Marlboro College

NewsCommencement Address

Robert Pinsky

It's a pleasure and an honor to be one of you, now; thank you.

I'm going to read three or four poems to you and try to string them together with the theme that to me is related to this saucy and serious campus.

People sometimes say to me, "I find poetry difficult. It's hard." The response I've evolved is, "That's only one of the good things about it."

What do human beings desire? I think more than pleasure, more than power, more than any other gratification I submit to you that what we desire is difficulty. That's why the video parlors are full of kids putting quarters in machines. Why kids like their Game Boys. Why people like their X Boxes. That's why if someone makes a lot of money in this country, becomes very successful, sooner or later you find that person out in the grass with a stick hitting a little white ball around. Because it is difficult .

In a classical tag the human animal is a pathetic creature, with patchy fur here and there on its body. Pathetic claws and teeth. Indifferent runner. Can sort of climb, swims a little, can't fly. A rather pathetic creature. But it likes dealing with difficulty.

In a way what this place is dedicated to the pursuit of finding a worthy difficulty. The hypnotic videogame, golf, these are stages, stages towards something like playing Bach. If we look through the list of Plans of Concentration, the word "exploration" and the word "study" is part of the vocabulary. It is not only what we desire, it's what we admire and value. It's what makes a hero. Heroes are not people who solve problems. Joan of Arc dies of torture by religious fanatics and political enemies. The first thing we learn, the first sentence about Odysseus, the most intelligent and most interesting of the heroes, is that he failed to bring all of his men home. But he did study the manners of people in many different places. We admire Abraham Lincoln for his agons, his contests, and the way he performed in them not because he solved a problem but because of the way he engaged it. Jackie Robinson did not end racism in this country. He engaged the difficulties of his sport and he engaged on behalf of all of us of the entire community a worthy difficulty. For that reason we consider him a hero.

So the pursuit of the liberal arts here, at your place, is pursuing various things that are difficult, exploring them and studying them and that is somewhat distinct from the idea of solving a problem. We find this not only in heroes of politics. It is true also in art. The first poem I will read to you is by the contemporary poet Gail Mazur. It's a kind of translation of the wo rds of the Italian artist Michelangelo Buonarroti, who also wrote poems. Here is "To Giovanni da Pistoia When the Author was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel" in 1509.

I've already grown a goiter from this torture,

swollen up here like a cat from Lombardy

(or anywhere where the stagnant water's poison).

My stomach's squashed under my chin, my beard's

pointing at heaven, my brain's crushed in a casket,

my breast twists like a harpy's. My brush,

above me all the time, dribbles the paint

so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,

my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,

every gesture I make is blind and aimless.

My skin hangs loose below me, my spine's

all knotted from folding over itself,

I'm bent taut as a Syrian bow.

And because I'm like this, my thoughts

are crazy perfidious tripe:

anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.

Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.

I am not in the right place--I am not a painter.


If there is anyone here that doesn't recognize that feeling I think you should leave. (laughter and applause)

To strive, indeed, even to excel, is difficult and it is discouraging. It has been proposed that despair and depression--far from unknown on college campuses, far from unknown amongst ambitious, intelligent people--it has been proposed that despair and depression are functional for the animal biologically. If the animal didn't sit around sometimes dissatisfied with itself and everything it would not dream of these things, some marvelous, some horrible, that we do dream up. We didn't only dream up the Sistine Chapel, we did burn Joan of Arc. We didn't only invent beautiful electronic equipment, we also put electrodes in people's genitals and in the fillings in their teeth. And perhaps the capacity to feel that all my thoughts are crazy, persidious tripe are part of our creativity and I'm sure that of the honorees, the graduates today, none of them was without moments of that sensation.

There is another thing besides despair of that kind that goes with difficulty. One of the technical terms for it is "kvetching." Here is William Butler Yeat's poem on the subject of difficulty. It is called in a way the poem inspired my remarks to you today. The poem is entitled "The Fascination of What's Difficult."

The fascination of what's difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart.   There's something ails our colt

[the horse is the symbol of poetry]

That must, as if it had not holy blood

Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,

Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt

As though it dragged road-metal.   My curse on plays

That have to be set up in fifty ways,

On the day's war with every knave and dolt,

Theatre business, management of men.

I swear before the dawn comes round again

I'll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

And the funny thing about that poem is that it does show that action that I just described from the kvetching and despair and complaining to feeling that it is exactly that feeling of sensing the difficulty that creates the energy, that creates the adrenaline. And again, that is an action of the soul that everyone here recognizes. Your room is messy. Your books are ugly. Your notes are disorderly. Everything is wrong and there are stupid people annoying you.

And from that sensation you get to work.

Here is perhaps the most beautiful poem I know on this topic. It is also by Yeats and reminds us that what we desire is not Eden. Contrary to a lot of the imagery of popular culture, contrary to a lot of the imagery of advertising, contrary with all due respect to the travel industry, we do not desire Eden. We desire something that comes just after Eden. We desire to emulate, if we find the most worthy difficulty to love dealing with the problems of Jackie Robinson--or Odyseus or Lincoln or Einstein or whoever--with the same fascination that you feel in the video game or golf. If you don't feel it, it's just tic-tac-toe, which once you figure it out at the age of eight, it's not interesting anymore because it's not difficult. This is specifically about after Eden. If you'll pardon me for talking about poetry for a second, it also shows how you can take the difficulty of rhyme and and write in it as though you're speaking. The poem is a conversation. This is Yeats' poem, "Adam's Curse."

We sat together at one summer's end,

That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,

And you and I, and talked of poetry.

I said, 'A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

Better go down upon your marrow-bones

And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones

Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;

For to articulate sweet sounds together

Is to work harder than all these, and yet

Be thought an idler by the noisy set

Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen

The martyrs call the world.'

. . . . . . . . . And thereupon

That beautiful mild woman for whose sake

There's many a one shall find out all heartache

On finding that her voice is sweet and low

Replied, 'To be born woman is to know-

Although they do not talk of it at school-

That we must labour to be beautiful.'

I said, 'It's certain there is no fine thing

Since Adam's fall but needs much labouring.

There have been lovers who thought love should be

So much compounded of high courtesy

That they would sigh and quote with learned looks

Precedents out of beautiful old books;

Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.'

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;

We saw the last embers of daylight die,

And in the trembling blue-green of the sky

A moon, worn as if it had been a shell

Washed by time's waters as they rose and fell

About the stars and broke in days and years.

I had a thought for no one's but your ears:

That you were beautiful, and that I strove

To love you in the old high way of love;

That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown

As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

They were having difficulties. This is for me one of the most basic human processes. Is the process of dissatisfaction, discouragement, despair and then the pleasure not of overcoming them, but of dealing with them. Seeing something wrong or amiss or mystifying or attractive or fascinating and engaging it, working to figure it out. And if you ever figured it out absolutely it would become tic-tac-toe and you would go on to something else. And our heroes are those we see engaged in that process. Maybe in the minds of two or three people here now there's the thought do we have political heroes? There's often discouragement and despair at the process of government. I'm happy to tell you that I met Ellen Lovell through the processes of government.

I'll read a poem by me that is about a hero. People tend to have forgotten. I'm a little bit older than this college, I can't say I have shoes older than this college but I have feet older than this college. And I'll digress and say that I asked the class of graduate students who were talking about the new Pope how much they knew about Pope John XXIII or the heroes of my lifetime? These kids hardly know a thing about him. I said nothing is more absurd than that I should be telling you about this man. But I told them. My poem is not about John XXIII. My poem is about another figure who is a hero to me. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. And I was thinking about her after her death she was an extremely candid, honest, eloquent, extremely eloquent Congressperson from Texas, a black woman. She was a black woman of rather beautiful features but with an extremely unfashionable body; she was large. And the poem muses upon her while also gazing at Eden, at a painting of Eve being tempted by the serpent and sort of thinking about these two ideas of womanhood and about the idea of being a hero. In memory of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.

Rare spirit harken to now with the pang

of half forgotten clarity or density

or quality, quilled, a learned freshness

Unshattered but not perfect. Not Eden.

Not that rippled meander through newborn islands,

those parentless first leaves and branches


Green marsh fresh the blue, the white feet

of our adolescent mother, myth of

perfection imagined just before


itself. As if by impulse. And grinning cynically

in a tree, bearded, big-nosed, already stuck

on his tube of body, the crawler. We, the tempter.

We, the corrupted. With no notion where bright

spirits are culled. Our very admiration a self


Who is this strange bird we say as if the

achieved idea were a sport. A sport

like that parrot, gaudy escapee from

Some domestic cage and to azure marginerings

Of California. Crested stranger

it joined a band of crows, flew and

Fed with them conducting itself as one


Crow. We prefer that myth to

this other realized


eloquence made of our

Same eggs and flour and flowers and water


As we are. No feathered


Immune to that first painted April when

We fell we foul we fowl of a feather.

We feel we fail. Not that she made it look difficult

Or easy, but possible. And we fall

I wish to the graduates that they find beautiful, absorbing, worthy, difficulties that they engage and pass onto others as the faculty has passed them on to them at this wonderful place. Thank you very much.

  1. Recent News
  2. Upcoming Events
  3. Social Media
  4. Press Releases
  5. Publications
  6. Drury Gallery
  7. Commencement
  8. Archives