President Biddy Martin’s 2018 Commencement Address
May 20, 2018
“Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much.”
These are the words of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who spoke near here on the site of Frost Library in October of 1963 in what would end up being his last major speech before he was assassinated the following month. He gave a speech in honor of his friend Robert Frost, on the role of art and poetry and their relation to power. I read from some of the most famous lines: “When power leads man towards arrogance,” he said, “poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and the diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths, which must serve as the touchstone for our judgment.”
This past year, we celebrated Kennedy’s 100th birthday with a symposium devoted to the themes of that speech. Those of us who were able to attend first watched a video of Kennedy delivering the speech. After the screening, we heard students and faculty talk about their responses. Among them were two of your classmates. Let me quote your commencement speaker, Noor Qasim: “When I first listened to President Kennedy’s speech,” she said, “I wanted to cry.” She went on: “It brought me such deep pleasure to hear words used so well.” It brought us all deep pleasure to hear words used so well. Language matters. Noor went on, in her own beautiful prose, to convey the complexities of her response to the speech. “The president’s speech registers with different facets of myself in different ways,” she said. “That may be inevitable for someone whose parents have roots in places as disparate as Palestine and Iowa, or that may just be the eternal, internal struggle of being human and being complicated.” It may be both. The question is how to honor both, the political and our identities, and the eternal struggle of being human, which we share. Dakota Foster offered equally thoughtful comments about her response, noting that despite the darkness of his time, we remember President Kennedy as a distinguished leader because he created a sense of hope. “How,” she asked, “do we do the same today?”
Both Noor and Dakota found some of the language in Kennedy’s speech less resonant today because of the many contradictions they saw between the ideals he articulated and the realities with which we live. So where do we look for sources of hope? I would say, in part, by recognizing the unprecedented realities we actually face, looking them in the eye, and then, in ways appropriate to our historical moment, doing what President Kennedy urged in all of his speeches: that we fulfill our responsibilities as citizens to engage in the political process, however slow and arduous it is; that we engage in it in a way that is guided by principles, informed by evidence, and committed to the democratic process. We also have to take the measure of our political positions and ideological assumptions by asking over and over whether they honor what Kennedy calls “basic human truths.”
Over the course of my adulthood, I have repeatedly returned to the question of the relationship between the political and what I call the poetic. I turn to a particular writer, the French-Algerian Jewish poet and writer Hélène Cixous. I have mentioned her to you before—in speeches last year, after the election; in speeches this year, in the face of some of our tragedies. What does she mean when she says, “Without [the poetic], the political kills”? (And the opposite can also be true, she says.) She defines the poetic as an approach to people and to the things of this world characterized by openness, attentiveness, and a capacity to let things in their complexity without trying immediately to grasp them in ready-made categories or on the basis of what we think we already know, even on the basis of what we think we already believe, so as to shape and reshape those ready-made categories anew. For Cixous, a poetic approach opens a space that is not engulfed or consumed by the political or the ideological. At the heart of poetic practice is a use of language that discloses rather than erasing others. Language matters.
The liberal arts, including not only the arts and humanities but also the sciences and the social sciences, open a space for our exploration and attentiveness to basic human truths so we can make common cause. At the end of the symposium to honor the 100th birthday of President Kennedy, we heard a speech by Congressman Joseph Kennedy III, who stood on the spot where his great-uncle had spoken in 1963. Reflecting on his great-uncle’s speech, he said: “We are flawed and fragile, and can sometimes be selfish and cruel, but in the moments that matter, we expand, we rescue, we protect, we survive. We give, we open, we heal, and we help. That, more than any law or leader, is what drives us towards progress. That is, in fact, the touchstone of our judgment.”
This past semester, over the two months of loss and tragedy we experienced as a community, you expanded, you rescued, you protected one another; we survived, we turned to one other, we made common cause.
Benjamin DeMott, a legendary teacher at Amherst, once said, “A good classroom is one in which collaborators enjoy a stretch of intelligently active sympathetic engagement with one another, with the goal of expanding the areas of the human world so creatures of our kind can feel solidarity and coextensiveness.” And when have we needed more to feel solidarity and coextensiveness in our humanness, not to the exclusion of our political differences, but as a way of inflecting them and making them human again?
The great American poet, whom we also lost this year, Richard Wilbur, a graduate of Amherst in the class of 1942, teaches us to honor our coextensiveness not only with one another, but also with the natural world. Wilbur won two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, and a host of other honors for his poetry. He was poet laureate of the United States. He taught here for the last seven years he taught. He is widely considered one of the greatest English-language poets. I have asked to have printed in your program a very short poem by Richard Wilbur called “A Measuring Worm,” and if you have your program, you can turn to the poem while I read it aloud:
A Measuring Worm
This yellow striped green
Caterpillar, climbing up
The steep window screen,
Constantly (for lack
Of a full set of legs) keeps
Humping up his back.
It’s as if he sent
By a sort of semaphore
Dark omegas meant
To warn of Last Things.
Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,
And I, too, don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.
This is an extraordinary example of [the] attentiveness, the powers of description, and the subtlety and wit that characterize [Wilbur’s] poetry. He wrote this poem, which is a series of haikus, late in his life. Like much of his poetry, it mixes formal beauty with evocative metaphor. Here he uses the semaphore, which is a signaling system, and the notion of wings to signal an awareness of ends and also of uncertainty—what “undreamt condition” awaits us? But it’s also a tremendously hopeful poem. I wonder whether you, too, at times while you’ve been at Amherst, could have identified, as Wilbur does here, with the inchworm: climbing the steep screen of academic demands and social expectations; seeming at times to lack a full set of legs, figuratively speaking; humping your back as you draw your back legs to the front, without any in the middle, forming the shape of an omega, an omega that, as the last letter of the Greek alphabet, could signal some dark end. And unaware that today you would take wing. You’re about to fly off to a different life, no doubt, and I hope you’ll travel as high and far as monarch butterflies can, across many generations. And despite all the uncertainties about what condition awaits, I hope you, like Wilbur, will regularly experience—and now I condense wording from his other poems—the sheer delight of mere being, to which poetry and love give us access.
Face-to-face with the fragility of life, as we have been this year; face-to-face with threats to democratic principles and process; face-to-face with the pain of knowing that the Earth’s own vulnerability is at stake because of excesses, we could despair. You could become cynical. At the service for Chris Collins in the spring, I read the chorus from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” which is also printed in your program. (It’s printed there not because we’re going to read it now, but because some of you told me it was helpful to you.) Avoid the cynicism that is so easy to succumb to. Cohen reminds us to “ring the bell that still can ring; forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything—that’s how the light gets in.” There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. Give up your perfectionism, but don’t give up your hopes and your dreams and your confidence that you can do something to make the world a better place, that you can bring light to the world. Let the poetic be your guide as you pursue good ends as citizens. Truth matters. Language matters. You matter.
I close with a poem by A.R. Ammons that I share with every senior class. It is called “Salute,” and it reminds us that happiness is not a permanent, uninterrupted state, that we are vulnerable to conditions beyond our control, and have nonetheless so much reason for joy and hope.
Congratulations to every one of you.