Commencement Address, May 21, 2016
University of Virginia
President Sullivan, esteemed faculty and alumni, long-suffering, now relieved parents, jubilant relatives & friends . . . but foremost you, the graduating class of 2016 – despite the weather, this is a glorious morning! Congratulations!
Asking a poet to speak at commencement seems both a no-brainer and a provocation. After all, poets deal with words all the time – but they also strive to distill language down to the most necessary syllables in the most haunting song. The prospect of addressing a new generation of young adults coming from wide-ranging disciplines, all gathered one last time on these Grounds before scattering in whichever directions your passions or your jobs will take you – well, I can’t help but think of what Mark Twain said about the biblical Adam: “How lucky Adam was. He knew when he said a good thing, nobody had said it before.”
So let me say a few good words that couldn't be truer: I am extremely delighted to be here today, at the very institution where I have been teaching for the past twenty-seven years. Although I have given commencement speeches before, this one is different; this one is personal.
The job of a commencement speaker – I googled it, so it must be true! – is to dispense “life advice”. That seems the very opposite of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s definition of the poet as “a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.” So I will not give you advice. The last thing you want to hear is advice—because in order to be effective, advice must be specific – and that, obviously, is impossible in this setting.
So instead of advice, I will give you wishes. Just think of me as a shrewd fairy godmother or a wily genie.
I wish you hunger. Of course, I don’t mean physiological want, but a continued spiritual and intellectual appetite, a hunger to know more, do more, feel more. When you entered this university, you wanted to eat the world, and all everyone else wanted you to do was to get good grades. And though your dreams may have been more nebulous then than they are now, they were no less intense. As one of my graduate students reminded me recently, “Passions are hard to come by.” So keep that hunger; nurse it. Stay curious, want it all while it lasts.
I wish you hard work. By that I don't mean back-breaking labor, not the drudgery of the treadmill, but an appreciation for the work that comes before the big show – getting ready, honing your tools. Observation, research, practice – the actress Lupita Nyong’o gives herself homework whenever she has an audition. The classical flautist James Galway says: “You can sight-read better if you know your scales and arpeggios.” When my father sat me down for the “You’re-going-out-into-the-world” talk, his message was this: Always be 150% prepared! At 150% you’ll be ready for anything – even if you’re not chosen for a job or position although you’re the better qualified candidate. As the first African-American research chemist to break the color barrier in the tire and rubber industry, my father knew how it felt to be passed over. What he was trying to tell me was: The last person to hold you accountable is you yourself. In most cases you won’t be asked for more than 75%; in fact, depending on your race and gender, sometimes you’ll be underestimated and won’t be expected to give more than 50% of your capacity. But only you will know if you’ve done your best, so focus on that rather than what others think your best is – because if you allow others to tell you your worth, you will have given up on yourself.
For me, a shy kid who trembled giving class presentations in high school, the 150% I had not ever expected to need came in handy when I received the phone call that I had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and would have to hold my first press conference. Six years later, when I was named Poet Laureate of the United States, that 150% emboldened me to write a letter on this University's letterhead to then President-elect Clinton, suggesting that the White House spotlight the arts during Arts and Humanities month; and in October of that year, 1993, as my husband and I rushed to Pennsylvania Avenue right after my inaugural poetry reading at the Library of Congress to join the White House Celebration and State Dinner in honor of the Arts and Humanities, I used every bit of that 150%!
I wish you Uncertainty.
There’s only so much knowledge that can be taught; hard facts are just that – solid, dense entities, the stones in a swiftly flowing stream of possibilities. You cannot wait for revelation to come down upon you in a cloud of gossamer and angelic sighs; more often than not you have to seek it out. Sometimes you don't know where you're going, but the only way you’ll find out is if you go. That doesn't mean that you rush off willy-nilly screaming, “I'm going to conquer this world”– but you do need to be bold enough to step outside of your comfort zone, even if it's scary Out There.
One of the greatest gifts you have received at this university is an apprenticeship in the investigation of ideas – learning how to think, to follow the trajectory of a thought, when to proceed methodically or pursue a tangent – techniques for navigating the path to Discovery without getting lost. Compare yourself to an explorer whose sextant allows him to read the stars and figure out which way he is going, whose portable laboratory enables her to analyze plants and determine which ones are beneficial and which ones poisonous. Between that knowledge and the wide wide world are a host of unknowns, both pitfalls and bounty. And Terror – because let's face it: Breaking new ground may be exhilarating, but it is also terrifying.
If you’re lucky, on some level you will always be a student. If you’re lucky, you will never lose the sensation of terror that precedes discovery nor the delight that follows, and this memory will help you forge ahead into the next bit of uncharted territory.
I wish you the Future. The secret to success? The key to happiness? We all want that One Answer. I believe success is loving what you’re doing more than who people think you are. As for happiness: Well, whenever you can forget what you're doing while you’re doing it; when you get so involved that time, quite literally, flies – then you are doing something right. When you want to keep on even though to do so will totally mess up your schedule, then you are happy – because whatever it is, is larger than you, and you are growing to meet it. Psychologists call this being in the state of “flow”, musicians say they’re “in the pocket”, software developers talk of being “wired in”; the Greeks blamed it on their muses; and LeBron James seems to have taken up permanent residence “in the zone”.
So: I will not tell you in more than this one sentence that you have your entire life before you, since that's self-evident – be that life ninety years or a handful of decades. What I'd like to impress upon you is an awareness that this life is yours to fill. What I want you to remember is that nobody will taste it but you, so you should only be looking to fill it with those tasty bites you want to savor: and if you lose your appetite because someone else has less than you or you have hoarded the salt – well, that’s part of your menu, too. I will not tell you to look ahead, since none of us can know a what’s out there waiting. What I will say is that if you are lucky, you cannot possibly imagine what the future has in store.
When I arrived at the University of Virginia more than a quarter century ago, most of you were either not yet born, or just barely, still scrabbling on hands and knees. At that juncture in time – around 1994 for undergraduates, somewhat earlier for Advanced Degree candidates – as you grew up and into yourselves, as I waited for you to join me, what did the future look like? Think of the things that didn’t exist in everyday life: The World Wide Web. Global Positioning Systems and Genome sequencing. Close-up images from Mars and drones. Some items we now use as casually as reaching for the milk to pour into our Cheerios had yet to make it to the mass market level, like antilock brakes and digital cameras; others were still figments of our Star Trek imaginations: Plasma screens, WiFi, Xbox – not to mention Hulu, Netflix, Skype. What fantastical names we’ve given these contemporary household tools! Google. Facebook. Twitter. Yahoo. The Cloud. The iPad, the iPod – hell, the entire Apple universe!
And let us not forget Email. The first Web browsers for people who were not versed in machine language came to fruition around the time of your birth. And as you grew up, that E- became a prefix for new digital marvels: Ebay, e-books, e-cars. Ah, all the tech abbreviations that would have sent Rip Van Winkle screaming back into his pre-Revolutionary War mountains: GPS, TiVo, HDTV, Wiki, Wii.
And now, think back to when this university was founded. In 1825 there were horses racing down the Lawn and a pet bear in one of the Gardens; brawls and typhoid, flickering candlelight and smoky fireplaces. The outcome of this great academical experiment was still up for grabs. Even this nation was not yet the democratic success story but a struggling, volatile startup company with grand ideas, wobbly capital and a slave economy. The future is never a done deal, or a safe bet – I’m using these clichés deliberately, because the worst kind of future I could wish you is the one that’s already spelled out – prescribed, predetermined. When I stepped onto the lawn as the English department's first female African-American full professor 27 years ago, I did not know that I would be speaking to you today. And yet, even at that time I had already progressed, through luck and circumstance and a bit of hard work, beyond the wildest dreams of my childhood. When I was a child, if someone would have told me that one day I would dine with U.S. Presidents and joke with Big Bird, I would have probably hidden myself in a thicket.
So if you cannot imagine the future, how do you prepare for it? There are moments in life – and this might be one of those moments –that offer us a multidimensional sense of time, to see ahead as well as look behind you, assessing what has gone before, to reflect upon what has led up to this instant and what will hopefully spiral out of it. Poets call it the lyric moment. Lyric: The word comes from the ancient Greek lurikos, or lyre, the stringed musical instrument favored by poets of the day. The lyric moment, therefore, is one that sings – when emotions bubble up so thickly, they cannot be contained in a paragraph or captured with logic or framed in a snapshot. And so my final wish for you: May you have many, many more moments that sing.
Since I am foremost a poet – my passion, my 150% – I would be remiss if I didn’t leave you with a poem. It is called “Testimonial”, and thanks to the Charlottesville Mural Project, it is scheduled to become part of the local urban scenery as a public work of art – so when, in years to come, you return to Grounds as alumni, you can stroll down to the Corner and find these words painted on the side of the Graduate Hotel, six stories high:
Back when the earth was new
and heaven just a whisper,
back when the names of things
hadn't had time to stick;
back when the smallest breezes
melted summer into autumn,
when all the poplars quivered
sweetly in rank and file . . .
the world called, and I answered.
Each glance ignited to a gaze.
I caught my breath and called that life,
swooned between spoonfuls of lemon sorbet.
I was pirouette and flourish,
I was filigree and flame.
How could I count my blessings
when I didn't know their names?
Back when everything was still to come,
luck leaked out everywhere.
I gave my promise to the world,
and the world followed me here.
To the class of 2016 – and all those who helped get you to here – Congratulations, and Wa-Hoo-Wa!