ON RECEIVING AN HONORARY DOCTOR OF HUMANE LETTERS FROM NEW ENGLAND COLLEGE

An Excerpt from

ON RECEIVING AN HONORARY DOCTOR OF HUMANE LETTERS FROM

NEW ENGLAND COLLEGE

Henniker, New Hampshire

27 January 2009

by

David Budbill

I

I never thought I’d be in a situation like this, not to mention seen in public in a get-up like this. I never thought I’d be a doctor of anything, except maybe Dr. of Nothing, of Emptiness.

 

II

I write poems and plays, occasionally a novel, and on a regular basis essays also, and I perform my work with jazz musicians. I also raise a year’s supply of vegetables and cut a year’s supply of firewood every year. I live in the mountains of northern Vermont as far away from academia and institutions as I can get. Therefore this honor is kind of embarrassing. It just doesn’t sound like me. On the other hand New England College and I have a history together. We go back almost 30 years. I feel connected to this place.

 

I posted this event on the calendar on my website awhile back and a friend in Iowa saw it there and emailed me saying that it gave him “great hope” that there are still some academic institutions out there in the world that think someone who writes poems and reads books, cuts wood and gardens, leads a quiet life of contemplation far away from any academic institution is worthy of an honor like this one. What my friend in Iowa said touched me. I agree with him. It is an honor, especially because it was bestowed on such an unlikely character as meself.

 

III

I have a checkered history with academic institutions. Being the egalitarian that I am, I’ve made it a point to get every grade offered, from the highest to the lowest, at every school I’ve ever attended. And since then, I’ve spent my life trying to stay away from academic institutions. Therefore, all the greater wonder that I’m standing here this morning.

 

I’m a writer but I have always been somewhat embarrassed about being a writer, an artist. I don’t like the elite and elitist air that so often casts itself over artists and the arts. It is obvious that many people involve themselves with the arts in order to distinguish themselves from the common people out of which I come and with whom I still fiercely identify. I’m interested in the invisible people, the ordinary and downtrodden, the put-upon and forgotten.

 

I hate pretense. I want to make art that the common people can understand, use, find meaningful and enjoy. Grace Paley once said to me after looking at a hand written note I’d sent her, “We both write big, David. We want to be understood.”

 

All this may explain why my writing is so plain and simple and easy to understand. In fact I have a poem in one of my books called ”
“On the Road to Buddhahood.”

 

Ever plainer. Ever simpler.
Ever more ordinary.

My goal is to become a simpleton.

And from what everybody tells me
I am making real good progress.
I hope this honor won’t ruin my reputation.

 

IV

I am the first person with my name to graduate from high school not to mention college or anything else. In other words, I was one of those–lo, those many years ago–First Generation College Students.

It wasn’t an easy road for me. My average grade coming out of high school was a C minus. I did a little theatre, ran track and played jazz trumpet, but in the classroom I was always the kid in the back slumped down in his seat trying to be invisible.

 

Colleges were interested in me only because I was a star on the track team, a record holding hurdler. Colleges hustled me. One college even offered to get me a tutor to help me through my classes.

 

When I got to college I had to go to the reading lab because I was reading on an 8th grade level. One of the reasons I was reading on an 8th grade level was that I have numerous learning disabilities that make reading difficult for me. I make a lot of reversals, for example, and that slows me down a lot.

 

After my first semester in college I was put on academic probation because I was doing so poorly. The dean at the college I attended called me into his office one day and told me that if I would buckle down and work really hard I could be a good solid C+ or maybe even a B- student. That condescension pissed me off so much that after my first semester on academic probation, I got on the Dean’s List and stayed there for the next seven semesters. That was one smart Dean.

 

After I got myself together in college, I got interested in studying Philosophy–I have absolutely no idea why. I’ve never been able to figure that out. I majored in it and minored in Art History. Then I got a Masters Degree in Theology. I never have studied English or Literature.

 

But back to high school for a moment, in my senior year I had an English teacher who inspired me greatly and who was enthusiastic about some little things I was beginning to write, assignments for his class. Suddenly and without warning, I found myself seriously interested in writing plays and especially poetry.

 

V

I think one of the reasons I got interested in poetry, both in reading it and in writing it, is that there are a lot fewer words on a page of poetry than there are on a page of prose. I like all that white space. And in poetry the lines don’t even make it to the right hand side the page. Fewer words, spaced out more, and with a rhythm to them, a cadence. It all made poetry easier for me to read. I know there is lots of modern poetry that is impossibly difficult to read: obtuse, obscure, impossibly dense, impossible. I’m not talking about that kind of poetry. I’m talking about my kind of poetry: simple, clear, straightforward, vivid, intense, gripping. I still like reading poetry best; or listening to it, such as every morning on NPR’s The Writers Almanac. Novels have just too many words on each page and they go on forever. Poetry, on the other hand, gets up there, does it job with a minimum of words and fuss, belts it out, gets it over with and sits down. I like that. Here’s three illustrations of what I’m talking about.

 

ALL OF US

Out of the undifferentiated Tao
come the ten thousand things:

the bug in the bird’s mouth,
the bird in the tree
the tree outside the window,
the window beyond the chair
the chair in the room,
the man in the chair

who has just risen from the chair
and walked across the room
to look out the window
at the bird in the tree
with the bug in its mouth.
See how all of us,
at our own and different speeds,
return to the Tao.
Oh, let us all
sing praises now for all of us,
so briefly here.

 

and a second:

BUGS IN A BOWL

 

Han-shan, that great and crazy, wonder-filled
Chinese poet of a thousand years ago, said:
We’re just like bugs in a bowl. All day
going around never leaving their bowl.

I say:  That’s right!  Every day climbing up
the steep sides, sliding back.
Over and over again. Around and around.
Up and back down.
Sit in the bottom of the bowl, head in your hands,
cry, moan, feel sorry for your self.
Or. Look around. See your fellow bugs.
Walk around.
Say, Hey, how you doin’?
Say, Nice bowl!

 

and finally:

TOMORROW

Tomorrow
we are
bones and ash,
the roots of weeds
poking through
our skulls.
Today,
simple clothes,
empty mind,
full stomach,
alive, aware,
right here,
right now.
Drunk on music,
who needs wine?
Come on,
Sweetheart,
let’s go dancing
while we’ve
still got feet.

 

VII

I’ve been driving down here to Henniker for almost 30 years. It was easy to come back for this; I knew the way.

 

I thank you all for this honor. I am flattered, humbled and grateful.

Thank You.