May 18, 2008
Posted May 19, 2008
President Mitchell, distinguished professors and guests, graduates of the class of 2008, it is a great pleasure and a special honor for me to be invited here to share in your festivities in this fine old school in what used to be known as the wilds of Pennsylvania. I congratulate you and your parents on this memorable rainy day -- cold day which I suppose puts the question, the whole business of global warming – what ever happened to it?
Poet Laureaute Charles Simic.
Forty-two years ago, I was in your shoes and remember my amazement and my happiness that I was actually graduating from college and even greater happiness, years later, that my children were doing the same. You may be taking all this in stride, but I did not. Since I was a little boy, I was half-convinced by every teacher and relative who told me that I would turn out to be a bum, and I was genuinely surprised that they were proven wrong. The truth is I hated school. During the Second World War, while bombs fell on Belgrade, the city where I was born in a now-extinct country called Yugoslavia, I prayed that one of them would fall on my school. It never did. Still, I remember my disappointment when the war ended. As far as I was concerned, roaming the streets of the half-destroyed city with my friends was all the education I needed. Besides, my mother had taught me how to read already and the books we had at home in my father’s library were more interesting than the books they had waiting for me in school.
Forced to flee
What I did not know then is that my life and the life of my parents would change and that we would find ourselves after the war dislocated, dispossessed and forced to flee. My family got to see the world for free thanks to Hitler's wars and Stalin's takeover of East Europe. Nobody asked us what we wanted. Like millions of others who were made homeless, we had no ambition to stray far beyond our neighborhood in Belgrade. We liked it fine. Deals were made by the great powers about the spheres of influence, borders were redrawn, the so-called Iron Curtain was lowered, and we were set adrift with our few suitcases and our memories.
We didn't fare as badly as some of the other people displaced by the war. Over a million Russians, just to give an example, whom the Germans forcibly brought to work in their factories and on their farms during the war, were returned to Stalin against their own will by the Allies. Some were shot and the rest were packed off to the work camps so they would not contaminate the rest of the citizenry with their newly acquired decadent capitalist notions. Our own prospects were rosier. We had hopes of ending up in the United States since my father had worked for an American company before the war and they were eager to employ him again. After many setbacks, we managed to get here.
Entering New York
It was August 10, 1954. I was standing on a deck of a ship entering the New York harbor admiring the skyline and worrying what will happen to me. If somebody had asked me at that moment what I wanted from life, I most likely would have said to learn English, buy a pair of jeans, a cowboy belt, a colorful sport shirt, and have a ride in one of the big American cars I could see moving slowly in the morning traffic. Whatever ambitions I had then were either so vague or so modest, they were not worth talking about. I had no idea what would become of me.
Even when I was a kid and someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up, I used to pretend. Since my father was an engineer, I learned that it was safest to say I wanted to be an engineer like my pop. It made everybody happy to hear me say that. Later, as a teenager, when it became clear that I had no head for numbers, I told my parents and others that I wanted to be a journalist. My father liked the idea, but not my mother. She got it in to her head that I would become a foreign correspondent, get in trouble while covering some war or revolution, be captured by the rebels and most probably tortured and shot. I pictured myself differently; wearing a white suit, sipping cocktails in a bar of some once-elegant hotel in the war zone, flirting with a beautiful, mysterious woman who most likely was a spy but who looked like one of the 1940s Hollywood movie stars in black and white films I was in love with in my youth.
Actually, I had no interest in journalism. I was drawing and painting, writing poems on the sly, but knew that my most pressing need was to get a job since my parents were separating and I was about to find myself at the age of eighteen alone, having to support myself, and having to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I knew that if I was to have any college education, it would have to be at night while I worked during the day. That’s what happened, and though it took years to get my bachelor’s degree, I stuck with it, despite the fact that my choice of a major seemed ridiculously unpractical. I studied Russian language and literature knowing perfectly well that I would never get to be good enough to teach the subject. So, why did I do it? You may be asking. I loved reading the Great Russian writers and poets in the original. Beyond that, I can’t think of any other reason.
I’m occasionally asked when is it that I decided to become a poet and my reply — which puzzles people — is that I never did. I wrote poems late at night, published them in literary magazines, went to poetry readings, got to know some poets, but all along I wanted to be a painter. The problem was that I had little, practically no talent. I was almost thirty when I finally came to my senses and stopped painting. In the meantime, I published my first book of poems and was preparing my second one while working at various office jobs in Chicago and New York and enjoying myself.
As you are about to discover, there is nothing like living in an interesting place, making new friends, spending a great deal of time with them, falling in and out of love and even having a job you like. Unfortunately, events in the world have a way of periodically disrupting our lives. I vividly recall going to work one morning at Chicago Sun Times and being greeted by some of my fellow workers with the news that I am going to Lebanon to fight the Arabs. They were kidding me. The year was 1958. President Eisenhower had sent marines to Beirut and the headlines in the papers said more troops may be required. In any case, for a moment I was terrified. Not ready to be drafted yet and leave behind my cozy little set up. Later, I did serve in the army, but luckily didn’t end up in Vietnam as my younger brothers did.
Thanks to the scare I got from that long-forgotten Lebanon crisis, I began to pay close attention to what goes on in the world. There’s always something nasty, something profoundly depressing going on in the world. Most of the time we imagine that it doesn’t concern us. We think it’s some other people’s problem. We may have pity for their suffering, but we have little desire to understand the policies that brought it about and to fully picture their predicament. We don’t really care to know the details. To give a current example, today we have lost sight of the reality of war. One of the benefits of growing up in an occupied country during wartime, as I did, is that one learns even as a small child what war is like. There’s a good reason that the scenes of carnage are almost never shown on our television.We are not allowed to see dead bodies, the wounds that leave faces and bodies horribly disfigured or watch the agony of the dying. No politician could get away with promising more and more wars, calling them noble endeavors, if our reporting was not so censored and we were not left in the dark as to what war really does to people. “A smoking butcher shop,” is how someone once described a battlefield in World War I. When you add to that that mostly the innocents get killed when bombs fall, it’s nothing to be proud of. In modern wars, it’s often safer to be a soldier than a civilian. Of course, being a soldier is no picnic either.
Reality is unforgiving
In my life, war was a constant source of bewilderment and worry and it will be in yours too. You can try to ignore it, but you won’t succeed. Reality is unforgiving to individuals and nations who lose sight of its existence. Sooner or later, it has a way of taking revenge.
On that subject, my greatest teachers were the immigrants and children of immigrants I met in New York and Chicago. Jews, Germans, Poles, Italians, Russians, they had incredible life stories to relate. These were cautionary tales of what immense evil and goodness human beings are capable of. I liked to hear them talk without fully understanding their cries of outrage and calls for justice. They had come through revolutions, pogroms, family tragedies, poverty, humiliation, and God-knows-what-else. Despite everything that happened to them, they kept their intellectual curiosity and their sense of humor. They kept telling me: Wise up! Use your head! Open your eyes! Read this book! Read that book! They meant, be prepared to learn things about this world you are not going to like.
To have an independent mind has always been the advice given to anyone who wants to live a life of integrity. The problem is that our society, and just about every other society, despite pretending otherwise, doesn’t really encourage individuals to think for themselves. I recently reread a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson given in 1841 to a gathering of mechanics’ apprentices in Boston in which our great philosopher and poet warns the young men that they are about to find out that a tender and intelligent conscience is a disqualification for success, that each profession requires of the practitioner a certain shutting of the eyes, a certain compliance, an acceptance of conformity, an abandonment of the sentiment of generosity, a compromise of private opinion and integrity.This essay called “Man the Reformer” is still shocking to read. We think of ourselves as a country of “rugged individuals”, and here is Emerson telling us that the way our society is constituted, independent thinkers are not welcome, only conformists. Anyone among us who objects, who claims Emerson is exaggerating, may not be telling himself or herself the full truth about how they live and continue to live their lives.
The world is not what it pretends to be is the big lesson you are going to learn as you go on with your life. We are regularly lied to by institutions and persons we tend to hold in high regard. Every nation on earth is scared to look at the truth and acknowledge what they have done to themselves and to others, and we are no different. We see ourselves on a mission to make the world a better place, but we no longer have the ability to set our own house in order. None of the problems that confront us in education, unemployment, healthcare, environment, illegal immigration, national debt, the cost of the two wars we are fighting, are seriously debated even in time of presidential elections.Today, the old hope that despite occasional setbacks, America is moving forward, that sooner or later we will have a country envisioned by our Founding Fathers, where genuine equality and political democracy is in place, has nearly ceased to be entertained as a serious possibility among the populace and its political representatives. I don’t mean that people are not thinking about abolishing some current injustice or solving some problem. It’s the big, all-consuming vision of a just democratic society that is in danger of becoming every day less and less conceivable, given the level of our political discourse. I hope you will be a generation to reverse that trend and save us from our pettiness, our blindness and our self-destructive ways.
What Emerson warned us almost hundred and seventy years ago about conformity is still true. He loved this country, as I do, and had the highest hopes for it; he just didn’t want to pretend things are fine when they are not. All of our great poets, beginning with Whitman, were well aware of these unspoken contradictions, as they went celebrating the beauties of our land and the many admirable character traits of our people. In the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, his first book of poems, Whitman even had a bit of advice for young people like you. He said: I quote --
This is what you should do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men…, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body. . . . . . . .
Wonder of life
I'm going to leave you with a poem of mine. The subject of poetry is the wonder of life rather than the conduct of life, so that may be a better way to conclude. It’s a short poem of four, four-line stanzas, and yet it took me thirty years to write. I had the first three stanzas years ago, but had no idea how to finish the poem. I tried to imagine what happens next, but simply could not come up with anything that sounded plausible. I put the unfinished poem aside and every now and then over the years I would take a look at it in the hope that I would find a way to end it. Then a couple of years ago the answer came to me.
Here is the poem: It's called "That Little Something."
The likelihood of ever finding it is small.
It’s like being accosted by a woman
And asked to help her look for a pearl
She lost right here in the street.
She could be making it all up,
Even her tears, you say to yourself,
As you search under your feet,
Thinking, Not in a million years…
It’s one of those summer afternoons
When one needs a good excuse
To step out of a cool shade.
In the meantime, what ever became of her?
And why, years later, do you still,
Off and on, cast your eyes to the ground
As you hurry to some appointment
Where you are now certain to arrive late.
May you all here today, each one of you in your own unique way, find “that little something.”