Poetry Reading

Lines for the Inauguration of James A. Donahue, Twenty-ninth President of Saint Mary's College of California
- Robert A. Hass ’63, Former U.S. Poet Laureate

What rhymes with cognac?
Because, when I was a fledgling Gael,
We believed it was on the backs
Of the free labor of the Christian Brothers,
That we were being distilled,
And filled with the love of learning.
And each other
(and rugby, and basketball, among the forms of erudition)
for such a reasonable tuition.

We know what rhymes with the amber fluid,
that looks so pretty in almost any light
We also thought, though we had an inclination to the malt,
Supported us, as this place in a green valley
That was once a lake of the Acalanes people
To which the Christian Brothers had given
These white walls and warm-toned roofs of Spanish tile
And olive trees whitening in almost any breeze
Supported us.

(Mary, when I was a young Gael,
was the mild oath my Irish American grandmother
spoke in moments of distress or mild surprise.
She called on the Mother of God
In that way when, in my sophomore year,
I asked her to lend me the money to buy the car
I thought I needed because I had a girl friend.)

When I was a sophomore Gael,
We believed that at other institutions
Of Catholic higher education
You were spoonfed books by theologians explaining
What was right and wrong about those long books
By Plato and Aristotle and Immanuel Kant
And that if you were vinted at St. Mary’s,
You read the great stories and the hard books themselves
and sat around a fairly small table
And learned to talk about them. At St. Mary’s,
If you’ll pardon the pun, it was the categorical imperative
And Immanuel (yes we) can. Our instructors were kind.
And they were prudent. They knew that some of us read
The hard books hard and some of us didn’t,
But they made it clear that here
was the tie to bind us:
We’d come to a singing school for the freeing of the mind.

So I’m an old Gael now, long decanted,
Gathered with others who love this place
To watch one president replace another,
A Donahue for a Gallagher,
A scholar of Irish poetry handing over the green valley
(gold in summer) to a theologian who undertook,
As a young man, a study of the good,
in people and institutions.The labor,
you will have noticed, is not going to be as free
as it once was, or as we want the minds of the young
To be. Which should suggest to old Gaels
Who love this place, have loved the Christian Brothers,
That this would be an excellent time (Oh Mary!
To quote my grandmother) for us to pony up
And pay back. Which also rhymes with cognac.

James Donahue has said that a good person
Can tell her story to herself, leaving nothing out,
That a story, and a clear eye,
Are at the core of a spiritual, or a moral, life.
This story, October 11, year of Our Lord 2013,
Is new beginnings. Of an old story you may have heard:
The young, and their teachers, and a fairly small table,
And their own stories to tell before they’re through.
Thank you for signing on, and welcome, James Donahue.