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Keynote Speech at Commencement


Peter Cole
Hampshire College Commencement Address, May 22, 2010

It’s extremely weird to be here, and I’ll say more about that weirdness in just a moment. But first, old-fashioned and highball congratulations to the class-of-whatever-it-is for having made it up the Ladder of Alternative Division : “To have come this far”—as Constantine Cafavy put it in a Greek poem telling of a young poet who complains to Theocritus about how little he has managed to complete of his work and how tall and difficult the ladder of poetry is—“to have come this far,” Theocritus says to him in Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s quietly miraculous translation, “is no small achievement: / what you have done is a glorious thing…. /To stand on this step / you must be in your own right / a member of the city of ideas. / And it is a hard, unusual thing / to be enrolled as a citizen of that city. / Its councils are full of Legislators / no charlatan can fool. / To have come this far is no small achievement: / what you have done already is a glorious thing.” And so, as they used to say in certain Greek towns, mazel tov on having earned a terrifying if also exhilarating view. May it continue to exhilarate and—to keep things in perspective— to terrify. And on that note of terror and thrill I’d like to thank you for granting a literary mongrel like me the honor and privilege of addressing you and the Hampshire community directly on this occasion. That too is no small thing, and one I take—as you’ll see—very seriously. In that spirit of seriousness I’ve decided to talk about something I’ve been mulling over in various ways ever since my time at Hampshire. Fear not—that “something” goes well beyond the world of poetry, except in as much as what’s best about poetry is always with us—haunting and, in rarer and rarer cases, nourishing—whatever it is we take up. And so, without further ado, a few words about what I’m going to call “Radical Convention” and what it means to be TRULY weird.

Weird is a word that comes to us from English before it was English, from the world of Beowulf and Cynewulf, and Alfred’s rendering of Boethius. Today it means mostly bizarre, or strange, and usually a little wild—maybe in a good way, but maybe not. Not so long ago, however, it indicated something “driven by destiny,” that is, once upon a time it was a noun meaning “fate.” As late as William Morris’s popular 1895 version of Beowulf, the King of the Danes warns that “weird wends as she willeth,” and says of his drinking buddies and would-be allies in battle, “Weird swept them away.” And there is an old and unsettling English proverb worth dwelling on as we wend our own way: “After word comes weird”—meaning, be careful with the words you use, what you say and even read, because they will, almost magically, or in fact magically, determine who you’ll become. While there is some argument about what he really meant by the term, it’s Shakespeare who seems, inadvertently or not, to have introduced the word into modern English as an adjective, when he gave us, in Macbeth, the “weird sisters,” witches who were either driven by destiny or were destiny.

For a while, to call something “weird” was to suggest that destiny’s hand could be palpably felt in its workings, that something uncanny lay at its heart. And so when one says, for instance, that it’s weird to be here, and when I say it now, the word carries with it all that it has meant in the tradition of English literature that has in large part made me and certainly made the poets I’ve come to love and admire and struggle with—some who once broke radically with their tradition, and in time became that tradition, and others who saw themselves as solid citizens of poetry’s republic, only to find themselves relegated to its margins a century or much less hence. “As werd will wyrk, thi fortoun mon thou tak,” sighed “Blind Harry,” a renowned fifteenth-century Scottish minstrel I’d venture to say is unfamiliar to almost everyone at this gathering, and this despite the semi-revival of his work in the wake of Mel Gibson’s movie Braveheart. Talk about weird.

It’s deeply weird to be here, then, not only because I’ve never given a college commencement address before—but because, believe it or not, I’ve never even been to a college commencement before, and that includes my own from Hampshire in 1980. And it’s weirdest of all because my not being there then has in a sense brought me here now. Having transferred out of a highly conventional institution (Williams College), I was seeking, and found, refuge in experiment (at Hampshire College), where hypotheses were still being tested and the results of what went on in the lab or the field of the classroom could not be predicted—where, in other words, serious risk (one is after all educating for life) was the lion’s share of the promised reward. I didn’t go to my own commencement because at the time—starved for experience of the world, scared and maybe therefore scornful—I considered it too conventional. Whereas I wanted to be, if not radical, then at least un-conventional. But then I knew nothing about convention. And, it turns out, even less about being radical.

Which is probably why I’ve been obsessed all along with this thing that I’m calling “radical convention.” Coming together in art and in life in order to be different and make a difference. And so to establish linkage and continuance.

What does it mean—this convention in the name of the exceptional? This gathering together to cultivate and celebrate distinction? I would propose that we’ve assembled today—gowned and un-gowned graduates, guests and envoys of this institution that was born out of a radical desire to return, by eccentric means, to the heart and center of learning—I would propose that we’ve convened under a tent of meeting and meaning because at some essential level we believe in this thing that Google says doesn’t exist: “radical convention.”

That most of us believe in the worth of a radical approach at least to education almost goes without saying. After all, you are here, not at Harvard, or even Haverford. But “convention”? The last thing any of you—and that includes me—aspires to become is “conventional.” In everyday or conventional use, the words convention and conventional are largely pejorative. “That’s just a convention,” we say, implying something mechanical, artificial, timid—even insincere. The conventional man is, conventionally, the company man, with a proper suit and a drink in his hand, and maybe a good-looking pipe and wife. That conventional wife wears conventional sweater sets and makes conventional meals for their conventional kids. And even the twenty-first-century and re-gendered version of that picture is conventional in its updated way. Who would send the arrow of her self out toward such a target?

But other sorts of conventions are well worth our time and attention. Stories begin, develop, and—ah—come to an end (though as Jean-Luc Godard once pointed out, not necessarily in that order). Plays presume an enabling audience that can see through the fourth wall before them and into the artificial space of fictional and costumed characters in a curiously arranged room—and yet this illusion is sometimes most effectively maintained by calling it into question. When we go to the movies, formulas await us—from the buddy pic to the horror flick, from the soft-shoe hijinks of musical comedy to the guaranteed heartbreak of the serious tearjerker. Here too the tension wrought by informed anticipation of what might happen next can become a valuable part not only of a blessedly diverting plot but of its engaging, nourishing substance. And of course the lyrics of popular song are rife with unpredictably predictable patter and patterns that matter in unexpected ways: from the Fountains of Wayne (“The Night I Can’t Remember with the Girl I Can’t Forget”) to Bob Dylan’s ballads or blues—with lines like “the pump don’t work ‘cause the Vandals got the handles” or “He not busy being born is busy dying”—to The Monotones and their 1957 by-the-book though hardly monotonous “Book of Love,” which embodies all-too familiar conventions yet affords us some welcome distance on them:
Tell me, tell me, tell me
Oh, who wrote the Book of Love
I’ve got to know the answer
Was it someone from above

Oh, I wonder, wonder who,
mmbadoo-ooh, who wrote the Book of Love

Chapter One says to love her
You love her with all your heart
Chapter Two you tell her
You’re never, never, never, never, never gonna part
In Chapter Three remember the meaning of romance
In Chapter Four you break up
But you give her just one more chance …

Millions of people have taken and continue to take simple or complex pleasure from these conventions and others like them. And, as with the conventions of family life and life at work, they’ve developed as they have for a variety of reasons—among others, to provide a structure within which we might better endure, understand, and experience a confused, confusing, and frequently enthralling world.

In short, there’s nothing about convention that’s inherently inimical to radical ways of being and seeing, and in fact one might argue that an understanding of the nature and dynamics of convention is a prerequisite for truly radical expression.

To grasp how that’s so, let’s raid what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the tombs of the Muses” and look inside our terms for the “fossil poetry” he says language is. A radical analysis of the term “radical convention” shows people coming together (con-venire) around a radical—a root. The radical employment of a convention addresses an acknowledged and often foundational human need—to praise or scorn, to celebrate or mourn; but unlike the conventional convention, the radical convention challenges our understanding of that need, making new the experience of praise or scorn, celebration or mourning. Conventional convention pacifies, or stultifies. Radical convention intensifies, and sometimes transforms (as a power plant or substation or simple device in the home transforms a current—from running water to electricity, or from electricity at one voltage to a charge to be exploited at a more viable potency).

But that’s the easy and obvious contrast: conventional convention and a radical approach. What happens when the experimental impulse goes slack, is left unexamined, or is valued primarily as a mark of identity and ceases to be used as a vehicle for honest inquiry? That is—and this is something that goes to the heart of the experience of learning at a place like Hampshire—how can we distinguish between a radical vision of convention and conventional radicalism?

For all of its passionate intensity, conventional radicalism too easily preaches the organic but in fact is not about growth and nourishment and honest response to experience. Its aesthetic is assumed rather than earned or evolved. It embraces openness in theory rather than practice. More often than not, it is about attitude rather than aptitude. And it is—to borrow, perhaps unfairly, from a famous Amherst poem by one of the greatest of radical conventionalists—“public, like a frog,” broadcasting its allegiances, rather than cultivating a sustaining dynamic between inwardness and action. It sometimes asks hard questions, but rarely works hard to answer those questions in scrupulous fashion, and once it has learned the manner and style, conventional radicalism stops learning. And “stop” in that sentence is both an intransitive and a transitive verb.

The tradition of radical convention, on the other hand, never stops learning. And knowledge is never enough for it. Though knowledge is also critical to it. The radical employment of convention involves re-vision in the most elemental sense: the constant recalibration of sight, and with it of imagination. The radical recognition of convention’s power often entails socially uncomfortable and sometimes contrarian judgment—for which one inevitably pays a price—a price that means real pain, as it reconfigures our sense of what might be. For it’s a safe bet that our sense of What Might Be isn’t necessarily what everyone else has been waiting for. Its revolution involves an agitation of the past even more than of the present—an adjustment of perspective that reconfigures our sense of what might be. As another prominent radical conventionalist, the poet William Blake, put it in a work called “The Mental Traveler”: “the eye altering alters all.” Radical conventions bring time to the other altar, the one with two “a’s”—that is, they bring to the altar the time of day, and our time in the world, and the time which is money as they prepare the way for the manifold sacred weddings and sacrificial offerings of a given moment.

We find convention employed in radical fashion in many places. Think, again, of Blake—his poetry and his engraving, where by and large the traditional modes of the late eighteenth century (the rhymed couplet, quatrain, and song; the epigram and the epic) are taken up and charged with content that would utterly rewire consciousness:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
and Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Or take the sublime and spiky eleventh-century giant of Hebrew poetry in Muslim Spain, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who combined existing Hebraic and Greco-Arabic literary conventions and harnessed them to write as no one in Hebrew ever had, of first things and last, and the erotic connection between them. In a poem, again, by a teacher to a student who has asked about nothing less than the nature of existence, Ibn Gabirol spirals down into the spooky core of learning—where he finds … everything:

I love you with the love a man
has for his only son—
with his heart and his soul and his might.
And I take great pleasure in your mind
as you take the mystery on
of the Lord’s act in creation—
though the issue is distant and deep,
and who could approach its foundation?

But I’ll tell you something I’ve heard
and let you dwell on its strangeness:
sages have said that the secret
of being owes all
to the all who has all in His hand:
He longs to give form to the formless
as a lover longs for his friend.
And this is, maybe, what the prophets
meant when they said He worked
all for His own exaltation.

I’ve offered you these words—
now show me how you’ll raise them.

These lines by Blake and Ibn Gabirol, writers separated by seven and a half centuries, emerge from conspicuously conventional, if distinct, traditions. But they hold the changing world within the double-helix of their revitalized conventions—in their musical fiber, their figures, their syntax, their cadence, and their sense. Their conventions are, in other words, infused with life. Rather than simply filling out the space of a social, political, or aesthetic interaction in merely elegant or impressive fashion, conventions animated by a radical vision work subversively as they return us to a visceral sense of the powerful, frightening, dangerous, marvelous, and yes, weird forces all around and within us—forces that are always gathering and being combined and accounted for, always beginning in new constellation, always commencing. And this is the case whether one is attending to words or to molecules, to patterns in the woods or an orchestra pit, to shapes on a canvas or screen, or along a spread sheet.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, comes down to this: Whether you end up working, or now work, in the arts or in commerce, in politics, the community or a lab, and regardless of what you wear to that work—a t-shirt or hair-shirt; overalls, jeans, a sweater, or a pin-striped suit; a baseball cap or beret—you will at some point (in fact at every point) find yourself consciously or unconsciously engaged with a set of often inconspicuous conventions. Do not despise these small things, says Zechariah (chapter 4, verse 10). Recognize them, respect them and the need for them, but most important, re-imagine and re-conceive them—incessantly—and keep your altering eye on the altering prize: not the trappings of innovation and identity, not the posture of a certain politics, and not the experimental manner, but its abiding ethos, which calls for approaching the unknown with courage and rigor, and a compassion born of a deep-seated sense and perception of relation.

So much for the high-falutin and not-exactly-practical part of what I want to say. It’s also conventional in speeches of this sort to offer more grounded advice, and I’d like to conclude by honoring that commencement convention in almost conventional fashion. Briefly, then, two tidbits. First, a single sentence from a modest man of letters who made of his very being in the world a vehicle for art of the highest order, one in which people could meet around certain conventions made new, so as to get to the heart of something old and utterly wondrous and true, and through that meeting be made more fully, and intensely, human. I’m trying to describe Robert Fitzgerald, the master translator of Homer, among many other things that he was (poet, reporter, teacher, and radiant though self-effacing sage of the memoir). Looking back over a life well-lived across three-quarters of a brutal century, Fitzgerald offered words that I have tacked up above my desk, and which amount to something like a creed transcending all manners and modes, all disciplines and forms of desire: “It seems to me,” Fitzgerald said, “there are a few things everyone can humbly try to hold onto: love and mercy (and humor) in day-to-day living; the quest for exact truth in language and affairs of the intellect; self-recollection or prayer; and the peace, the composed energy of art.”

From a rung on the ladder of poetry, and from within the mystery of its making, that is what I wish each one of you today as you head out to do what you will (or won’t): a palpable sense of those elusive things themselves—love and especially humor, that truth and energy and peace—but above all, the ability to “humbly try to hold onto” them, perhaps through conventions redrawn, perhaps through the redrawing itself.

And finally, while it’s foolish to follow Fitzgerald, let alone a sentence as charged with grace as the one I’ve just cited, in the spirit of radical convention, and also of this institution, I’d like to add just one more thing: Be weird.


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