a short film in which our Librarian of Congress tells us about the Poet Laureate Consultant Program, and the three most recent Poets Laureate speak about their work as writers, but also as voices of poetry.

At the same time, we are here to honor all of you, poets of the world, listeners, readers, you whose curiosity and love of language is alive. Where the voice that is in us makes a true response; where the voice that is great within us rises up.

(A film is shown.)

MRS. CLINTON: (reading Howard Nemerov's "The Makers").

Who can remember back to the first poets, The greatest ones, greater even than Orpheus? No one has remembered that far back, Or now considers, among the artifacts And bones and cantilevered inference The past is made of, those first and greatest poets, So lofty and disdainful of renown, They left us not a name to know them by. They were the ones that, in whatever tongue Worded the world, that were the first to say Star, water, stone, that said the visible And made it bring invisibles to view In wind and time and change, and in the mind Itself, that minded the hitherto idiot world And spoke the speechless world and sang the towers of the city into the astonished sky. They were the first great listeners, attuned To interval relationship and scale, The first to say, above, beneath, beyond, Conjurors with love, death, sleep, with bread and wine, who, having uttered, vanished from the world leaving no memory but the marvelous, Magical elements, the breathing shapes And stops of breaths we build our Babels of.

To you, who speak the speechless world, and to the great listeners who hear it, we are honored to welcome you to the White House.

Just like Howard Nemerov in "The Makers," we are here on this Millennium Evening to celebrate the timeless power of poetry and poets as our American memory, our purveyors of insight and culture, our eyes and ears who silence the white noise around us and express the very heart of what connects us, plagues us, and makes us fully human.

I want to thank everyone who has made this celebration possible -- especially Ellen Lovell, the Director of the White House Millennium Council; our Poets Laureate, Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove, Bob Hass, Anthony Hecht, and William Meredith. What better way to commemorate National Poetry Month than by gathering our nation's poetry and poets in our nation's home.

When Stephen Hawking gave the second Millennium Lecture here, I'd said that there had never been more physicists in the White House. I don't believe there have ever been more poets in the White House than this evening. (Laughter.) I hope you will also get a chance to visit the foyer and see some of the extraordinary works that capture America's role in poetry and poetry's role in America. For that exhibit and so much more, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dr. James Billington, the center for the book, the curators, and the entire Library of Congress.

Let me also thank Bill Ferris and the National Endowment for the Humanities, state humanities councils, the Howard Gilman Foundation, Phi Theta Kappa, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Sun Microsystems for bringing this event to people throughout our nation and the world, first via satellite to more than 200 sites in 44 states, and also via the Internet on the White House web site and the Sun Microsystems site.

This is the third of many Millennium Evenings we will be holding with scholars, artists, scientists, and other creative individuals to help our nation explore who we are, who we want to be as we enter the next century. The goal of all of our White House Millennium activities is to honor the past and imagine the future, and that is what we are doing tonight, with both poetry and prose, with cutting-edge technology and the torn pages of old books.

Like many of you, I suppose my first real introduction to poetry took place in a classroom. I remember standing before what looked to be a sea of other children and reciting poems I'd memorized by saying them out loud at the kitchen table on the way to school before going to sleep, over and over again. That is how I and so many learned to feel the music and rhythm and inspiration of poetry, to understand its window onto our experiences as Americans, individuals and communities. Whether we sang the Star- Spangled Banner or recited in Emma Lazurus' words inscribed in the Statue of Liberty, or asked Langston Hughes' haunting question, what happens to a dream deferred, we were being influenced by poetry.

We know that happens every day, not just while we're still in school -- when we fall in love or see loved ones die, when our hopes are realized or dashed; we tuck our children into bed, perhaps to a favorite rhyme or walk through a garden. In every moment of our lives the poems we read or write or remember speak to us, often transforming us, comforting us. And we pass that love for them down from generation to generation.

It's important that we touch not just the lives of the few through poetry, but the everyday life of all of us. That's what the Poet Laureate Joseph Brodsky was talking about when he said that, an anthology of American poetry should be found in the drawer in every room in every motel in the land. Seven years later, we see that dream being fulfilled in truck stops, supermarkets and train stations, where thousands of copies of 101 Great Poems are being handed out by his American Poetry and Literacy Project every April.

This afternoon, we saw poetry in action at Johnson Junior High School in Southeast Washington. We saw students who were practicing for a poetry slam taking place tonight. Now, for those of you who have never seen a slam, it's a high-speed, high-spirited competition where students face off against each other, reading their own poems and receiving scores like at the Olympics from a group of judges.

Using their voices as an instrument and their souls as a library, these students read poems about the beauty of their names, the plight of a homeless man, the contributions of Duke Ellington, their pride, and their pains. And they talked about how poetry had helped put their anger on paper, instead of acting it out; how it had opened up thoughts they never knew existed and given them confidence. One young man stood up and said as part of his poem, I'm so musical that when I write a song you sing it for the rest of your life. (Laughter.)

No one has worked harder to ensure that children and young people and all of us throughout America sing poetry for the rest of our lives than our two former and current Poets Laureate. Whether by promoting literacy and celebrating our environment, or by bringing poetry to everyone and putting everyday life into poetry, they have been on the front lines.

We are also very grateful that Robert Pinsky has created a program for recording poems, the poems that help define us as individuals and as a nation. And just this morning I was pleased to announce that the National Endowment for the Arts is awarding $500,000 to support the Favorite Poem Project.

So tonight it is my great honor to introduce three of Howard Nemerov's "makers" who will speak the speechless world and bring it to all of us -- in other words, their own version of the poetry slam -- our Poets Laureate, Bob Hass, Rita Dove and Robert Pinsky, who will start things off with a few comments.

Please welcome them. (Applause.)

MR. PINSKY: We're here to honor our ancestors -- not our literal ancestors, but our ancestors in poetry -- and to imagine ways that we can give the gift that they gave to us to the young.

I'll start with just a few lines from Harriet Converse's 19th century translation of an Iroquois Thanksgiving Song:

We give thanks that the voice of the Great Spirit can still be heard through the words of Ga-ne-o-di-o. We thank the Great Spirit that we have the privilege of this pleasant occasion. We give thanks for the persons who can sing the Great Spirit's music, and hope that they will be privileged to continue in his faith. We thank the Great Spirit for all the persons who perform the ceremonies on this occasion.

We're going to try to give a fast, representative reading from the great heritage of American poetry. And the place to begin seems to be with the poet who embodies the sweep and embrace and cultural appetite of American art and American life at its best.I'll read a few lines from the opening from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," by Walt Whitman, and then my friends will continue in that vein.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me! On the ferry boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, Returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose, And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose. The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them, The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others. Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore, Others will watch the run of the flood-tide, Others will see the shipping of Manhattan, north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east. Others will see the islands large and small; Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high, A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them, Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide. It avails not, time nor place -- distance avails not. I am with you, men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence, Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt, Just as any of you who is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd, Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh'd, Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried. Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemmed pipes of steamboats, I look'd.

MS. DOVE: From Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself."

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child? . . . . I do not know what it is any more than he. I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven. Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord, A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped, Bearing the owner's name some way in the corners, that we may see and remark and say Whose? Or I guess the grass is itself a child . . . . the produced babe of the vegetation. Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic, And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones, Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same. And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves. And Langston Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." I've known rivers: I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I've known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

MR. HASS: We move from Walt Whitman's Atlantic to Langston Hughes' Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean of Robinson Jeffers. I'm going to read a poem written after the death of his wife, in the late 1950s, and it's called "Vulture."

I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in heaven, And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit Narrowing, I understood then That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight feathers Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer. I could see the naked red head between the great wings Bear downward, staring. I said, "My dear bird, we are wasting time here. These old bones still work; they are not for you." But how beautiful he looked gliding down on Those great sails. How beautiful he looked veering away in the sea light over the precipice. I tell you solemnly That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes -- What a sublime end of one's body, one an enskyment; what a life after death."

MR. PINSKY: I hope you all noticed how artfully we went from the east coast to the midwest to the Pacific. (Laughter.) I hope it's not a complete bromide to say that if Whitman embodies an audacious sweep and cultural appetite and cultural omnivorousness, Emily Dickinson embodies other characteristics of American art, an audacious individuality and boldness and concentration. And we thought it would be appropriate to do some of those.

Further in summer than the Birds Pathetic from the Grass A minor nation celebrates its unobtrusive Mass. No Ordinance be seen So gradual the Grace A pensive custom it becomes Enlarging loneliness. Antiquest felt at Noon When August burning low Arise this spectral Canticle, Repose to typify Remit as yet no Grace No furrow on the Glow Yet a Druidic difference Enhances Nature now.


Much madness is the divinest Sense -- To the discerning eye -- Much sense the -- starkest Madness -- 'Tis the Majority In this, as All, prevail -- Assent -- and you are sane -- Demur -- you're straight way dangerous -- And handled with a Chain --


I heard a fly buzz -- when I died -- The Stillness in the Room Was like the Stillness in the Air -- Between the heaves of Storm -- The Eyes around -- had wrung them dry -- And Breaths were gathering firm For that last Onset -- when the King Be witnessed -- in the Room -- I willed my Keepsakes -- Signed away What portion of me be Assignable -- and then it was There interposed a fly -- With Blue -- uncertain, stumbling Buzz -- Between the light -- and me -- And then the Windows failed -- and then I could not see to see --


After great pain, a formal feeling comes -- The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs -- The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore, And Yesterday, or Centuries before? The Feet, mechanical, go round -- Of ground, or Air or Ought -- A wooden way Regardless grown, A Quartz contentment, like a stone -- This is the Hour of Lead -- Remembered, if outlived, As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow -- First -- Chill -- then Stupor -- then the letting go --

We could be all Dickinson, couldn't we? (Laughter.) I said that these are poems of the past, but we are imagining them for future generations. So we thought we'd read a group of poems to do with children and families and the passing on of culture. I think this is the only commissioned poem that will be read tonight. This is a poem by William Carlos Williams that his grandson asked him to write. (Laughter.)

Not because of his eyes, the eyes of bird, but because he is beaked birdlike, to do an injury, has the turtle attracted you. He is your only pet. When we are together you talk of nothing else ascribing all sorts of murderous motives to his least action. You ask me to write a poem, should I have a poem to write, about a turtle. The turtle lives in mud but is not mud-like you can tell it by his eyes which are clear. When he shall escape his present confinement he will stride about the world destroying all with his sharp beak. Whatever opposes him in the streets of the city shall go down. Cars will be overturned And upon his back shall ride, to his conquests, my Lord, you! You shall be master! In the beginning there was a great tortoise who supported the world. Upon him All ultimately rests. Without him nothing will stand. He is all wise and can outrun the hare. In the night his eyes carry him to unknown places. He is your friend.

MR. HASS: Anne Bradstreet was, I guess, the first American poet. She was the first English colonist to publish a book of poems. She came to New England on the ship Arabella, the first ship that brought the Puritans to New England, in 1630. And her book was published in 1650, but the poem I'm going to read was not in that book. She thought it was too personal to be printed, and it wasn't, in fact, printed until 1865. It was a poem that she wrote to her husband in the ninth month of a pregnancy.

Giving birth in that wilderness in those years was a risky business, and she feared she wouldn't survive it, and she wrote this poem to speak to him. It begins, as Puritan poems often did, in adages and platitudes, but listen to what happens. The Victorian editor gave it the title "Before the Birth of One of Her Children."

All things within the fading world hath end, Adversity doth still our joyes attend; No tyes so strong, no friends so dear and sweet, But with death's parting blow is sure to meet. The sentence passed is most irrevocable, A common thing, yet oh inevitable; How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend, How soon't may be thy Lot to lose thy friend, We're both are ignorant, yet love bids me These farewell lines to recommend to thee, That when that knot's unty'd that made us one, I may seem thine, who in effect am none. And if I see not half my dayes that's due, What nature would, God grant to yours and you; The many faults that well you know I have, Let be interred in my oblivious grave; If any worth or virtue were in me, Let that live freshly in they memory. And when thou feel'st no grief, as I no harms, Yet love thy dead, who lay long in thine arms. And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains Look to my little babes, my dear remains. And if thou loves thy self or loved'st me These, oh, protect from step Dame's injury. And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse, With some sad sighs, honor my absent Herse. And kiss this paper, for thy loves dear sake, Who with salt tears this last Farewel did take.

MR. PINSKY: I'll read a poem by one of our predecessors as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, Robert Hayden. The poem is a memory of his childhood.

"Those Winter Sundays" Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he'd call and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house, Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love's austere and lonely offices?

MS. DOVE: Many of us know Sylvia Plath as a writer of wonderful and troubled poems. And what some people do not realize is that she wrote some of the most beautiful love poems to her children, poems about being a mother, all of that joy, and that anguish.

"Child" Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing. I want to fill it with color and ducks, The zoo of the new Whose names you meditate -- April snowdrop, Indian pipe, Little Stalk without wrinkle, Pool in which images Should be grand and classical Not this troublous Wringing of hands, this dark Ceiling without a star.

MR. PINSKY: One of the things that Americans should perhaps be most patriotic about is our impurity. Cultural blendings, collidings, crazy mixes and improvisations are behind our distinctive works -- such as jazz and the American feature film and, indeed, American poetry as well as American music, of country music, things. And we thought we'd try to read a few poems that suggest some of that genius for unexpected and impure cultural mixes and ways that we're related to the cultures of other continents in ways that are unexpected.

MS. DOVE: I'll start with a poem by Countee Cullen, who was a great proponent of the Harlem Renaissance, that magnificent explosion of music, of poetry, art and just plain good fun in the '20s. In this poem, though, Countee Cullen, who's an African American poet, writes to another poet, to John Keats, the English poet.

"To John Keats, Poet, at Spring Time" I cannot hold my peace, John Keats; There never was a spring like this; It is an echo that repeats My last year's song and next year's bliss. I know, in spite of all men say Of beauty, you I have felt her most. Yea, even in your grave, her way Is laid. Poor, troubled, lyric ghost, Spring never was so fair and dear As beauty makes her seem this year. I cannot hold my peace, John Keats, I am as helpless in the toil Of spring as any lamb that bleats To feel the solid earth recoil Beneath his puny legs. Spring beats Her toxin call to those who love her And, lo! the dogwood petals cover Her breast with drifts of snow, and sleek White gulls fly screaming to her, and hover About her shoulders and kiss her cheek, While white and purple lilacs muster A strength that bears them to a cluster Of color and odor; for her sake, All things that slept are now awake. And you and I, shall we lie still, John Keats, while beauty summons us? Somehow I feel your sensitive will Is pulsing up some tremulous Sap road of a maple tree, whose leaves Grow music as they grow, since your Wild voice is in them, a harp that grieves For life, that opens death's dark door. Though dust, your fingers still can push The Vision Splendid to a birth, Though now they work as grass in the hush Of the night on the broad sweet page of the earth. "John Keats is dead," they say, but I, Who hear your full, insistent cry In bud and blossom, leaf and tree, Know John Keats still writes poetry. And while my head is earthward bowed To read new life sprung from your shroud, Folks seeing me must think it's strange That merely spring should so derange My mind. They do not know that you, John Keats, keep revel with me, too.

MR. PINSKY: A whole tremendous weight of European thought and religion and philosophical questioning is dealt with in a very irreverent and saucy way in this poem by Wallace Stevens.

"The Pleasures of Merely Circulating" The garden flew round with the angel, The angel flew round with the clouds, And the clouds flew round and the clouds flew round And the clouds flew round with the clouds. Is there any secret in skulls, The cattle skulls in the woods? Do the drummers in black hoods Rumble anything out of their drums? Mrs. Anderson's Swedish baby Might well have been German or Spanish Yet that things go round and again go round Has rather a classical sound.

MR. HASS: Since Rita read County Cullin's tribute to John Keats, I thought that I'd read the tribute of an Irish American poet to a great black American artist. It's Frank O'Hara's elegy for Billie Holiday, called, "The Day Lady Died." And you should probably know that Billie Holiday used to sing at the Five Spot and that her accompanist was named Mal Waldron. This is the saucy, circumstantial American poetry of the New York art scene in the 1950s.

"The Day Lady Died" It is 12:20 in New York a Friday three days after Bastille day, yes, it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner and I don't know the people who will feed me. I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun and have a hamburger and a malted and buy an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets in Ghana are doing these days. I go to the bank and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard) doesn't even look at my balance for once in her life and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les NŠgres of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine after practically going to sleep with quandariness. and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and then I go back where I came from, to 6th Avenue and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton of Picayunes and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it. And I am sweating a lot now and thinking of leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT while she whispered a song along the keyboard to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

MR. PINSKY: We'll read a series of poems that have to do with imagination, I think in an American context. The poem I'm going to read to you has a lot in common in American country music. It's basically kind of a "somebody done somebody wrong" narrative in which the extraordinary nature of the woman who chooses very badly in love becomes part of the pride of a town. And the relationship between the gossip, of the preoccupation of the town and her heroism makes something of the story that's a little more significant to the imagination than the story would be in itself, for her, or than the town would be.

And the rhymes -- it's Edwin Arlington's "Eros Turannos" -- Love the Tyrant. The rhymes in the poem are like a somewhat, somewhat longing notion of a ballad, but it's like a hyper-ballad. It's a ballad straining to be a ballad in a community that is partly too lonely to be the adequate community.

"Eros Turranos" She fears him, and will always ask What fated her to choose him; She meets him in his engaging mask All reasons to refuse him; But what she meets and what she fears Are less than are the downward years Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs Of age, were she to lose him. Between a blurred sagacity That once had power to sound him, And Love, that will not let him be The Judas that she found him, Her pride assuages her almost, As if it were alone the cost -- He sees that he will not be lost, And waits and looks around him. A sense of ocean and old trees Envelops and allures him; Tradition, touching all he sees, Beguiles and reassures him; And all her doubts of what he says Are dimmed with what she knows of days -- Till even prejudice delays, And fades, and she secures him. The falling leaf inaugurates The reign of her confusion; The pounding wave reverberates The dirge of her illusion; And home, where passion lived and died, Becomes a place where she can hide, While all the town and harbor side Vibrate with her seclusion. We tell you, tapping on our brows, The story as it should be -- As if the story of a house Were told, or ever could be; We'll have no kindly veil between Her visions and those we have seen -- As if we guessed what hers have been, Or what they are or would be. Meanwhile we do no harm; for they That with a god have striven, Not hearing much of what we say, Take what the god has given; Though like waves breaking it may be, Or like a changed familiar tree, Or like a stairway to the sea Where down the blind are driven.

MS. DOVE: Elizabeth Bishop wrote one of the most amazing sestinas I think of the English language. The sestina is a lot like a household as seen by a child. Words keep popping up, objects, and you try to make sense of them. And just as a sestina uses those six words over and over again, a child will find a way to piece together the puzzle of its existence and its place in the world. This is Elizabeth Bishop's

"Sestina" September rain falls on the house, In the failing light, the old grandmother sits in the kitchen with the child beside the Little Marvel Stove, reading the jokes from the almanac, laughing and talking to hide her tears. She thinks that her equinoctial tears and the rain that beats on the roof of the house were both foretold by the almanac, but only known to a grandmother. The iron kettle sings on the stove. She cuts some bread and says to the child, It's time for tea now; but the child is watching the teakettle's small hard tears dance like mad on the hot black stove, the way the rain must dance on the house. Tidying up, the old grandmother hangs up the clever almanac on its string. Birdlike, the almanac hovers half open above the child, hovers above the old grandmother and her teacup full of dark brown tears. She shivers and says she thinks the house feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove. It was to be, says the Marvel Stove. I know what I know, says the almanac. With crayons, the child draws a rigid house and a winding pathway. Then the child puts in a man with buttons like tears and shows it proudly to the grandmother. But secretly, while the grandmother busies herself about the stove, the little moons fall down like tears from between the pages of the almanac into the flower bed the child has carefully placed in the front of the house. Time to plant tears, says the almanac. The grandmother sings to the marvellous stove and the child draws another inscrutable house.

MR. HASS: Wallace Stevens probably thought longer and more directly about imagination, about the American imagination, about the relationship of the imagination to reality than any other American poet. And this is his last -- possibly his second to last, poem on the subject. It's either the last poem he wrote, or very near it -- this man who spent 30 years walking from his house to his job as an executive vice president of the Hartford Insurance Company, musing on his own mind. And this last poem he called, "Of Mere Being." I should say that it's a man who lived through hard winters Floridian imagination of mere being. (Laughter.)

The palm at the end of the mind, Beyond the last thought, rises In the bronze decor. A gold-feathered bird Sings in the palm without human meaning, Without human feeling, a foreign song. You know then that it is not the reason That makes us happy or unhappy. The bird sings. Its feathers shine. The palm stands at the edge of space, The wind moves slowly in the branches. The birds' fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

MR. PINSKY: What we've been doing is seeking inspiration and sustenance and comfort from our past, from the ancestors. The last poem that we're going to read for this part of the evening is a poem about that journey, how mysterious and difficult and stressful and challenging and, the end, restorative, that search into the past is. And we'll share the reading of the poem amongst the three of us.

So the final poem, this part of the evening, is Robert Frost's poem, "Directive."

Back out of all this now too much for us, Back in a time made simple by the loss Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather, There is a house that is no more a house Upon a farm that is no more a farm And in a town that is no more a town. The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you Who only has at heart your getting lost, May seem as if it should have been a quarry!! Great monolithic knees the former town Long since gave up pretence of keeping covered. And there's a story in a book about it: Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels The ledges show lines ruled southeast northwest, The chisel work of an enormous Glacier That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole. You must not mind a certain coolness from him Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain. Nor need you mind the serial ordeal Of being watched from forty cellar holes As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins. As for the woods' excitement over you That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves, Charge that to upstart inexperience. Where were they all not twenty years ago? They think too much of having shaded out A few old pecker-fretted apple trees. Make yourself up a cheering song of how Someone's road home from work this once was, Who may be just ahead of you on foot Or creaking with a buggy load of grain. The height of the adventure is the height Of country where two village cultures faded Into each other. Both of them are lost. And if you're lost enough to find yourself By now, pull in your ladder road behind you And put up a sign CLOSED to all but me. Then make yourself at home. The only field Now left's no bigger than a harness gall. First there's the children's house of make believe, Some shattered dishes underneath a pine, The playthings in the playhouse of the children. Weep for what little things could make them glad.


Then for the house that is no more a house, But only a belilaced cellar hole, Now slowly closing like a dent in dough. This was no playhouse but a house in earnest. Your destination and your destiny's A brook that was the water of the house, Cold as a spring as yet so near its source, Too lofty and original to rage. (We know the valley streams that when aroused Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.) I have kept hidden in the instep arch Of an old cedar at the waterside A broken drinking goblet like the Grail Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it, So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't. (I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.) Here are your waters and your watering place. Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.


THE PRESIDENT: I don't mean to be heretical, but I was transported by Robert and Robert and Rita. And I was thinking, this really is an historic moment: first, there were the three tenors --(laughter) -- then there were three sopranos, but nobody ever had three such poets before and we thank them. (Applause.)

A few years ago there was an interesting article in the Atlantic Monthly, which asked whether poetry could matter in the 21st century. I reread it a few moments before coming down tonight. You know, in this crazy world we're living in, everything's running around so fast. If it could matter, how could we revive the human value of poetry -- its importance to our culture, to our sense of who we are and who we are becoming as individuals and as a people?

Well, tonight there is a poet who was not an American, but was very much of the Americas, and I think we would be remiss not to acknowledge. Here's what Octavio Paz said about his craft: "Between what I see and what I say, between what I say and what I keep silent, between what I keep silent and what I dream, between what I dream and what I forget, poetry."

That is what we celebrate here tonight. Does it have any value? Of course, it does. It made us happy. It made us nostalgic. It made us sad. It made us wiser tonight.

When I was a boy in high school I was once required to memorize 100 lines from Macbeth -- hardly designed to entice me to a public career. (Laughter.) But then again, I learned about the dangers of blind ambitions -- (laughter) -- the fleeting nature of fame -- (laughter) -- the ultimate emptiness of power disconnected from higher purpose. Mr. Shakespeare made me a better President. (Applause.)

Something quite a lot to be said for all this, and I welcome you here tonight. Tonight, we have honored the poetry of our nation's past. Now, I'd like for you to see some of the poets of our future, people whom Hillary and our Poets Laureate visited with today at Johnson Junior High School.

(A video is shown.)

THE PRESIDENT: Now I'd like to turn the discussion over to the Director of our White House Millennium Project, Ellen Lovell.

MS. LOVELL: Thank you, Mr. President. We invited some other Americans who love poetry to come here and read us their favorite poems. And the first is Barry Norkin from the Veterans Nursing Home program in Silver Spring, Maryland.

MR. NORKIN: Hello, I am Barry Norkin, and I would like to share with you Robert Frost's beautiful poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village, though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year. He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound's the sweep of easy wind on downy flake. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.


MS. LOVELL: Thank you, Mr. Norkin. I know that poem means a lot to you.

We have Internet questions now from all over the world, Mrs. Clinton, from Germany and Australia, Saudi Arabia, England, and India, but let's take the first one from the United States.

MRS. CLINTON: This question is from Rebecca Sue Olson from Chapin, South Carolina. And it's for any of the poets. "As we become more and more of a sound-byte society and rely upon technology for communication, will poetry even be relevant in the new millennium?"

Robert, Bob, Rita?

MR. HASS: Someone asked me that the other day. In fact, poets often get asked that in interviews, and I always think it's such a curious question. Technologies are media. They have content. I was with the grand old Nobel Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz, a couple of weeks ago on a spring afternoon in Portland. And we walked into a restaurant, and a very fresh-faced young waitress came toward us with a tray full of fruit. And he turned to me and said, you know, life is so pleasant it's a pity one has to die. (Laughter.)

One needs a language in which to say those things whatever the technologies are. I don't understand how human beings will have any less need to think strange thoughts and feel their way into the strangest and funniest and happiest and weirdest feelings because they're using some other media. (Applause.)

MS. LOVELL: Reverend Michael Haynes from the Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston, I know that poetry is intertwined with your life and work.

REVEREND HAYNES: My parents immigrated to the United States from the island country of Barbados around 1920. I was born around 1927 in the heart of Boston, on the edge of the Great Depression, which had its terrible impact upon our family. I went to the Boston Public Schools, and in the 9th grade in junior high school a very, very caring, insightive teacher kept quoting phrases that said something like this, "Be not like dumb, driven cattle; be a hero in the strife." That was the first seed in my life of one whom I came to know as the New England poet by the name of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

When I got to Boston English High School, our English teacher made us learn the poem and recite the poem, gave us a little of the background. I didn't realize that I was receiving a seed in my life that was going to help me psychologically, sociologically and even, eventually, theologically.

When I got to theological school all of the pieces of Longfellow began to make an awful lot of sense. His "Psalm of Life" became mine:

Tell me not in mournful numbers, Life is but an empty dream! For the soul isdead that slumbers And things are not what they seem. Life is real -- Life is -- earnest. And the grave is not its goal; Dust thou art, to dust returnest, Was not spoken of the soul. Not enjoyment and not sorrow, Is our destin'd end or way; But to act, that each to-morrow Finds us farther than to-day. Art is long and time is fleeting, And our hearts, though stout and brave, Still, like muffled drums are beating Funeral marches to the grave. In the world's broad field of battle, In the bivouac of Life, Be not like the dumb, driven cattle, Be a hero in the strife. Trust no future, howe'er pleasant. Let the dead Past bury its dead. Act -- act in the glorious present! Heart within and God o'er head! Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And departing leave behind us Footsteps on the sands of time. Footsteps that perhaps another, Sailing on life's solemn main, A forlorn and a shipwrecked brother, Seeing shall take heart again. Let us then be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait.


MRS. CLINTON: This next question from the Internet is from Everett C. Albers from Bismark, North Dakota: "Suppose that in the next millennium poetry becomes the medium of shared vision and American community; there's a reading beginning at midnight, 2099. What lines from American poetry of the 20th century might be recited 1,000 years or so hence? (Laughter.)

MR. HASS: Probably someone would get up and sing Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing." (Laughter.)

MS. DOVE: And that would be very appropriate.

MR. PINSKY: We started to try to answer that question in what we did for half an hour. We were partly thinking of the occasion. But I would say that Williams, Stevens, Bishop, Frost, O'Hara, Hughes, Hayden, the poets that we read represent not only our sense of what would be good to read on this occasion, but also things that live in our hearts and we think are likely to be living 100 years from now -- things by those authors. So it's not a very original answer, but it is from the heart.

MS. DOVE: And we can see that, I mean, if you think of -- we read Dickinson, and we wanted to stay there -- she will also be read in the year 2999. (Laughter.)

MS. LOVELL: When I spoke with Rich Wormeli, a middle school teacher from Herndon, Virginia, and the 1996 Disney English Teacher of the Year, his deep feeling for words really came through. He's here with his students. Rick?

MR. WORMELI: Thank you. Thank you very much. We took your charge at heart. We have 11- and 12-year-olds, not just 13-year-olds, Ms. Dove -- some of Virginia's finest with us here tonight. But I have to tell you that in our classroom, we try to make poetry so compelling that the students can only escape by feeling the poet's passion, understanding the context. And with each poem we somehow plant a seed, I hope, of developed thought, developed maturation, and understanding. But it is through poetry that we're finally able to express those things that are unspeakable, unbridled joy, and tragic sorrow.

It is the latter of the two that I share with you tonight in effort to make poetry alive and lasting for my students. I read you "The Ballad of Birmingham," by Dudley Randall, which expresses what was going on in this poet's mind at the bombing of the churches in 1993 Birmingham, Alabama.

'Mother dear, may I go downtown Instead of out to play, and march the streets of Birmingham in a freedom march today?' 'No, baby, no, you may not go, for the dogs are fierce and wild, and clubs and hoses, guns and jails are not good for a little child.' 'But mother, I won't be alone. Other children will go with me, and march the streets of Birmingham to make our country free.' 'No, baby, no, you may not go. For I fear those guns will fire. But you may go to church instead and sing in the children's choir.' She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair and bathed rose-petal sweet, and drawn white gloves on her small brown hands and white shoes on her feet. The mother smiled to know her child was in this sacred place, but that smile was the last smile to come upon her face. For when she heard the explosion, her eyes grew wet and wild. She raced through the streets of Birmingham calling for her child. She clawed through bits of glass and brick, and lifted out a shoe. 'Oh, here's the shoe my baby wore, but, baby, where are you?'


MRS. CLINTON: This is an appropriate question to follow your poem. It's from Alice George in Evanston, Illinois. "Please identify one activity to be enacted in our country's public schools which you believe best inspires children to welcome the power of poetry, reading, and writing into their lives.

MR. PINSKY: A very simple answer: To read aloud. The teacher should read aloud to the kids. The kids should read aloud. And people should follow their tastes. The most stringent assignment a teacher can give to students is find something that you think is worth memorizing. Find something you think is worth reading aloud to other people.

To return to the previous question, it's the young poets and the passionate young people who decide what lives. It's not curricula or critics or anthologies. It's what gets under people's skin and what gives them the pleasure of reading aloud.

Knowledge is good. Analysis is good. Discussion is good. Learning is good. But all these things in art must begin with a physical encounter. And the physical encounter with the poem is saying it aloud and feeling that emotion people feel when they say a poem aloud. And my advice for anyone who wants to learn more about poetry is the same as my advice to myself -- read it aloud and see what happens between the mind and the body as you read it aloud.

MS. LOVELL: I think we have time for one last Internet question, Mrs. Clinton.

MRS. CLINTON: This is from Louis Farrell of Las Altas Hills, California. "Technology is leading us into the new millennium with such things as new DNA research, faster computers, Internet, et cetera. What value will poetry add to our quality of living that compares to these new marvels?

MS. DOVE: The key word there of course is "quality." And I would say that all of those new computer things have to have something to talk about and to write about, and poetry allows us to imagine the future. I don't believe that poets have any kind of monopoly on imagination, but what poetry can do is awaken the imagination, and through that imagination you can have the DNA research, the computers and all of these marvels. So it's all connected, it's all wrapped up together.

MR. HASS: I'll say that I love my computer. (Laughter.) I have a great time with it. I love my CD player. I like my television set very much. (Laughter.)

MR. PINSKY: And all of those things, the human appetite for art in the human being is bottomless, there's no end to it. And the very speed and the technological magnificence and vividness and the highly duplicable quality of those media I think already, as I perceive it in the country, create in reaction -- I'm not rejecting those things, but in reaction -- love for and need for the kind of excitement and comfort that comes from an art where the medium is one person's body. Not necessarily the artist's body, not Rita reading Rita's poems or me reading mine, but the body of the audience.

When I say a poem by Robert Hayden or Dickinson or Whitman with my voice, that voice -- my breath, is the artist's medium. And that's in a highly individual, personal scale that I think we crave, along with our craving for spectacular gadgets and massive film on a videodisk of the Earth from space. It's wonderful, but it doesn't fill up my appetite for pizza. (Laughter.)

MS. LOVELL: Our next to last reading. Jessica Rawls is a 7th grader from Charles Hart Middle School in D.C., she was with us today. She's a star in her poetry slam team. Jessica has so many poems that I know it was hard for her to choose just one to read, but she did.

MS. RAWLS: "Life Is Fine," by Langston Hughes.

I went down to the river, I set down on the bank. I tried to think, but couldn't, So I jumped in and sank. I came up once and hollered! I came up twice and cried. If that water hadn't a-been so cold I might have sunk and died. But it was Cold in that water! It was cold! I took the elevator Sixteen floors above the ground. I thought about my baby And thought I would jump down. I stood there and I hollered! I stood there and I cried! If it hadn't been so high I might've jumped and died. But it was High, up there! It was high! So since I'm still here livin', I guess I will live on. I could've died for love -- But for livin' I was born. Though you may hear me holler, And you may hear me cry -- I'll be dogged, sweet baby, If you're going to see me die. Life is fine! Fine as wine. Life is fine!

Thank you. (Applause.)

MS. LOVELL: Mr. President, I know you have some words to give us.

THE PRESIDENT: Let me say, first of all, I thought the people who were in the audience who read their poems were absolutely fabulous and I'd like to thank you all. You were great. Thank you. (Applause.)

Well, I'm supposed to end. I suppose the first thing I should say is that poets help me get over MacBeth. (Laughter.) When I was about 21 and despairing I came across those wonderful lines from Carl Sandburg, "A tough will counts; so does desire. So does a rich, soft, wanting. Without rich wanting, nothing arrives."

We want these children to have ambition. We just want it to be well-connected. A lot of presidents have wanted to be poets. (Laughter.) George Washington actually tried his hand at poetry, writing that "true happiness depends upon a quiet soul" -- as I told our Poets Laureate on the way out. And John Quincy Adams actually wanted to be a poet, he wanted to do that, but he just couldn't quite get there. (Laughter.) So he settled for a lesser path. (Laughter.)

But still he composed verses all his life. Even when he was an old man in Congress, waiting to vote, he would write out little verses. He once wrote in the Congress, "We must seize the moments as they pass, and snatch the retrieveless sunbeam as it flies."

Lucky for you, I haven't written any poetry in over 20 years. (Laughter.) And the poems I wrote to Hillary so long ago I would still be a little embarrassed to read today. (Laughter.)

But I would like to close with a particularly American poem about love of country, sacrifice, the conflict between mortality and the timeless value of a deed well done. It is Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Concorde Hymn," written to honor the completion of the Battle Monument, commemorating the battles of Lexington and Concord in the Revolutionary War.

By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to April's breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard 'round the world . The foe long since in silence slept; Alike the conqueror in silence sleeps; In time the ruined bridge has swept Down the dark stream which seaward creeps. On this green bank, by this soft stream, We set today a votive stone; That memory may their deed redeem, When, like our sires, our sons are gone. Spirit that made those heroes dare To die and leave their children free Bid time and nature gently spare The shaft we raise to them and thee.

President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore
Record of Progress | The Briefing Room
Gateway to Government | Contacting the White House
White House for Kids | White House History
White House Tours | Help | Text Only

Privacy Statement

Events and Remarks

Dr. Bernard Bailyn

Committee on the Arts and Humanities

President At Millennium Lecture

Remarks at Millennium Evening with Poets Laureate

Q&As at Hawking Lecture

Excerpts from 1997 State of the Union

Millenium Trails Announcement

Stephen Hawking

The President and The First Lady

Be Involved