2003: Dick Davis, “Phi Beta Kappa Poem, 2003”
How should a Brit presume to speak
For this Ohioan and Greek
Not even a lapsed Methodist,
I thought at first I should resist
But then more sensibly reflected
That kindness should not be rejected;
Might “outwardly” be what we are,
But none of us stray very far
From the same sins;
Which means we find it hard to shout
“This yard belongs to us … keep out!”
And great John Wesley
Can seem to have no more to teach us
Than verbally more challenged preachers
Like Elvis Presley.
And so perhaps it doesn’t matter
If I don’t have the in-house patter …
If you don’t see,
Before you now, strict relevance
Of background faith, or provenance;
Or a Greek key.
But being P-C ecumenical
Gives us no license to be cynical:
Why are we here
If not to celebrate Distinction?
To save it from morose extinction
And raise a cheer
In doing so? The problem then
Is how to be a citizen
But stubbornly intelligent;
For whom the mind is something meant
To be Socratic
But also (this is most frustrating)
It’s no surprise
If intellectuals are defensive …
Since cleverness can be offensive,
And when they’re wise
It has to be in such a way
That all of Demos wants to say
“I feel that too”.
The heavenly funambulist
Who brings this off does not exist.
What, then, to do?
Of course, like you, I’ve no idea.
A versifier’s not a seer
Despite the claims
Of Shelley and his New Age cronies …
Please, please, ignore all vatic phonies …
Perhaps though I can be allowed
To welcome you into the crowd
Of those who care
To worry at such problems — who
Ask “How to live and what to do?”
And don’t despair.
Although they know most answers seem
Like Prospero’s insubstantial dream,
Some are still solid:
Honor the honest intellect,
Show mouthy cant the door, reject
What’s smugly stolid;
See that your home’s a civil place
Where love of beauty’s no disgrace:
You could do worse.
And, friends, among the other arts
You let into your learn’d hearts
Don’t forget verse.
About Dick Davis
Dick Davis is currently Professor of Persian at Ohio State University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
He was born to English and Italian parents in 1945 and educated at King's College, Cambridge (B.A. and M.A. in English Literature). In 1970 while pursuing a career in poetry and literature and teaching in Greece he visited a friend in Iran. While there, he fell ill and was nursed to health by a Persian woman, whom he eventually married. Davis fell in love with the country as well, and stayed for eight years, learning Persian and teaching at the University of Tehran. After the revolution in 1979 the Davis family returned to England where he pursued his love of the Persian language, earning his Ph.D. in Medieval Persian Literature from the University of Manchester.
Prof. Davis has won numerous awards, including the Arts Council of Great Britain Writers’ Award (1979), the Heinemann Award for “a work of outstanding literary merit” (1981), the Award of The British Institute of Persian Studies (1981), the Persian Heritage Foundation Award for 1989, the Ingram Merrill Prize for “excellence in poetry” (1993), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1999-2000), and several prizes for his translations from the Persian.
Since receiving his Ph.D., he has emerged as the foremost translator of Persian. His translations from Persian include The Lion and the Throne: Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi (1997), My Uncle Napoleon (1996), The Legend of Seyavash (1992), and with Afkham Darbandi, The Conference of the Birds (1984). He has also written a groundbreaking interpretation of the Shahnameh, Epic and Sedition: The Case of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (1998).
Prof. Davis has published numerous volumes of his own poetry to critical acclaim, including: Belonging (2002), Touchwood (1996), A New Kind of Love (1991), Devices and Desires (1989), and The Covenant (1984).