Congratulations to the class of 2017! We were honored to have NYU President Andy Hamilton at our ceremony on May 18 at Lincoln Center. Below you will find speeches from the ceremony from a graduating student (Michael Frazier), an alumna (Jennifer Clement), and a faculty member (Gregory Erickson). Stirring, evocative, and memorable, we hope you enjoy reading them as much as our new graduates and their families did upon hearing them.
On the Morning of Graduation, Each of Us Woke Up with a Crown
Michael Frazier (BA '17)
And the first thing I said was I woke up like this
but for real, the mirror reflected
chiseled violet jewels
inlaid in glittering gold
Psalms describes Wisdom
as one who confers beautiful crowns
and as I look at the shimmering metal perched
on each of our heads
I think, ain’t today a coronation
Isn’t today a recognition
of what we have done
and will do?
A crown is mischievous technology
part praise and part drafting
bright as the light catching a tassel
heavy as pre-med textbooks
but we’re here today, because
we’ve assembled, concentrated, and alchemized
our passions into iridescent things with wings.
Defended the creature we nurtured
exhausting all our daylight and moonshine
to bring to fruition.
We the type of sovereigns
to be a botanist in the morning
a poet during the day
and an accountant at night.
These crowns get doors to open like hungry mouths
assembles networks in our courts
will grant us consistent Sunday brunch dates
and bubble tea on the regular, if we’re lucky.
Earlier today I gazed upon the torch in the sky
and I stared and stared until my vision was speckled with
question-mark-shaped eye floaters
until my retina was overwhelmed with sunlight
until all I could see was darkness
it is this moment
between expectation and desire
that is haunting me
I know someone, out there
in here, back home
—people who look like me
dream of their words flying into newspapers
and the lips of books, and the big screen
dream of cheat codes to dip out of schools to prison pipelines
dream of new hoods where bullets won’t make riddles of their kin’s bodies
dream of classrooms as pit stops
not graveyards for their aspirations.
How can I forget?
This crown be first generation
Be held up by mama’s prayers and tithe?
Be all-nighter certified?
I can’t forget
I was so small
the crown couldn’t find a seat
on my head.
Still, I dreamed as though I was promised an inheritance
and for some, the dream itself is a privilege.
Toni Morrison says
“When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for
just remember that your real job is that
if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power
then your job is to empower somebody else.
This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”
What good is royalty
that picks their teeth with responsibility
that plants its treasure in its own backyard
when it could grow interest in the interest of others
I’d rather be a beheaded king
then wake up alone
in a room crowded with my own shine.
I’d rather use my crown as a doorstop
if it meant those on the other side
could get a seat at the table.
Responsibility, to me, means being quirky and loud
and sharing the good news and
nurturing excitement in classrooms
letting youth know
we are complex, we are multifaceted
we don’t need to succumb to a mold.
Today we graduate
and we all have a gift to give to the world.
This is not an end
but is a declaration of the responsibility we have
to make our crowns
worthy of the beautiful worlds
Being here with you reminds me of my own graduation from Gallatin in 1982 when NYC was a very different place and also the same place because, for those of us who love this city, it’s always the same and always different. At that time, when I heard about the Gallatin program at NYU, it seemed like the only place where I could fit in. Because, in those years, while I attended classes, I was also part of the Lower East Side’s art scene. As I studied English literature and anthropology, as I worked as a Gallatin intern at the Natural History Museum and at Viking Penguin Press, I was also spending time at nightclubs or small, hole-in-the-wall art galleries with the artists and musicians of that time.
Here, today, so many years later, on your day of graduation, I will tell you what I might have liked to understand more deeply when I graduated from Gallatin. And it is this: what you learned here about respecting and honoring your individuality should be continued as you move forward into this new moment in your life.
At Gallatin, I found a place for my individuality, which also, in my case, became searching for a poetic way of living. I also published my first poem in The Gallatin Review. Many of you might think that the poetic life is reading poetry and drinking wine and this may also be true but I’m actually talking about something else.
To live the poetic life is a profound way to approach your own being. This, to me, means a resistance to the ordinary and searching always for a higher order and the possibility of turning all that is little or insignificant into something of wonderful meaning. The poetic life is accepting what is mysterious and even, or above all, perhaps, creating mystery.
In our language, history, and ideas, the poetic is recognized—even though it may feel so lost today.
Poetic justice, for example, a term that came into being in the 1600s, referred to the idea that literature should take a moral stance. It sustained that evil should be punished and good rewarded. Over the centuries, the term has evolved. Poetic justice, a rare occurrence, is where truth and beauty are rewarded but it also speaks to a kind of purity and a balance.
Walt Whitman, the grandfather of US poetry, writes of the poet judge and believes the poet can transform and build the country into greatness. To quote from his poem “By Blue Ontario’s Shores:” “the poet is the equable man . . . He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing . . .”
It’s important to note that Whitman called for the poet to be informed and saw the need for knowledge of laws and history to be able to exercise poetic justice. This is not some kind of lighthearted call.
And I always think of Elizabeth I, one of the great and most enlightened monarchs of all time. Poetry was central to her being. When she was incarcerated, she scratched out one of her poems into the prisons windowpane with a diamond.
But we can go much farther back to Aristotle who believed that poetry should exist with the science of ethics and even thought of poetry as a kind of legal code. He wrote “Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.” (Poetics) Aristotle is responding to Plato, his teacher, who believed that poetry was only representation and, therefore, morally questionable. His idea that the architect’s ruler should bend to suit the shape of the stone speaks to this.
Poetic justice stands above the ideas of contrapasso, which is to suffer the opposite—the punishments in Dante’s Inferno, for example. Dante punished prophets by forcing them to walk backward with their eyes covered.
Poetic justice is also different from karma, which—put very simply—is the profound idea of cause and effect.
In recent times one can speak of the poetic code, which Irish poet Seamus Heaney used to describe Ted Hughes when he spoke at his funeral. Heaney said that Hughes “. . . recognised that myths and fairy tales were the poetic code, that the body was a spirit beacon as well as a chemical formula, that it was born for ecstasy as well as for extinction.” (“A great man and a great poet,” The Observer, May 16, 1999)
In language and history there is also the term “poetic license,” which is to deviate from conventional ideals. The poetic life also deviates from convention. This is so true that poets often end up in jail or exile.
As President of PEN International, the oldest and largest writers organization in the world that believes in the power of literature and also defends freedom of expression, some of the cases that most astonish me are those of jailed poets and poets who are even facing death sentences for their verses.
A poet can write, as Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh has written, among other verses, “earth is the hell prepared for refugees” and be sentenced to death (now reduced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes) in Saudi Arabia.
Mahvash Sabet has been imprisoned in Iran since 2008.
The poet Li Bifeng, from China, has been in prison since 1998—maybe the year some of you were born!
Today in our PEN case list we have 46 poets to defend. Poets who have been harassed, threatened with death, detained, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
Following these cases, my search for the poetic life only grows stronger. In my fidelity to empirical knowledge, poetry is my secular faith. Poetry is the search for truth and solace before the invisible. And every poet knows this: although stars have different names in all the world’s languages, they cast the same light.
The poetic life also means reading poetry. As with all literature, poems can tell you how to live and bring empathy to your life as it is an act of becoming the other.
There are poems I cannot live without. As the US poet and medical doctor William Carlos Williams wrote: “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” (“Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”)
Poems speak to the unspeakable, sing to affliction, lament, celebration, and praise.
There are poems that can modify our lives forever and allow us to recognize our own way of living.
In the face of loss, one great poem always lives with me. This is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, where the poems are almost prayers. The poem says: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”
As there are events in life one cannot recover from, there are also poems one cannot recover from. If anyone has ever lost faith in one’s country and lived with inconsolable loneliness, read the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.
The poetic life honors sadness and grief and acknowledges that we must reach for the highest human order in our lives and not for what is base and fearful but for what is brave and difficult.
Very often it seems we live in a time of anti-intellectual ideals and where what is simple and comforting is best. And we live in a time where even language has ceased to matter and people speak of each other and about the world in the vilest language, which is often full of lies. The sexual shaming of women, misogyny, and racism should remind us that the words we speak and read are also who we are.
The poetic life stands for what is difficult, for what makes you uneasy, for what is never crass and complacent.
A few months ago, I was on a PEN mission to Turkey where I stood outside Silivri Prison where over 251 journalists and writers are in jail. Soldiers and policemen surrounded us and did not let us take photos of the prison or make a statement. Our documents were confiscated and our phones were cleared of all photographs.
Standing there, many of us thought of the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, who spent so much time in Turkish prisons that he translated the whole of Tolstoy’s War and Peace into Turkish.
How to lead the poetic life can be found in his poem “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.” In the poem, he is on a train looking out the window. The poem is an expression of the moment when one recognizes loss and love and the unawareness of life being on the borderline with death. These are a few lines from the poem: “flowers come to mind for some reason/poppies cactuses jonquils/in the jonquil garden in Kadikoy Istanbul I kissed Marika/fresh almonds on her breath/I was seventeen/my heart on a swing touched the sky/I didn't know I loved flowers/friends sent me three red carnations in prison” (“Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” Nazim Hikmet).
The poetic life is to live with praise, a vision for potential good against cruelty and banality and to celebrate truth—even the difficult truth, especially the difficult truth.
As a student at Gallatin, I used to swim at the NYU pool and, in recent years, as an alumna, I’ve gone back. The experience made me think of how I was stepping, to think of Heraclitus’s observation, in the same water twice. And, as I swam, I pictured there on the floor of the pool the imprint left in the water of my 21-year-old self. In the poetic experience of the moment and in the poem I later wrote, I imagined the young woman I once was, swimming with the woman I am now—the past and present selves meeting in the water. And I asked that NYU student I had been, so full of strength and youth, if she could recognize who I am today.
So, ask yourselves: who are you standing here? And who will you be when, decades from now, you suddenly meet the Gallatin graduate you are today?
And ask yourselves how to live a more poetic life for yourself and for those around you.
I believe you can begin by answering Hikmet’s question: What are the things you didn’t know you loved?
As I was thinking about what I could say to you today, my first thought was to think about students that I know and some of the experiences we shared over the last four years. With some of you I went to Dublin, walking in the footsteps of James Joyce, exploring bookstores, libraries, towers, and historic pubs. With others, I traveled to Normandy, France, seeing medieval landmarks and World War II memorials, and sharing some pretty fantastic food. With others of you, I have read Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, listened to a Samuel Beckett play in the dark, played Renaissance music, and watched episodes of Doctor Who. But the truth is that sadly, I never even met a lot of you. So while I’ve shared great moments with some of you, many of us have never had a class together or shared a conversation. How then to address you as a group?
Recently in my teaching, I have encouraged my students to look more toward objects as I way of connecting to people and developing ideas. From a marked-up, food-stained comic book to a well-worn religious icon, objects communicate ideas, memories, and communal experiences. Objects can be both libraries and time machines. So although graduations tend to celebrate cerebral accomplishments, I want to start with an everyday object: a New York City Metro Card. (Now parents and relatives: if you don’t know what this is, ask the students. Students: if you don’t know, we are going to take your degree away.)
What struck me about metro cards is how they stay with us. Unlike the old subway token, which maybe some of you can remember, after you use a metro card you put it back in your pocket or use it as a bookmark. And when they are used up, you can refill them. So I want to propose kind of a corny metaphor: the diplomas over here that you are about to receive are like metro cards. What I mean by that is that while they will open certain turnstiles for you, allow you to get started on a journey, ultimately, they are just empty signifiers unless you continue to fill them. And this is the act I want you to think about. I want you to think about the moment when you have to add money to your card. When you refill your metro card, when you go to those little machines in the subways stations, after you select the option to “refill your card,” what question does it ask you?
It asks whether you want to add time or value.
Time or value? Wow. Think about that. That really is the big question, isn’t it? What does that mean? Is it asking me if I want to live long or live well? Do I need to buy more time to finish my current project or do I want something smart and valuable to put into it? Should I have another glass of wine or a salad? Go to the gym or a jazz club? Time or value? How about an afternoon nap? Does that add or subtract time or value? And are they really two different things? A metro card can hold both simultaneously: both can get you on the train, but can one exist without the other? I like to pretend that the lines of tourists at Grand Central Station looking in confusion at the metro card machines are pondering that existential question. “Time or value? I don’t know.”
What if we think of your college education as an initial filling of your metaphorical metro card? Hopefully, Gallatin gave you some time to think about issues that are important to you. Hopefully we also put some value on that card and hopefully we helped you think about what you want to do during the relatively short time that you will have on this planet. But just like a metro card, your college education runs out unless you keep adding to it. But should you add time or value and how do you know which is the better choice or, even, which is which?
How do we even start to answer these questions? Well, to quote Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, “When in doubt, go to the library.” In true Gallatin fashion, we can historicize this issue using one of the ancient texts from your colloquium book list. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles, (Brad Pitt in the movie), who has withdrawn from the battle, has to decide if he wants to return to the fight. If he withdraws completely, he will be able to travel home and live out his life enjoying nature, tending his garden, sipping wine with friends . . . in other words, he will have time. If, on the other hand, he returns to war, he knows his life will be cut short. But perhaps he will do something great; he can change the arc of history . . . he may be able to add value to his short life. Of course, like any good analogy, this gets more complicated. Part of why Achilles finally does return to the battle is perhaps not to do good but because he will be remembered, his name will be echoed down through the centuries and will be cited in a 21st-century graduation speech. His decision adds almost infinite time—it is, as the MTA now offers, an automatically refilling metro card. But what does his decision add: time or value? Should you, like Voltaire’s Candide (perhaps another work on your colloquium book list) withdraw from a cruel world and find a lovely garden to tend somewhere? Is that adding time or value? What if it’s a sustainable organic farm in Vermont? Is that different? Or should you take to streets in protest, become an immigration lawyer, gay rights activist, or a junior high school teacher?
I don’t have to tell you that it has been a weird year and a really difficult year. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, there is no denying that we live in an increasingly divided and angry country, and we find ourselves fighting an intensified battle to protect the value of the honest, educated, and informed exchange of ideas of a liberal arts education. And I, like so many of my colleagues and so many of you, find myself wondering how I can matter, what I can do. I don’t have a good answer for myself much less advice for you. What I can tell you is that I have never been more thankful to be a teacher and that my students have inspired me and lifted me up when I most needed it.
I can give just one example from my current class, called “Imagining the Library.” I created the course to be based around fictional and historical representations of libraries. We would study ancient libraries, like the library of Alexandria; we read sections from classic novels, postmodern short stories, and science fiction tales that featured fictional and often fantastic libraries. It was for me, perhaps, as libraries can be, a form of escape from real world problems. But my students would not let me do that. When it came time for them to create their own projects, they took the course in a totally different direction. They researched the function of prison libraries, they wrote about censorship in young adult fiction; they analyzed racism and homophobia in the library classification system, and interviewed librarians about their responsibilities in a post truth era or about the role of community libraries in gentrifying neighborhoods. They changed the class; they made it their own; they added value to it. They inspired me, and when I teach the class again next year, it will be a different course.
As you’ve been hearing all week, there has never been a more important time to be a college graduate. There has never been a more important time for young people like you who know education does not end with a college degree, who can make a critical supported arguments, who can engage in productive debate, who can compare positions, who can understand the complexities and paradoxes of history, who know that good questions do not have easy answers, and who know, as Doctor Who says, that thinking is “just a fancy word for changing your mind.” As you continue to add time and value to your life and your continuing education, remember, finally, that these are not just individual achievements but are created through collaboration and community. I have often said that the smartest entity I know is a Gallatin classroom thinking together. We exist, we matter, relationally, in the dialogs we create and the ways we continue to recreate them. Remember that. Remember those moments, like my library class, when a group thinking together was better than an individual. The things I have learned from you will be passed on, and in fact are already being passed on to the students that will be in this room next year, and the year after that, and into a future where the time and value we have added continues to exist beyond our bodies. As you graduate, one subway train may be leaving the station, but this is neither the beginning nor the end of a journey.