Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
9 December 2014
Your Royal Highnesses, Principal, Highheidyins, Friends,
It is over thirty years since I last stood in this imposing space. If you had told me then that I’d come back here decades later to read one of my poems to the great and good of New York, then, with all the arrogance of youth, I would have believed you. Now, however, at the apogee of middle age, it seems less probable.
When the Principal asked if I would write a poem specially for this New York fundraising dinner, my first thought was, ‘I can’t do that. It’s sheer prostitution’. Then, about thirty six hours later, I’d done it. What convinced me it was do-able was thinking about my own children, one of whom has just started university. What a risk it seems when your child heads off into the world. What a risk it is to choose where to go. For most of us in this room, the risk paid off; but think back: surely there were early moments when it may have seemed a mistake. What I want you to recall tonight is that sense of excitement, potential, and risk.
My job here is to compete with this magnificent architectural distraction. I need to fly you away, back to Scotland, to somewhere always risky, always renewing itself, and to ask you help fuel it: not because you can be 100% sure it will succeed, but because you know that in the case of St Andrews the risk is utterly worth taking.
If you went there from the mirrorglass,
Numbered spreadsheet streets of New York City,
If you took a plane, another plane,
A bus, and then a train, and then a bus
Out to that whetted edge, those salted cobbles,
It would be special for you only with
Stony resilience, creels, a gaunt horizon,
Its greatest treasures seaweed and a kiss,
And you would miss the young, despite the young
Jostling around you, fresher-faced, echoic,
Crowding like logarithms on a page
Turned over, checking one another out;
But now and then a word – matriculation,
Epistemology, Salvator, raisin –
Or a name you knew you knew, the name of someone
Burned alive out in the public street,
Would do its work and make you wish you’d worked
Harder, or differently, or not at all.
Time to go. And so you’d go again,
Clutching that phone you did not have before,
So many bags, but nothing to declare,
Nothing to scare the wary airport scanners,
Although you’d know for sure that you had on you
Something to smuggle back, a risk, a gift.
Robert CrawfordUniversity news