Thank you for this new degree, and decoration. With this, and the Phi Beta Kappa, I'm beginning to feel a bit like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, all these dangling medals . . . but you know, like him, I think I really am getting smarter--so listen up!
Welcome to all of you: President Eastman, Dean Chapin, faculty, trustees, administration, staff, parents, guests--and I want to mention here Mrs. Katie Wireman and her daughter Emily, who came for the dedication of the Billy O. Wireman chapel - and of course, finally and especially, students.
When he asked me to give this address, Dean Chapin knew I couldn't refuse because, as an American poet, I usually speak to audiences of about twelve or thirteen people, half of them there for the wine and cheese. He knew I needed to pad my average, so here I am..
First of all, congratulations: There's nothing more important in our country, or in the world, than getting well educated. And commencement day's the time to celebrate, before we all get back to work: You probably know already that there's no end to education, which really means learning to think; this is a big day, but it's just a pit stop, changing your tires.
I'm very proud of all of you, just as Jeanne & I were proud of our four children, all of whom graduated from Eckerd, two in chemistry, one in art, and one son in a field he apparently made up himself--such is the creative freedom of Eckerd College. Anyway, here's an advice poem I wrote for them back in those days. You'll hear Vietnam looming in the shadows, so things aren't that much different now:..
The trick is, to live your days
as if each one may be your last
for they go fast and you can lose your lives
in strange and unimaginable ways
but at the same time, plan long range
(for they go slow: if you survive
the shattered windshield and the bursting shell
you will arrive
at our approximation here below
of heaven or hell).
To be specific, between the peony and the rose
plant squash and spinach, turnips and tomatoes;
beauty is nectar
and nectar, in a desert, saves--
but the stomach craves stronger sustenance
than the honied vine.
Therefore, marry a pretty girl
after seeing her mother
speak truth to one man,
work with another;
and always serve bread with your wine.
But, my dears,
always serve wine.
I'm pleased that I wrote that poem before we knew that wine really was good for you. In actual fact, I think a martini now and then might help as well, but I left that out. Stirred, not shaken. The poem means what it says, but the thought behind it is that we wanted our children, and you, to go out in the world and be practical, bring home the bacon--plant squash and spinach. But, if you want to live a good life, the good life, you'll need to cultivate wine as well as bread; that is, beauty as well as money, art and music as well as business, idealism as well as practicality: in fact, beyond a certain basic level, I've always believed the former more liberal values are far more important in the long run than the so-called practical ones--which is why the poem ends, symbolically, with "Always serve wine."
Winston Churchill famously said "Anyone under thirty who's not a liberal has no heart; and anyone over thirty who's not a conservative, has no brains." That's a funny line--and I admire Winston Churchill,. but I think he was completely wrong about this. To turn more conservative as you grow older, and abandon your youthful idealism, is a clichˇ and a diminishment. I remember my wife Jeanne, on occasions like this, taking whatever child it might be aside, and saying something like, "You know you're lucky, don't you?" Our son or daughter would nod nervously, getting ready for a lecture: Be good, work hard, speak truth to power--the usual stuff. But all Jeanne would say was something like, "We may not be rich, but just remember that you're still privileged, and owe a responsibility to your fellow man." Our children have never forgotten this.
As one ages it's possible to be idealistic and responsible at the same time. Think of Thoreau going to jail for refusing to pay the Mexican War tax; think of Mark Twain's satirical war prayer--"O Lord, help us to lay waste their homes in a hurricane of fire . . ."; and think of Albert Einstein who not only battled Hitler and Stalin, but when he came to America, stood up against Joe McCarthy and pundits like William Buckley who supported the Communist-sniffing senator.
When we arrived here at Florida Presbyterian College in 1966, the country and the educational systems were in turmoil. You and I know how special our Eckerd faculty is right now--Bill Felice, for example, as idealistic a person as one could find, is Florida's Professor of the Year--and it was the same back then. Several of our faculty members were in that first march to Selma, one of the most important moments in the fight for Civil Rights. Later, faculty and students protested over and over against the Vietnam war, once marching to the downtown Post Office to mail batches of well written letters to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who, like ex-CIA Director George Tenet and others recently, confessed later in a best-selling book that he was wrong about the war, thus making money at both ends. And in each case, the soldiers did the dying.
And many Eckerd students and teachers marched with the garbage men during their strike, and some went to jail. And later still, the campus supported the striking St. Petersburg public school teachers, who, like the garbage men, were shamefully underpaid. These at the time were not popular causes. I remember at a town meeting a prominent local doctor stood up against the high school teachers and said he'd teach their classes if they went on strike. So our Professor of Philosophy Fred White stood up, and offered to perform the doctor's operations while the doctor was teaching algebra.
In that spirit, I wrote a poem sort of about our son's seventh grade teacher. It begins with an analogy from the game of bridge, and it's called "Miss Arbuckle":
Miss Arbuckle taught Language Arts
She hid her lips against her teeth:
her bottom like the ace of hearts
was guarded by the virgin queen
Miss Arbuckle wore thick-soled shoes
blue dresses with white polka dots
She followed and enforced the rules:
what she paid to teach she taught
She said that Wordsworth liked the woods
that Blake had never seen a tiger
that Byron wasn't always good
but died in Greece a freedom fighter
She gave her students rigid tests
and when the schools let out in June
she painted rings around her breasts
and danced by the light of the moon
I hope that's true: I like quirky teachers, especially in public schools. Today, we don't have enough of them, we discourage them with FCAT, and we still pay them poorly. Today, out of our average tax dollar, 40 cents goes to the military--and only 5 cents to education! Those of you who majored in math can see that this is an equation that works well for the powers-that-be: the dumber we get, the more taxes we're willing to pay to the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower so accurately warned us about. And it may help to explain why at least three of the presidential candidates proudly said in last week's debate that they don't believe in Evolution.
Dear friends, I know your hearts are open now, today, as you graduate from Eckerd. Keep them open: embrace quirkiness, differences, diversity and generosity. Take care of yourselves, and then your neighbors. If you've seen the headlines this week, you know there's work to be done on all levels. In our neighborhoods we still have car thefts and burglaries. Downtown in our city the homeless stare at us hungrily. In our State, the whole educational system seems to be in disarray; and our country's leaders have entangled us in an unnecessary and disastrous war.
All of these problems are difficult, but not hopeless. America has more of everything than any country in the world; and now we have you, well educated and ready. You have good role models to follow, many of whom were your teachers during the last four years. And just in the last few weeks, two fine writers died who were wonderful examples, and need to be remembered. The first is Kurt Vonnegut who, like one of our presidential candidates, was a prisoner of war, but who came out of his experience with a very different message: If you haven't read Slaughterhouse Five, or even if you have, put it on your post-graduation reading list--besides its other virtues, like Voltaire's Candide, it's short.
The second writer who recently died is the journalist David Halberstam, whose reports from Vietnam at first were vilified on all sides, but who courageously exposed the lies that kept us there, and the truth that was suppressed. It's an important balancing act to keep your minds both critical and generous, and these two writers showed us how it can be done.
The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald said that "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." I'm prejudiced, of course, but I think poetry helps you to do this--it's basic thrust is comparing one different thing with another: "My luv is like a red red rose." So I also advise you to turn more to reading poems, just one or two short ones at first, so you don't get hurt, and then more and more as you get the hang of it. Before long you'll be enjoying poetry readings, along with the wine and cheese.
I'll finish with one last advice poem that I hope will speak to both students and parents--and parents-to-be. It's called "On Teaching Our Son to Tell Time."
Telling time's a complex business, Peter
but there are some general rules
that we can follow: days
are longer than years sand
runs faster than tears
and nighttime hours are sweeter
No matter what they say we are time's fools . . .
Time is circumference is hollow
the tube through which we hurtle
while the sun cools
Lives run out like rabbits afternoons crawl
like turtles or like poets counting
coffee spoons. . .
and this small hand (yours)
covered by this large one (mine)
encloses rooms of time and love
my evening and your noon
while your hand pushes mine
to midnight much too soon
The minute hand is that large one
sweeping the moments before it like
crumbs from a crowded table
while the smaller one gathers the hours
an iron fist filled with flowers plucking
real blossoms real people leaving
the stalk of history a skeleton a fable:
Reaping reality sowing a mystery
Each little point is a minute not enough
time for a kiss if you learn to do this right
but time in it for murder or for cowardice:
time to burn The breath
of hate and fear pants quick in the mind's night
Watch out for the minute Peter: time enough
for many kinds of death
You tell time by taking the number
the short hand's accusing
(that's the hour you're losing) plus
five times the number the long
hand's brushing away (those are the minutes
you wasted today) The second hand's
optional up to the whim of the master
but steady as heartbeat Steadier: the heart
with certain hands beats faster
And that's how to tell time but . . .
what to tell it is a different thing
Maybe you can look it in the eye and say
My dad taught me to tell you:
Do your damnedest
you'll find me ready
Though you sink your scythe
in us up to the helve we will rise
together big hand little hand
at the stroke of twelve
Is that too dramatic? Then
just say I know you old man
and know what will make you yield
I'll race around your meadows armed with love
and gather every flower from your field . . .
but this small hand (yours)
covered by this large one (mine)
encloses rooms of time and love
my evening and your noon
and your hand pushes mine
to midnight much too soon
In a commencement address of his own, Kurt Vonnegut said, Be kind; and Garrison Keillor, another old liberal, said, Do good work. I agree with them both, and will only add, Don't forget Eckerd College, congratulations again: and have a great celebration.