Marlboro College

News Commencement remarks by Ellen Bryant Voigt

ellen bryant voigt

Thank you, President Lovell, Marlboro Trustees, faculty, staff, students, parents, and honored graduates.  Fran and I are very pleased to be here.  Over 40 years ago, the two of us spiffed up our resumés and sent from the Midwest six letters of application to Vermont; nothing seemed more exciting than the experiments underway, in this beautiful, human-sized state, at Bennington, Goddard and Marlboro.  We were dreamers, radical idealists, and the founding principles of these colleges were radically idealistic in 1969:  that students could responsibly shape their own curriculum; that a useful dynamic community could be sustained without conventional hierarchy; that learning could be defined as more than the transfer of knowledge.  What they stood for-what Marlboro still seems to stand for, alongside Fran's NECI and my own program now at Warren Wilson--is the importance of the verb over the noun.

Today's occasion is shouldering some very big nouns-Commencement, achievement, celebration.  But I hope to focus the graduates' attention on one crucial verb.  Thanks to the patience of your teachers, the passion of your peers, perhaps your parents' pocketbook, and certainly your own persistence-some other important alliterative nouns-you have learned how to think.  How to think-that's what your Marlboro Baccalaureate means.  And more thinking is what the world desperately needs. More than knowledge, which expands exponentially faster than we can Google and download it.  More than innovation, sometimes the by-product of hard thinking but an elusive target.  And more than contempt for convention, or blind adherence to convention, two sides of the same coin; those are attitudes, based on conclusions--more big nouns.

The particular verb such nouns may preclude is the part of thinking often overlooked as merely preliminary or plodding or wasteful.  But in fact, to observe--obsessively, patiently, without reaching too quickly for meaning and category, what John Keats called "negative capability"--is actually the major part of any creative thinking, as distinguished from "thoughts" or received wisdom or their popular cousin, "Self-expression."  Creative thinking is real work; it doesn't swagger; it is full of self-doubt; it doesn't dazzle in the blogosphere; it seems to keep you circling and idling, going nowhere, and yet it is what drives any field of inquiry forward, whether the sciences or the humanities, social sciences or the arts-we can see the range in your impressive "Plans of Concentration."  Because what it circles toward, with diligence and a little luck, is a thrilling discovery: some congruence between almost any disparate objects you choose to observe: no matter where you enter the web, you can find the spider.

Maybe you have come recently enough from the study of math to remember those intriguing "congruent triangles"-they look so different from one another, and yet, if we analyze them-an excellent way to enforce close observation-we see they have in common one angle, one line-length, one similarity we had overlooked.  In our current age, differences dominate our public discourse; and passionately-held Opinion-whether or not unfounded, irrational, or self-serving--is the Tsar.  Our only hope against its tyranny is open-minded observing, open-hearted discovering: the kind of thinking that can discover deep congruence among disparate even antagonistic elements.  It is what that radical idealist Samuel Coleridge called the "primary imagination."

Certainly it was the primary imagination, stimulated by years of observing, that saw the DNA double-helix prefigured by a burning ember coiling up the chimney.  But where I know it best is in poetry, my own life-work.  Poems are amazing paradigms for the paradox I'm talking about: a poem is a made thing, a noun, that embodies its own making, its verb.  A poem is nothing at all if not a means for thinking about the world; it depends utterly on relentless precise observation, and on congruence: between the poet's experience and the reader's, between the individual and the tribe, between the particular dramatic occasion and the human condition.  This is what makes its language, its final expression, indelible.

My example today is by Vermont's laureate, Robert Frost, one of the first commencement speakers at Marlboro, in 1947 or 1948.  The poem I've chosen is "After Apple-Picking," actually written in NH-at the farm where the founder of your college, one of his students, visited him in 1917--but we will forgive that geographical misfortune. And it isn't quite seasonally aligned with our current landscape, newly aflutter with apple blossoms, but perhaps you will forgive me that, since it opens this way:

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward Heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night.
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

You may not recall "metaphor" from your lit studies, but the ladder pointed toward "Heaven" announces right away that Frost has more than apples on the brain.  Hauling rocks out of the hayfield, or providing disaster relief in Haiti, or knocking on doors for a political campaign, or drafting a poem over and over, or getting your Independent Projects finished, defended, and approved-no matter  the moral importance of the enterprise, there is a cost at harvest-time.  We may begin our obsessive, deadline-driven, wholly-committed labor with the highest ideals and expectations, but where we end is a fugue-state of exhaustion and regret and insufficiency, the barrel unfilled, the fruit left in the tree.

What Frost says next dramatizes more than physical fatigue: the poem is about thinking:

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break,
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.

The number of active verbs in this passage is remarkable-rub, got, looking, skimmed, held, melted, let, fall, break, fell, tell, take, plus those "verbals," drinking trough and my dreaming. I especially want you to notice the strangeness: observing is not passive and bloodless-it engages both left- and right-brain in the difficult effort to see something clearly, without predisposition.  Frost's speaker was "well/Upon my way to sleep" before the melting pane of glass he skimmed off-and then peered through--fell and broke: that is, already in the dream. What could be more individual, personal, than one's dreams?  In the poem, in the "form my dreaming was about to take,"

Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.

What dreams do is internalize the external world.  What poems do is externalize subjective experience, the "pressure of a ladder-round" on the instep arch: both are embodied and enacted in this poem as the primary imagination does its work:

For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.

You graduates are recently come from compulsion, completion, and its aftermath, obsessive reckoning.  Like Frost's apple-picker, you too may be not only "overtired" FROM the harvest but also tired OF the "great harvest" you yourself-not just parents, not just teachers-you yourself desired, all that was gathered during your years here and all that had to be  left "to the...heap/As of no worth."  That is the paradox of any achievement, the instructive congruence between picking apples and writing poems and studying cell structure and mastering the banjo.  It is what drives us to the next harvest and the next-what keeps us being verbs, unsatisfied with merely being nouns:

One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

The woodchuck in hibernation is not remembering apples he failed to eat: he's merely a noun, sustained through winter by layers of stored fat.  There are times we all wish for such oblivion-your current fatigue  may be wishing for it this very moment: that is, to be done with thinking for awhile.  But my wish FOR you is what I think Frost would recommend: only some brief dream-troubled sleep, recounting the apples you let fall as well as those you gathered.  Your current harvest is a marvelous achievement, and we salute you for it.  But it will be those active verbs-observing, discovering, thinking--that will keep you most human and most alive.

AFTER APPLE-PICKING

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward Heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night.
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break,
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, life down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

-- from The Poetry of Robert Frost (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969)


photo by Jeff Woodward

 

 

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