In a Commencement speech full of references to literature, song and political theory, President Biddy Martin encouraged the class of 2018 to bring “a poetic approach” to politics.
The threat of thunderstorms prompted an 11th-hour rearrangement of the ceremony, in which Martin announced she’d forgo her address to make sure every graduate could walk across the stage. The speech would follow if the rain didn’t, she said, and indeed, during the awarding of degrees, the skies cleared and the sun peeked out.
Martin began by quoting from President John F. Kennedy’s October 1963 speech at Amherst: “When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”
Martin urged the audience to follow Kennedy’s example by accepting “our responsibilities as citizens to engage in the political process—however slow and arduous it is … in a way that is guided by principles, informed by evidence and committed to the democratic process.”
She referenced the Algerian-French writer Hélène Cixous, read Richard Wilbur ’42’s poem “A Measuring Worm” and quoted from the Leonard Cohen song “Anthem.”
“At the heart of poetic practice is a use of language that discloses, rather than erasing others,” Martin said. “The liberal arts, including not only the arts and humanities but also the sciences and social sciences, open a space for our exploration and attentiveness to basic human truths so we can make common cause.” Martin’s charge to graduates: “Let the poetic be your guide as you pursue good ends as citizens.”