blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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Commencement address given at Virginia Commonwealth University
Department of English graduation ceremony, May 2014

First, welcome everyone. Graduates, family, friends, and colleagues.

I want to thank Kathy Bassard, in particular, for being such a superb chairperson for our department—and to thank her for asking me to give this address after my first year.

I may be new to VCU as a faculty member but am not new to the spectacular work of this institution and this department and am really honored to be here.

I am a native Virginian, born and raised in the southern part of the state, what we call Southside—in the small town of Chatham, in Pittsylvania County. My parents were lower middle class there; my mother completed high school, but my father went only as far as the seventh grade before having to go to work for his family.

His favorite story about the one room schoolhouse he attended was that the superintendent came around on horseback the first day with the year’s supplies: a box of chalk and an ax for cutting the firewood. Chalk and an ax.

But the importance of a good education was the one thing my parents agreed on—well, two things, for my brother and me—a good education—and good teeth.

I think that they, like me, didn’t actually experience or believe that the commonwealth of Virginia was a true commonwealth, a legal term that suggests there would be certain kinds of riches we could all hold in common.

But they believed that education was the primary factor that might create the wealth that I could hold in common with those more financially fortunate.

After all, in the South if you can’t be rich, you can be smart.

I love this quote from the Elizabeth Spencer story “First Dark”:

By “smart,” Southerners mean intellectual, and they say it in an almost condescending way, smart being what you are when you can’t be anything else, but it is better, at least, than being nothing.

And Virginia has many amazing institutions of higher learning—where we can be smart, or at least better than nothing—and public ones at that, a seeming dedication to that concept of prosperity we might all hold and experience in common.

But when I attended one of these institutions, the University of Virginia, as an undergrad in the 1970s (only the fifth class that admitted women, by the way), it still felt like a place for the first sons, and I still very much felt outside the privilege of the place. Even though Thomas Jefferson had had amazing ideas about education and education reform, he as the proclaimer of such reform had become the proclaimed, and going to UVA when I did seemed as much about pedigree as degree, as much about status as education, about a membership in something, an external identity.

VCU, on the other hand, has always struck me as more rough and tumble, or, perhaps, “nimble,” as a colleague recently suggested—more organic in its existence and in its ongoing evolution. Every other place I have ever taught until now has been so steeped in tradition that any new idea is met with “we’ve never done that before.”

Tradition—even the word’s etymology suggests not active participation, but more of a delivery, a handing down, a giving up and over. A binding.

And the risk of tradition has always been passivity to it, an unquestioning assimilation, becoming part of a monoculture, and all of nature shows monocultures to be volatile and dangerous things of which to be part.

I don’t mean to suggest that VCU is rudderless or without design; though particular to VCU in my experience, I have so far found a greater and more honest collaboration among students and my colleagues, a sense of welcoming change, adventure, and diversity in every sense of the word, of working together and of supporting each other in our individual and collective professional and creative pursuits.

And because of the culture I find unique and vital to VCU—the truer commonwealth of it—I want to linger for a moment on what I hope will be less the tradition of education and more the now, the present moment of your lives here.

Recently my colleague Leslie Shiel and I were talking about poetry as we are wont to do. About the now-ancient text by John Ciardi called, not what does a poem mean, but How Does a Poem Mean? How does a poem mean?

The focus in the 1958 publication, of course, was on poetry, and the close reading of text.

So today I thought it appropriate to see your education as similar to a text, a poem, and to consider not the what of today’s degree granting, but the how of its meaning.

John Ciardi says that “a poem, by the fact of its existence in time rather than in space has duration and pace,” and that holds true for education as well. We set for you a course, and you took it, you ran it, you lingered in it, you excelled in it, you stumbled. You did not simply study; you lived it.

And the how it meant and means was and is always yours, just the way it was your living eye that moved through the passage of a text, not ours, though we had set the text, all those texts, before you.

Your education means something right now—right here a delightful immortality—something that will continue to evolve and sustain many meanings, meanings far beyond the degree requirements of a major. Those aspects of your performance here that we evaluated and measured.

It is the immeasurable how that belongs to you and is now part of you, internalized, and that can only strengthen and sustain, something you do have in common with everyone else in this room and something that is at the same time utterly yours, yours alone. Yours—an uncommonwealth—something with duration and pace.

Robert Frost tells us that “Strongly spent is synonymous with kept.” To spend strongly, then, is to keep. And you will keep spending this, this hour, this day.

And in so doing hone the infinite that has never been in the ordinary what.

You have lived and will live the confluence of the fact that is a poem with its possibility, the fact of your education with its meaning—your meaning—in the mutable how. Kind of like the fact of that box of chalk my father remembered. Something like that ax.


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