Governor Paterson gave his State of the State address on January 7. The speech did not hold the anticipatory drama that usually accompanies a Governor’s opening speech, because Paterson had already released his budget proposal for the year. The budget is the true policy document and lays out the executive’s priorities and direction, so the pundits did not expect any large surprises in the speech.
Paterson noted the economic condition of the state early , calling it ‘perilous.’ I did not hear the full speech, but when I read this line so early in the text, I felt let down. A leader needs to raise the hopes of the populace during difficult times, and by leading off with such a negative adverb, he takes us down into a hole.
Granted, he did follow by exhorting us to rally our resources, to marshal the skills and determination of our citizens, to demonstrate that we are truly the great State of New York. He waved the flag of hope, shared sacrifice, and better days ahead.
But every newspaper headline, radio and television soundbite, news website, and the ever-growing blogosphere led off with the word ‘perilous.’
All of this ignores the most important part of his speech, the part that was not in his prepared text: Governor Paterson recited a poem. And his poem represented everything his speech could, or should, have: the passion of the leader, the soldier who grasps the fallen sword and forges on in the face of difficult challenges, the risen warrior who rallies his citizens to push on.
Paterson made more than one major symbolic statement by reciting his poem. Being blind, Paterson memorizes his remarks before he speaks. He memorized this poem as a student in elementary school, harking back to a time when reciting poetry was a frequent learning exercise. Being blind, Paterson has overcome his own barriers and risen to prominence – but he does not view his blindness as an impediment to his abilities to do what he is capable of doing. He rises above us all.
He makes another statement that may not have been intended. In tight fiscal times, there will be a great deal of pressure to cut funding for the arts. Granted, poets are not a money-making employment category in any time period; but poetry is an art, and is deserving of our attention in education, in literature, in publishing, and in funding by society through our government. Paterson highlighted the power of poetry by reciting his poem at the outset of his most important annual speech as Governor.
I occasionally open a meeting at work by reading a poem. It calms me down before I go into a long, or potentially contentious, meeting. But it also creates a tone at the beginning of the meeting: people are quietly attentive and generally focus on the poem, whether it is the recitation or the power of the words themselves.Governor Paterson did the same thing. It was an impressive statement.
The poem was "Opportunity", by Edward Rowland Sill; you can find it here.