Robert Pinsky

’s 1999 Commencement Speech At Stanford University Essay, Research Paper

June 13, 1999

I’ll start in the formal

traditional way by addressing President Casper and Provost Rice, the trustees and faculty,

the honored guests, the graduates and their families and their guests. Thanks a lot for

inviting me to come here. I really appreciate it. I call attention to the formality of the

traditional beginning of this kind of speech, because one of the things I want to talk to

you about today is the question: What are we doing here?

Graduation exercises, like this one, embody one of the

great secular rituals in our culture, unique and strange occasions involving funny hats

which some here have made funnier and more light-hearted and more individual and more

festive with pineapples and inflatable surgical gloves and trees and things I don’t know

what they are. But you have not succeeded in the making the hats any more strange than

they already are. Many of us have traveled great distances to wear these special get-ups,

to witness a procession of individuals in these unusual garments whose colors are part of

the symbolic code elaborately explained in your program and remembered by almost nobody.

We have come to take part in the handing over of special emblematic objects, diplomas,

which bear language dimly understood or downright incomprehensible inscribed on unfamiliar

materials signed and stamped with seals so formal they’re nearly mystical with symbols and

mottoes. The hats are like a ritual symbolic surrealist mystery, a symbol flamboyantly

representing mystery itself.

By comparison, other secular rituals, like the inauguration

of an American president, for example, or the ceremonies of becoming an American citizen,

get accomplished with a kind of quick, understated simplicity, more like getting a

driver’s license than our ceremonies today.

Why do we mark these occasions with such intense degrees

of, as the song title is, "Pomp and Circumstance"?

My question is only put the more by the Stanford tradition

of doing something a little silly or weird to go along with it. It’s another way of

putting the same question: What is this?

There are two usual explanations for this remarkable

intensity of ceremoniousness. One is that the graduates have worked very hard for their

education. Possibly so. Another is that the parents and family have made material

sacrifices, sometimes mortgaging homes or taking second jobs in order to pay for the

education. There’s something in that notion, too. But neither one seems an adequate

explanation of these rituals.

On some deeper level, I think that what we see today is the

celebration here of the two great obligations or standards, the two great tests that apply

to every tribe and culture on earth, the two values by which any human society must be

judged. These two measures of any people, of any nation, challenge us Americans at the end

of what has been called "the American century" in special ways. These secular

rituals and extraordinary gowns and processions invoke those two monumental standards and

propose that on this splendid campus in the midst of a prosperous, technologically

sophisticated society, which this is in some ways the center, in a richly burgeoning mass

culture, we do continue, so these exercises are meant to assert, to fulfill the ancient

fundamental purposes of community.

I mean the two great requirements of the human animal,

without which human community is corrupt or useless, namely, caring for the young ones and

honoring the wisdom of the old ones, including the ways and wisdom of the dead. The tribe

or community or nation that fails at either of these missions brings woe and destruction

on itself. Today the graduates pass symbolically from being the objects of the first

concern, young ones who have been nurtured, to bearing the responsibilities of the second,

those who are supposed to care for the young and who will preserve and extend the wisdom

of the dead.

Colleges and universities are places where those

fundamental activities — taking care of the offspring, revering the ancestors — come

together in a single effort. Commencement exercises are a sort of transition or meeting

place between those two broad purposes. If you come on a tribe that neglects its children

or ignores its old ones, you know that some tremendous woe is about to extinguish that

people’s spirit.

I think that the special outfits and music and titles and

diplomas are a kind of prayer that our spirit be healthy, that those missions are still

sacred one way or another. And clowning is part of the sacred; clowning is a way of

pointing toward the sacred.

I’m going to try to comment on those missions in a specific

way that apply to Americans today, and to these graduates, but first let me elaborate the

general idea a little bit. Most mammals have to care for their young, but in the famous

classical tag, the human animal is an especially puny creature. Its claws are almost

useless as weapons. So are its feeble little teeth. Its hide offers only flimsy

protection. The pathetic animal can’t swim very well. It can’t fly at all. It can’t jump

very high. Its climbing is mediocre and even its most athletic specimens are not very

fast, compared to other animals. But we’re a clever, observant, busy little monkey. And

for survival, we have developed means of communication — communicating not only

horizontally, so the animal can cooperate with its peers in gaining food or shelter, but

also vertically with its predecessors and successors so that the experiences of past

lifetimes can be applied to make up for our physical weakness.

For this purpose of memory and transmission the animal has

devised the binary code of the computer, and before that, printed marks, and before

printed marks, incised or written marks, and before the incised or written marks, the

creature made a technology out of its own body, notably with the highly refined system of

grunts emitted through its feeding orifice. Like the griots in Alex Haley’s Roots

who could call up across centuries information about dynasties, family relations, property

rights, the human animal through this amazing grunt code of speech can retain subtle

shades of information — which food is available at what time of year, what customs for

mating or burial best serve a community, information as precise or as subtle as "Get

me a pound of galvanized ten-penny nails" or "I love you but not that way."

Mostly we take this process for granted, but not always. I

remember when I was in grade school they used to show us movies provided by industrial

groups — "The Story of Glassmaking" or "The Amazing Truth About

Paper" — and these movies had these informative graphic diagrams and vivid scenes

showing very complicated machinery pulping paper or making bottles or fiberglass curtains,

and also shots of technicians in lab coats working the machinery or developing the

processes, making notes on clipboards. And in grade school I used to watch those machines

in assembly lines in the movies, those elaborate diagrams of chemical processes, and I

used to think to myself: "There’s no way kids are going to learn to do this

stuff." I felt that when the grownups who worked in those factories and laboratories

died, it was all going to fall apart. There would be no more Coke bottles or paper or

whatever. "I know these kids," I said to myself. "When it’s our turn

to manage all this stuff, they’re not going to work those machines, where the caps come

down on the bottles ten times a second!" I knew in my bones that maybe one or two

kids in a hundred had absorbed the diagrams, and none of us could work the machines! It

was all going to collapse.

In a way, it is amazing that of course the people in my

generation and later did learn to work the machines, and the machines that make the

machines, and we not only mastered the process, but extended and improved and supplanted

and developed and exceeded what had come before. It still surprises me. Most or all of the

people who made those movies about glass or paper or whatever are dead now. Most of those

people in those obsolete factories are dead, and those who practice their crafts and

professions today honor them in their work, without necessarily thinking about them. Or

maybe once in a while they do think about those old ones of glass or paper. I hope they

do. In the interest of the community, the community instructs the young in the ways of the

past; and if I have one superstition, my superstition is that we had better honor those

before us as we hope to be honored by those to whom we pass on our treasures of knowledge

and skill.

Maybe the most powerful, even disturbing, statement I know

concerning that process of receiving from the old ones to give to the young is the

legendary half-mythical speech given by Chief Seattle, the Suquamash Indian leader. In the

most authentic of the many versions of Seattle’s speech, he recognizes that the white

invaders have displaced and conquered his people, reduced now to a remnant who have to

rely on the goodwill of the white leaders. His people are a faded, hopeless community now,

says Seattle to the conquerors, and soon there may be none left of a people who once were

more numerous and hopeful than yours. He muses that the white men have said that their god

is the god of the Indians as well, but Seattle says he has to doubt that. Why, if the two

peoples have this one father, does he treat the one so much better than the other? And how

can we be brothers, he says to the triumphant newcomers, when we’re so different.

As his great central example of that difference, Seattle

points to how differently the two peoples behave in relation to their dead. He says:

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their

resting place is hallowed ground.

You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and

seemingly without regret.

Your dead cease to love you and the land of their

nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb and wander away beyond the stars.

They are soon forgotten and never return.

"Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave

them being," he says, and he explains that they often return to advise and comfort

the living.

This is very smart, cunning rhetoric on Seattle’s part,

seeming to concede and submit while it defiantly chastises. Then his speech takes a

different, rather surprisingly rhetorical turn, musing that despite these differences, on

the other hand, he says, all peoples eventually wither and die away; nothing lasts

forever. "We may be brothers after all," he says.

"We may be brothers after all" — brothers in

mortality, brothers in the fact that all nations wither. Nothing lasts forever. And then

Chief Seattle makes a remarkable statement, a sentence that has rung in my mind since I

first read it: "They are not powerless, the dead."

"They are not powerless, the dead." I believe

that these famous remarks of Chief Seattle speak to something deep in the nature of the

United States of America, as though Seattle intuited something profound about our

possibilities and our risks. I associate his saying that the dead are not powerless with

the nature of American memory — our particular national ways of honoring the old ones.

It’s been said that while the United States is beyond doubt

a great nation, it remains to be seen if we are a great people, or whether we are perhaps

still engaged in the undertaking of becoming a great people. I propose to you that a

people is defined and unified not by blood, but by shared memory — a people is held

together and identified by what successfully gets passed on from the old ones to be

remembered by the young. A people is its memory, its ancestral treasures.

The greatness of our military and political and economic

power, the greatness of our technology, are beyond question. And beyond that power and

abundance there are our great national documents — the Constitution with the Bill of

Rights, the Declaration of Independence. And beyond those, some of our cultural

accomplishments seem unarguably great — our jazz certainly, our feature films maybe, the

poetry of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, writing by Cather and Ellison and Faulkner.

But the crucial question is: Who are the people who

remember those documents, who are the people who remember the music of Ellington or

Parker, the films of Buster Keaton, the poems of Dickinson or Whitman? Am I right in

supposing that these are among our sacred shared treasures? Or is the list more uncertain

than that, or different from that? Do we or do we not recall our treasures? Do we know

what they are, and do we remember them, whatever they may be?

In this country, it’s especially evident that a people is

defined by memory, not by blood — more evident than in a country where more of the

citizens resemble one another physically. In our country, where we don’t all resemble one

another quite so much physically, the conscious process of memory, the deciding who we are

by what we remember, is more overt and visible because also, relatively speaking, we do

without the two great supports of memory in many other cultures. Even our racial division,

with its history of injustice, in this context is perhaps only the greatest and most

painful example of our still ongoing quest to be a great people. What are the two things

that we do without?

On one side, we do not have a single unifying folk culture

in which the grandparents all tell the same stories and sing the same songs to the

children. The Italian American grandma and the Eastern European grandma and the African

American grandma and the Lebanese and Chinese and Southeast Asian grandmas in America all

tell somewhat different jokes and tales and sing somewhat different songs. Secondly, on

the other extreme, we are relatively without a social class that considers itself the

hereditary curators of art. That is, possibly in that imaginary village of President

Casper’s, that one person with a college degree who says, "I’m well born. My

ancestors and I take care of this memory, these things. Somebody else does the folk

memory, I do the aristocratic memory." But here, there’s relatively little snob value

to art. There are countries in the world where politicians must pretend to love the great

national poet. In those countries, if a driver is angry at another driver, he yells at

him, "You have no culture!"

I submit to you that this is not an American insult.

In the absence of a single folk culture, in the relative

absence of the aristocratic notion, where do we Americans get the memory that holds us

together as a people? How do we stave off the withering away that’s implicit in Chief

Seattle’s observation that we don’t keep our dead with us? How is it that we have managed

to hold together as a people? How can we expect to?

One answer is that we’re still working on it — that we

have developed a national genius for making it up as we go along. Improvisation

characterizes our music, our clothes, our blue jeans, the get-ups that you have on today,

the headlong invention and energy of our businesses, our mass entertainment. But the

spirit of improvisation alone, though we may be proud of it, it alone cannot sustain the

process that transmits the ways of glassmaking and papermaking, or the ways of

understanding ourselves across the generations.

A second, perhaps terribly anticlimactic answer to how do

we get along without a single folk root, and without a dominant aristocratic ideal, answer

can be expressed in one disappointing yet hopeful word: school. In America’s public

schools and in our colleges and universities — this particular university improvised by a

couple not far out of living memory — we have improvised some notion of who we are. Or,

to be precise, who our old ones are. Who are the dead we keep with us?

My personal favorite example of that process of choosing

our old ones is in the writing of the great American essayist W. E. B. DuBois. In a

memorable paragraph, where DuBois associates the great works of the past with the spirit

of freedom, DuBois writes — you can tell a good 19th-century prose style by the way he

writes, almost in blank verse — he writes:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the

color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women

glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed

earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will,

and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell

above the Veil.

You may not have his examples, but you better have

examples. Here in his rich 19th-century cadences, DuBois affirms that the care of the old

ones and care for their works is a matter of choice and love, not blood. He indicates that

culture through its greatest works is a means to individual freedom. In Chief Seattle’s

terms, DuBois walks with his dead.

To this lofty idea of his, we can add another element of

national memory, our popular culture, a realm where the inventions and improvisations of

immigrants, a mixing of African and Latin and European and Asian elements have created a

fabric of tremendous richness. But it’s a peculiarity of this fluid, dynamic popular

culture that memory can be very short. Ellington and Keaton, Billie Holiday and Preston

Sturges were popular, even mass art not long ago, but within a generation or two, they,

too, are taught in school and remembered largely through the work of school. Given this

importance of school as curator of American culture, in the absence of those two other

repositories, it’s no wonder that these commencement exercises are so elaborate, and so

overtly laden with symbols and mysteries.

The work of those artists in movies and jazz comes into

school, as the best sitcoms and cop shows are coming into school, partly because of the

accelerating pace and increasing scale of mass art — mass art, which perhaps should be

distinguished from popular art. Mass art, which can be wonderful and glorious — I don’t

mean to disparage it — is by nature designed and produced by experts, distributed by

experts, marketed by experts who hope to make it popular in one specific sense. Popular

art, true popular art in a larger sense is produced by a people, distributed by means more

like gossip than like marketing campaigns. The mass product of the steel oil drum, the

ugly and unpromising object, was made a musical instrument of popular art by people who

used it to invent a new music. Then steel drum music was marketed by the organs of mass

art, and perhaps some of that product was sampled into a rap tune before rap, in its turn,

was transformed from popular art into mass art, perhaps to be made popular art again in a

complex American circulation.

I promise to apply my thoughts about honoring our

predecessors and caring for our young to this moment, to these particular graduates.

Your generation has experienced mass culture with a special

intensity. By the time you were 12 or 13, you had consumed many, many different

mass-marketed products, some of them brilliant and wonderful, some less so. As small

children you saw the movie and had the illustrated book, and you pleaded for the spin-off

products and you got the action figure and the little figures at the fast-food place, and

you saw the cartoon version on television on the weekend. By the time you were 14,

manipulated so many times, so effectively, you were more than a little jaded or ironic

about mass art, sometimes while being nostalgic about it, at the same time. The normal

response to these manipulated cultural waves is to sort of lump them and to feel a little

disgust with them.

Many of the styles of your generation, in music and dress,

as I perceive them, are as if designed to come up with something that resists the mass

scale, a kind of grooming or music that won’t easily be sold by Sears & Roebuck to

10-year-olds within a few weeks. In this sense, it has occurred to me that the body-pierce

shares some roots and motives with the current American resurgence of my own art of

poetry, poetry which has become increasingly, well, increasingly popular in recent

years. Like certain fashions, like having a piece of steel go through the bridge of your

nose or something, poetry seeks to live on an individual human scale. The medium for a

poem is one person’s voice. So by the nature of the medium, it is a counterweight to mass


One of your hallmarks as a generation from my point of view

may be an admirable, droll skepticism. You do not want to be too easily sold or too easily

sold to, and your presence here today as individuals indicates that you have held out for

quality goods and excellent pursuits. The hijinks with the academic garments are in that

category. I don’t want to overpraise them. I’m aware they can slide off into a kind of

languid privileged class arrogance, you know, like kids at community colleges have to take

this seriously, we can crap around. I’m aware that there’s a balance there. I understand

that, and you don’t want to become like the upper classes in the Evelyn Waugh novels,

where they trash stuff, and he writes, "It was the sound of the English upper classes

howling for broken glass." But you can handle that one.

In a way, as a generation, you have reversed the lines I

recall from my beloved great teacher here at Stanford, Yvor Winters.

Winters wrote this quatrain in a poem called "On

Teaching the Young":

The young are quick of speech.

Grown middle-aged, I teach

Corrosion and distrust

Exacting what I must.

I hope your corrosion and distrust carry you far, and that

your resistance and skepticism not prevent you from picking and choosing and walking among

the great dead, as W. E. B. DuBois describes.

In relation to the ideas of honoring the old ones and

caring for the young, I pray that my own generation has not let you down. I pray that we

have not been as Chief Seattle wondered if we are. The language in which I’ve been

addressing you, the machines that are amplifying my voice, the dyestuffs in our garments,

the subjects you’ve studied, none of this was invented by anybody here. We got this

language and the garments and the mathematics and the music and the ceramic engineering,

all the rest of it, from our elders who got those goods from people who are now dead, in a

chain going back farther than anybody can trace.

Woe be to us if we have in any way broken that chain that

goes so far back. Curses on us if we’ve held treasures that have crossed thousands of

years through successive generations, from the dead to the not yet born. Think of your

ancestors: Among them, for everybody here, among your ancestors have been princes and

slaves. Everybody here in this stadium, if we seek among your tens of thousands of

ancestors, will find not only slaves and royal personages, but the products of love

matches and rapes, people who died of starvation, people who thrived, and across all those

adventures and misadventures, somehow the treasures have been passed on.

Therefore, though some of you who graduate today will found

mighty businesses, and some of you will make spectacular works of art and some of you will

be effective healers and scientists and thinkers and politicians, I ask you to remember

that in a certain sense, the most important thing about you will not be the prizes you win

or your accomplishments.

Though you win a Nobel Prize in physics and literature, in

a sense it is more important that you keep physics and literature alive, to be passed on

to the generations that follow you, as treasures that you got from the generations that

preceded you. Your success in business or law may be laudable, and may enrich you and your

families and communities, but that is less important in the largest way than the fact that

by practicing your skills and exercising your knowledge, you are also preserving them and

perfecting them, and you thank those predecessors who preserved and perfected those skills

for you by maintaining them for those to follow you.

I charge you not to break the chain that goes back to the

primates that evolved what we now separate into bands and music and poetry and speech as a

means of extending memory in an individual lifetime and beyond it. I charge you in

whatever way you choose to honor the past and to convey its treasures to the young.

They asked me to read something of my own, and I’ll close

by reading a poem of mine that maybe will be a good addendum to what I’ve said to you,

because it presents a notion of the past as not necessarily, or history as not

necessarily, the doings of big shots. The history in here is in many, many places, and

you’re sitting on it and wearing it and thinking it, and it’s in your grooming and the

shape of your nose and the garments on your back. The poem is called "Shirt."

[Pinsky reads the poem]

Good luck and congratulations to you, Class of ‘99.

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