Every year there are one or two commencement speeches that strike a chord with audiences far greater than the student bodies for which they are intended. In 2015 Mary Karr’s speech to the graduating class of Syracuse University caught fire, hailed across the Internet as one of the most memorable in recent years, and lighting up the Twittersphere.
Now go out there is a celebration of curiosity, compassion, and the surprising power of fear.
My goal in high school was to stay out of the penitenciary, so if I can go from there to stading up here, y’all can all get yourselves gainful employment of some kind.
Yes, those are your parents clapping.
When I told my pal Doonie I was getting an honorary doctorate, he quipped “Being a doctor who can’t write prescriptions is like being a general in the Salvation Army.”
This made me a few notches less terrified about today, which is how poetry works–you start in a scared place and get zip-lined somewhere truer.
The real purpose of poetry, W. H. Auden said, is disenchantment. Not throwing fairy dust in your eyes. It’s stripping aways what’s false so you can see what’s true underneath. I like to say poetry has to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.
In the words of great mathematician G.H. Hardy, what you’ve added differs in degree only and not in kind from the contributions of the great artists and doers and great thinkers and doers across history–from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison, Einstein to Carmelo.
Each of you is a spark that’s added something to our little flame and to the world’s torch.
And I’m not just talking to the A-makers–the valedictorian and salutatorians.
I’m addressing the squeakers, too, the people who showed up today as if sliding into a base, maybe dragging a few incompletes behind you. Good for you–you made it!