Seen from the airplane
This gigantic thunderstorm …
Poet Mary Karr recently delivered the most awesome commencement speech ever.
Not that this is a category with a lot of tough competition. I cannot say I can remember anything from any commencement address I’ve ever heard.
One exception: Sen. Thomas Eagleton spoke at my high school graduation and told us impatient about-to-be-hippies-and-rebels to “work for change, but work within the system.” Advice we promptly went out and ignored.
Likely the only reason I remembered this: a couple of years later George McGovern picked Eagleton to be his vice presidential running mate in the 1972 election.
When the press dredged up records that Eagleton had been treated for depression McGovern declared he stood behind his running mate “1000 percent.” But a couple of days later Democrat party leaders got to McGovern and convinced him that Eagleton was a big liability, the idealistic McGovern dropped him.
Working within the system didn’t really wok out for Eagleton all that well. Or for McGovern. He went on to get trounced by Richard Nixon in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history.
Commencement speeches are notorious for bland bomfoggery and inane clichés.
I can’t even remember who spoke at my college commencement. Likewise for any other graduations I’ve attended as a guest.
But I’ll wager that the Syracuse class of 2015 and their loved ones will long remember Mary’s little talk.
She ends her speech with a tribute to her mentor and benefactor from her own undergraduate days, Professor Walter Mink, of Macalester College. She says he inspired her to teach college. But he did much more. A generous and wise man, Mink could see into the souls of his students and give them what they needed.
In Mary’s case, Mink and his wife gave her understanding and encouragement until she began to find her way. (In Mary’s third installment of her memoir series, Lit, she details the many remarkable kindnesses lavished on her by the Minks, ranging from outfitting this poor Texas girl with warm clothes to withstand the bitter Minnesota winters to persuading her to get counseling.)
In the speech, Mary tells an interesting anecdote about a physiological psychology class taught by Mink. During my time at Mac, which overlapped with Mary’s I took that same class. Professor Mink was a wonderful teacher and a compassionate man.
(He was so beloved that three of his students formed a punk rock band and named their group “Walt Mink.” He was that inspiring.)
One of our major lab assignments that semester was to implant electrodes in the brain of a lab rat. The plan was to stimulate various parts of the brain with electric current and record the behavior.
Each team of students was given a rat. I named mine Sparky. We had to do all of the prep on the rat ourselves, which meant giving the rat a shot to anesthetize it. (I’m deathly afraid of needles.) When the rat was safely numb and groggy, we were to secure its head in a device that closely resembled a toy vise grip.
Then came the fun part.
We were to use a scalpel to slice open the rat’s scalp, pry back the skin, and then drill tiny holes through the skull to create access points for the electrodes. I didn’t realize that the skull of a rat is only about as thick as an egg shell.
So, as I was drilling away, the bit broke through the skull and sank deep into the poor creature’s brain. Poor Sparky. His brain certainly got stimulated!
As his little arms and legs were jerking back and forth in a seizure, Dr. Mink rushed over assuring me that the rat could not feel a thing and that he would be okay. He extracted the drill and helped me patch up Sparky and get the electrodes properly implanted, the mounting glued to the skull, and the scalp sewn up around the mount.
But poor Sparky never was quite right. Our brain experiments on him produced some very strange results that semester.
Let’s just say I quickly discovered I was not created to do anything remotely medical, or anything requiring fine motor skills.
But I want to make it very clear: I was NOT Mary Karr’s lab partner. If you read her speech, you’ll understand why I emphasize this point.
I’m sure you’ll agree that when it comes to selecting a commencement speaker, this speech makes a strong argument for considering hiring a poet to do the job.
By all accounts, George Herbert was a cool guy. Our knowledge is limited because he lived long ago … more than 400 years ago. He only lived to the age of 39, but that was in the days before antibiotics and indoor plumbing.
I’ve chosen to write about this poetic champion because of how he expresses his art as a means of worship.
Born into a wealthy artistic family in Wales, he enrolled in Cambridge with the intention of becoming a priest. He seems to have gotten sidetracked by politics, became a supporter of King James, and served in Parliament.
But King James died, Herbert’s secular prospects dimmed, and he became an Anglican priest in his mid-30s. He was reportedly an attentive parish priest. He cared for his parishioners, looking out for the poor and ill. He was only to live a few more years before dying of tuberculosis.
When I recently asked my Anglican son for suggestions he suggested Herbert. Coincidentally, I already had him on my list. His poem The Quiddity has been one of my favorites for some time.
Quiddity is a Latin word for “the essence,” or “what the thing really is.” The poem is a poet writing about poetry. It starts out with a litany of things that a poem is isn’t.
But, at the end of the poem, Herbert gets to the point about what a poem really is. And for him, poetry is the thing that brings him close to God.
by George Herbert
My God, a verse is not a crown,
No point of honour, or gay suit,
No hawk, or banquet, or renown,
Nor a good sword, nor yet a lute.
It cannot vault, or dance, or play ;
It never was in France or Spain ;
Nor can it entertain the day
With a great stable or domain.
It is no office, art, or news ;
Nor the Exchange, or busy Hall :
But it is that which, while I use,
I am with Thee : and Most take all.
John Betjeman had what you could call a checkered career.
He struggled at Oxford, and ultimately left without a degree. He published poems and made great friends, yet held a lifelong grudge against C.S. Lewis from his time at Oxford when Lewis was his teacher. (Lewis reportedly assessed Betjeman as “an idle prig.”
During World War II, he worked for the Ministry of Information and may have been involved in intelligence gathering. One story that has grown up about Betjeman is that he was once targeted for assassination by the Irish Republican Army. But the order was supposedly rescinded when an old IRA man spoke on his behalf because he had been impressed by his poems.
You might say Betjeman was eventually vindicated. He was named Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1972. Oxford awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters in 1974.
I don’t fancy all of his poetry, but sometimes he really hits me between the eyes. Like his poem about love, “The Licorice Fields at Pontefract.”
His poem is rich with specific detail and is so descriptive, it almost overloads the senses. Betjeman is a reserved Englishman, but he tells you enough to let you know what’s going on.
The Licorice Fields at Pontefract
by John Betjeman
In the licorice fields at Pontefract
My love and I did meet
And many a burdened licorice bush
Was blooming round our feet;
Red hair she had and golden skin,
Her sulky lips were shaped for sin,
Her sturdy legs were flannel-slack’d
The strongest legs in Pontefract.
The light and dangling licorice flowers
Gave off the sweetest smells;
From various black Victorian towers
The Sunday evening bells
Came pealing over dales and hills
And tanneries and silent mills
And lowly streets where country stops
And little shuttered corner shops.
She cast her blazing eyes on me
And plucked a licorice leaf;
I was her captive slave and she
My red-haired robber chief.
Oh love! for love I could not speak,
It left me winded, wilting, weak,
And held in brown arms strong and bare
And wound with flaming ropes of hair.
Thankfully, sometimes love DOES work out.
After some bump and bruises, I finally found the love of my life. Thirty years ago I wrote her a poem. Not leaving anything to chance, I shameless ripped off the first line from Christopher Marlowe’s poem “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love.” The rest was mine.
It may not have been wholly original poetry, but it did the trick. She said “yes.”
The funny thing is … soon after that I wound up practicing direct marketing copywriting as my day job.
After my experience with this poem, I should have known I was destined for direct marketing. The poem was my very first direct marketing letter.
I got a 100% response rate. Retention has been solid, and long-term value excellent.
Thank you, Christopher Marlow.
THE PASSIONATE WRITER TO HIS LOVE
Come live with me and be my love,
Assured before you voice your fears
That we will meld as hand to glove
With tender wearing through the years.
How could I love another more,
Or ever you abandon me?
So come, our prospects let’s explore
Assay our hopes in honesty.
I’ll write old-fashioned poems for you,
The kind that sing with foot and rhyme,
To soothe your ear and gently woo
Your cautious heart in its due time.
We’ll stay abed when springtime rains,
And care not if it’s ever done;
We’ll pedal wooded country lanes,
And bask beneath a merry sun.
In lilac-time I’ll break for you
The heart-shaped leaf and purple bloom
That flourished when our love was new,
And filled the night with strong perfume.
Like hardy husbandmen of old,
Who ploughed and tilled the fertile soil,
We’ll give ourselves to labors bold,
And harvest children for our toil.
And when the winter of our years
Bespecks our thinning hair with snow,
We’ll stoke our fire against the fear,
Companions though the chill winds blow.
Relentless time moves on apace,
Time leaves its vanquished under stone.
But we can win at time’s own race
By choosing not to run alone.
Defying reason, let’s unite
To form a sturdy three-fold cord,
A braid miraculously tight,
Of bridegroom, bride and gentle Lord.
If my proposal your love stirs,
If this be your desire for life,
If to my faith your heart avers,
Come live with me and be my wife.
The theme of lost love fuels a love of poetry. As a motivator, I’m guessing it ranks right ahead of found-love, nature and war.
I was not immune. Many years ago — what seems like a lifetime now — I wrote a little sonnet about lost love. But it’s a sonnet with a twist.
I call it an “unnatural sonnet.” Not sure if the form is original or not. It has one extra line. The poem has had its DNA altered just a bit.
I thought a poem about an unnatural subject deserved and unnatural form.
The places we once went I often haunt,
As one cut off from sensibility.
The willing women are no threat to me,
While others dance seducing I sit gaunt.
Oh some, their new-found liberty might flaunt,
And advertise their eligibility.
I vex the lookers’ curiosity —
It’s you, it’s you, not others that I want.
Yes, mine’s an old, old story that’s well known:
How he who’s loved and left still walks the nights
And stalks the long-gone pleasures all alone,
Appears from nowhere at familiar sites,
Hears leaping laughter as a monotone.
Unable to partake in their delights,
He dents their merry with a glance of stone.