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Commencement Address 2018

Rita Dove, DFA; May 20, 2018

Rita Dove at the podium

Rita Dove—recipient of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry and two-time U.S. Poet Laureate—delivered the address at Smith’s 140th Commencement ceremony, Sunday, May 20, 2018.

President McCartney, Interim Provost O’Rourke, honored faculty and alumni, parents, friends…and foremost you, the graduating class of 2018—congratulations to all: You made it! 

What is the mystery of life? Perhaps it is simply that We Don't Know. Perhaps the secret of happiness is that we recognize our ultimate ignorance and embrace it. That we cherish the journey life has to offer us, and try to keep that journey moving forward. 

But here I am beginning to do what I intended to avoid—to pontificate with self-evident certitudes, to pitch my voice to be heard in a crowd, where those big and beautiful words—the ones that we always think of as capitalized in our minds, words like Truth, Honor, Happiness, Success, and the biggest of all, that grand triumvirate of Love, Life, Death—well, such words might come off okay when thundered through a microphone, but they sound rather pompous when spoken face to face, like from parents to their offspring. In fact, if I had spoken these words in conversation to my daughter, when she was your age, dear graduates, she might have scoffed outright, or at least tuned me out. And she would have been right to do so. She would have said, "Can the sentiment, Mom," because that's what those words are—sentimental abstractions, larger than life, teetering on the horizon like the wind-beaten letters of the Hollywood sign. 

Because Life—no, let me change that: Living is specific, and those words encapsulate generalizations. Living is mired in details—the stain on your interview blouse, a missed phone call that might have made a difference in your career, and the Jeep running the red light that's clearly in the wrong, but you slam on the brakes anyway; the typo on the order form that ties up shipment, too much sugar in a peach cobbler. What good are those bombastic words, you would be justified in asking, in a world where you can't even stop inhaling once every six or seven seconds?

So I won't use them least not just yet. I will simply start by telling you how I felt as a parent watching her own daughter triumphantly tossing that mortarboard high into the air: I felt inadequate. Yes, inadequate in my efforts as a mother to prepare my child for what might be waiting for her beyond graduation, this more or less formal divide between youth and adulthood. But then again, how could any parent have ever prepared you? They don't really know what's waiting for you. No one knows that, and especially now, in these precarious times where Truth has become a rather insecure commodity. And since none of us can truly and conclusively predict where exactly we are headed, we must make the most of the journey itself. We must remind ourselves and each other that it matters how we conduct ourselves along the way—that we look at the landscape instead of barreling on by, that we have some laughs together rather than complain that our feet hurt—all the while acknowledging that there are no prepackaged, Twitter-size answers to the big questions about the Future.

The best two bits of advice I ever received were actually one and the same. As a teenager I spent weekends with grandmother, who was slowly going blind. Her favorite word of wisdom was: "As long as you've done your best from the inside out, you'll be all right, dear." In other words, if you've done your homework—not just enough to “get over” but really done the best you know you're capable of—if you've attended to your inner health as well as your exterior requirements, then you'll be all right.

My parents put it a similar and yet different way. They also encouraged me and my siblings to always do the very best we knew we could do—not just what was expected of us. They would frown upon us scraping by on assignments, merely fulfilling minimum requirements. Their argument sharpened my grandmother's advice and put it into a social, or shall we say societal context, meaning that we as African-Americans would have to be twice as good as the next candidate for any job, so we might as well get into gear and condition ourselves accordingly. No matter what grades we brought home, their first question was, “Did you do your very best?” 

When you leave this institution, the first things you may remember about your college days are the friends and parties, all-nighters made bearable with Chinese take-out and strong coffee. Maybe you'll remember the cell biology professor who gave a mid-term exam where all the abstract formulas had been converted to “real” things, such as: Your spaceship won't take off from Pluto because it's encrusted with barnacles; how do you go about determining what protein makes the glue that the barnacles are using, so that you can remove them? And you thought: How dare she confuse your carefully crammed head with annoying real life scenarios? Later, you'll convince yourself that you remember next to nothing from the classes you took during your freshman and sophomore years. Or you'll condemn the three rewrites of your senior project as an unnecessarily sadistic exercise. 

Those, at least, were some of the memories I harbored when I graduated from college so long ago that I could be your grandmother. But I also remember contentious debates about glaring racial inequalities and sex discrimination, triumphant elation over Roe versus Wade, which the Supreme Court decided that very year when I received my bachelor’s degree, I remember going out into the streets to demonstrate against the Vietnam War madness, and I remember better than I’d like to the corruption and inhumanity of an administration whose viciousness and duplicity found a partial comeuppance in Watergate, though the disillusion it engendered in us permeated our bright dreams of democracy—sound familiar?  

Each generation has its own demons and battles to fight. You will look back on Friday teas and dorm room all-nighters and remember the spontaneous debates over climate change, marriage equality, our nation’s entrenched gun culture, over trigger-happy cops, over children deported by authorities for whom compassion is an alien concept, over an election gone terribly wrong, over mass opioid addiction in a despairing populace, over the pervasive macho menace brought to light by MeToo. 

And yet life waltzes or stumbles on, and soon you’ll begin to miss those days when you could ask your professors for the answers to whatever intrigued you. How do you hold on to your dreams with dignity? How do you know when you should listen to others and when to follow your own hunches? How can you remain connected to that innermost spiritual hunger while negotiating the necessary commerce of living? 

Quite a while ago when I was Poet Laureate of the United States, I received a letter from a young mother who pleaded that “poetry needs to be taught to very young children before they get the idea that they can’t write it, don’t want to write it, or don’t understand it…” She concluded: “In a sense, poetry is making the language your own.” I love that statement. It pertains to all of us, after all—because the mind is informed by the spirit of play, and every discipline is peppered with vivid terminology: Fractal geometry has dragon curves and Packed Swiss Cheese cosmologies. There are lady’s slippers in botany and onomatopoeic bushwhackers. Football has wingbacks, buttonhooks and coffin corners; there are doglegs on golf courses and butterfly valves in automobiles. And when there are no words for what we need, we make up new ones: Drama queen. Soul patch. Bucket list. Google.

Remember the children’s rhyme that begins:

If all the world were paper,
And all the sea was ink;
if all the trees were bread and cheese,
what should we have to drink?

This is the danger in the freedom you’re just graduating to: If you allow your picture of the world to shrink to the perimeters of your job or your field of graduate study; if, overwhelmed by the sheer weight of information available and overcome by the onslaught of falsehoods that masquerade as truths, you begin to sort and file rather than access and ponder…you just might end up experiencing the world as ink and paper riddled with faulty equations, and find that your spirit is dying of thirst.

In ancient Rome, every citizen owned a genius. The genius was one’s personal spirit, which came to each and every one at birth; it represented the fullness of one’s potential powers. This genius, then, was considered a birthright, but it needed to be nourished in order to survive. Today, in our age of the narcissist, the birthday child expects gifts to shower down upon her; but the ancient Roman was expected to make a sacrifice to his or her genius. If one served one's genius well during one's lifetime, the genius became a household god, called a lars, after one's death. If, however, one neglected one’s potential, the genius became a spook, a troublesome spirit who plagued the living. 

Here at Smith, you have received a topnotch liberal education. That is, you have not only been well trained in your individual fields, but also been exposed to a range of other disciplines, encouraged to explore new ideas based on a solid core of knowledge geared to help you cope with the boundless changes that you will need to confront in our rapidly vacillating civilization. (I wish I could say “accelerating civilization,” but I'm no longer sure that Forward is the direction in which our society is going at the moment.)

Whether you end up as a politician or a painter, a novelist or a neurologist—this you all have in common: You have learned how to pursue thoughts and ideas, and hopefully you have grown to love that pursuit. 

Another of my favorite Mother Goose rhymes goes:

This is the key of the kingdom:
In that kingdom is a city,
In that city is a town,
In that town there is a street, 
In that street there winds a lane,
In that lane there is a house,
In that house there waits a room
In that room there is a bed,
On that bed there is a basket,
A basket of flowers.

Flowers in the basket,
Basket on the bed,
Bed in the chamber,
Chamber in the house,
House in the weedy yard,
Yard in the winding lane,
Lane in the broad street,
Street in the high town,
Town in the city,
City in the kingdom:
This is the key of the kingdom.

I love this verse because it reminds me that all ideas large and grand have sprung their roots from very small seeds. In a way, it is a description of the path to wisdom—start with the thing you know; then, as you venture into the world, taking the road of education into ever broader avenues of possibility, apply what you’ve learned along the way, never forgetting that the key to the kingdom of knowledge is linked to curiosity and appreciation. 

With these Commencement exercises you are making your departure a public act. You have been in incubation but now you breathe on your own—no rarefied ether, but the thick air of life. You must generate your own heat. The mission is a mystery. The door leads out and away; as the word Commencement implies, it is a door into a new beginning. 

As weird as it might sound, one of the things you might most likely miss is that there are no more class assignments to fulfill. Oh yes! Because an assignment can force you to go where you would have been too lazy or to apprehensive to venture before. Even rote exercises follow this mantra: Athletes know that if they don't keep up training, muscles will stiffen and, eventually, atrophy. Singers speak of supporting the voice, which they do through frequent and sustained practice, strengthening the muscle of the diaphragm so that that clear and beautiful sound you're hearing is being uplifted by years of exercise. 

So here is one last assignment for you—a bit of homework, the bonus question on the exam you've already passed with flying colors. I challenge you to tweet me your very own graduation poem—your feelings, your fears and hopes and—well whatever details you intend to carry with you on the way to the future. Tweet it to me at #gradpoem. In return, I’ll leave you with one of my own poems, called “Dawn Revisited”:

Dawn Revisited

Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don’t look back, 

the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits—
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You’ll never know
who’s down there, frying those eggs,
if you don’t get up and see.

Don’t forget—tweet your poem to me at #gradpoem. Now go on and celebrate—congratulations, class of 2018! 

© 2018 by Rita Dove