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A Commencement Address to America’s Graduating Seniors

Thank you University Presidents and Trustees across the nation, Honored Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.  I’m deeply grateful for this historic opportunity to address all of America’s graduating seniors at once.  

It’s customary to begin these oratorical exercises with a joke … and perhaps an instructive but self-deprecating story about one's student years (assuming, of course, that the statute of limitations has expired)… but I choose to begin today with a poem  - part of a poem, actually  -  first, because I fear it may be the last one many of you will ever hear, and again, because it is from the scripture according to the poet, Wallace Stevens, that my sermon today is taken. 

from The Idea of Order at Key West

 … It was her voice that made

The sky acutest at its vanishing.

She measured to the hour its solitude.

She was the single artificer of the world

In which she sang.  And when she sang, the sea,

Whatever self it had, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker.  Then we,

As we beheld her striding there alone,

Knew that there never was a world for her

Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

 

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,

Why, when the singing ended and we turned

Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,

The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,

As night descended, tilting in the air,

Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,

Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,

Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

 

Oh!  Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,

The maker's rage to order words of the sea,

Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,

And of ourselves and of our origins,

In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

 

It’s a great honor for me to speak to so many millions of young people on such a special day in your lives.  And it’s especially sweet for me to have the opportunity to speak to you on behalf of our civilization, which will need your help if it is to survive and and prosper.  I came here today to commit an act of ART … because I want you to know that this is the most profoundly human thing we can do.  And because I want to take this last chance to urge you to temper your plunge into the world of commerce and consumption with joyful dedication to a life of the mind and spirit.

“Oh, Blessed rage for order!”  Perhaps it is the most confining of all human characteristics, even if it is our most majestic invention.  We do love to put things in order.  We measure and mark the physical world, dividing space and time into bite-sized pieces for easy consumption.  Inches and feet and miles and meters and ounces and tons and minutes and hours … and semesters … decibels  and lumens.  We invented them all.  Maps and microscopes and rulers and scales we invented, and so we parsed the planet.

In ages past, our maps, at the edge of the known, said, simply, “Beyond here, there be dragons!”  That was the limit of our measurements then, augmented by a poetic imagination.  Our limits extend considerably farther from home these days, though still augmented by imagination.  In any event, had those ancient mariners not sailed beyond the “Beware the Dragon” signs, the limits of human knowledge would still be pretty narrow and the last man who knew everything wouldn’t be Blaise Pascal, but some polymath at Stanford.  Without the lure of the Dragon, I suspect that we would be content merely to measure what we know.

Courage took us past the boundaries of our knowledge in that long ago world … and courage will take you past the boundaries of yours in years to come.  What Order cannot confine … what our tools cannot measure … is the ineffable power of the human imagination.  In the ability of a poet to paint an image that makes us recognize Beauty  -  even if we cannot define it   -  lies a power beyond the understanding of economists, physicists … or even commencement speakers. 

The mystery that sounds, in a certain progression we call “music,” can make us feel so acutely human and alive is beyond the limits of scientific inquiry.  I believe that our compulsion to commit Art, and not the rage for order, is our most profoundly human and compassionate act and unites us as siblings unlike any other.  I also believe that courage and compassion  -  not power and glory  -  make our lives worth the living of them.

I’m sure you’ve been told by your advisors that the economy has gone global and it’s a mighty competitive world out there.  And you’ve calculated the payback on your student loans and evaluated the companies you might work for according to their particular orbit in that global economic constellation.  But your knowledge and your wealth and your position in life will come to nothing if you do not participate in the life of your communities and in your culture. 

And culture, too, has gone global.  This is 2011 and there IS no dominant culture.  Especially in America, we are both privileged and challenged to live in a cultural tapestry woven from strands provided by most of the peoples of the earth.  We are quickly becoming one people and that is being hastened by two mighty forces:  cheap electronics and music.  Samoan kids listen to Lady Gaga and  Yo Yo Ma performs with James Taylor.  My favorite singer is a Sufi mystic from the Sudan, and most of you no longer know or care where your favorite artists are from, what their racial or ethnic identities may be or, indeed, if they have any discernible gender.  Music is a country without borders.  From now on, it’s what you do that matters.

You have a vital role to play now.  Arts and culture are indispensable to a stable, just and compassionate society, dear friends.  They’re not frills or hobbies.  They are the cry and the moan of humanity, our laughter and joy, our fear and faith wrapped up in a package we can only open together … and that creates community.  Almost everything else will serve to divide you from one another.  You will get rich only at someone else’s expense.  You will enjoy your unprecedented comfort to the detriment of much of the developing world and, indeed, at the expense of the planet itself.  And most religions consign the other fellow to Hell. 

But our arts can bridge all the perceived barriers between us.  I love your dance, you groove to my music, and we can all fall in love with Bluegrass, Ska, Matisse, Kabuki, Norteño, Mozart, Hip Hop, Louis Armstrong, Chinese Opera, Zakir Hussein, Balanchine, and Lyle Lovett. 

You leave here today with an education and with the talents and intelligence that nature and nurture gave you.  What you will do with them is the crux of your lives. 

And as a commencement speaker, I’m allowed to urge you to do something, you know.  So here goes.  Harness your left brain to your right.  Keep learning.  Start teaching.  Go out there and commit Art.  Sing.  Dance.  Go to a concert.  Make sure your kids take music lessons.  Read a poem.  Read for fun.  Hum in the shower.  Go to an Opera.  Give money to a theatre and volunteer for the Symphony.  Participate in it.  Support it.  Defend it.  It’s your civilization, and without it, kid, you ain’t got Jack!  Any smartass can make a buck.  Only a compassionate human heart can sing a lullaby. 

Thank you Wallace Stevens for giving us poetry.  And thank you to the faculties and trustees of America’s magnificent universities for giving me this seditious opportunity.  Thank you all and congratulations … you made it! 

Now … go disturb the Universe !!!