Closing remarks to my introduction to creative writing students. As with most of what I do in the classroom, it’s at least 40% self-directed.
1 December 2016
It has been my honour and my pleasure to teach you this semester. It has also been my privilege to learn from you. Each one of you has done the kind of hard, honest work that constitutes an artist’s life: learned a new skill, challenged an old assumption, surprised yourself with a talent you didn’t know you had. Said something you didn’t think you knew how to say. You have also given me, unasked, your trust and your respect. I’m grateful for that. And I hope you feel that I have given you the same.
We are living in uncertain times. The country — and the world — are not what they were (or perhaps only seemed to be) in September. Regardless of your political affiliation, you know that our current climate is unprecedented in our lifetimes. The country has not seen, since 1876, such a great discrepancy between the winners of the popular and electoral votes. A president-elect has never conducted himself, personally or politically, like the one we have at present. Unprecedented doesn’t necessarily mean good or bad. Denotatively, it means “never done or known before.” Etymologically speaking, the word comes from praecedentum — “go before.” When there is precedent, we might say: “We have been here before.” Without precedent, we have not. Essentially, we do not know where we are, where we are going. We have not been here before. As such, we ourselves are uncertain.
Uncertainty itself is not a bad thing, either, but one of its common results is fear. Not-knowing, when the stakes are high — as we know they are right now — can be paralyzing. When we are afraid, we seek certainty, stability, safety. These aren’t bad things in themselves, either. But they have potential to be. Seeking certainty, we silence questions. Seeking stability, we shut out the unfamiliar. Seeking safety, we secure our borders — our country’s, our own. We try to protect ourselves — again, not a bad thing in itself. But it is worth remembering that the keep — the stronghold at the centre of a castle — contained both fortress and prison.
I’m sure you are unsurprised that on the last day of class I am still talking about etymology, I am still trying to yoke vehicle to tenor. As you know, it is the special province of the literary artist to create with language: to establish Gardner’s fictional dream, stirring the reader’s empathetic imagination. To put the best words in the best order, in the excellent words of Coleridge. To find, as Frost wrote, a clarification of life, a momentary stay against confusion. To make the abstract concrete. To bring the intangible into the living present, the precious individual body. As the writer Rebecca Solnit, a guide to whom I often turn, recently said: hate generalizes while love particularizes. In this way, the act of writing is an act of love. It is a kind of generosity. A gift of good faith.
We are few and the problems are many — that is without doubt — and there are many kinds of work to be done. But you have shown this semester that you are no strangers to hard work, to generosity, to courage. Be proud of what you have done. Be hopeful about what you will accomplish.
Here’s one last poem, an elegy for Philip Levine, about learning to find your own way.
Mine Own Phil Levine
What he told me, I will tell you
There was a war on
It seemed we had lived through
Too many to name, to number
There was no arrogance about him
No vanity, only the strong backs
Of his words pressed against
The tonnage of a page
His suggestion to me was that hard work
Was the order of each day
When I asked again, he said it again
Pointing it out twice
His Muse, if he had one, was a window
Filled with a brick wall, the lefthand corner
Of his mind, a hand lined with grease
And sweat: literal things
Before I knew him, I was unknown
I drank deeply from his knowledge
A cup he gave me again and again
Filled with water, clear river water
He was never old, and never grew older
Though the days passed and the poems
Marched forth and they were his words
Only, no other words were needed
He advised me to wait, to hold true
To my vision, to speak in my own voice
To say the thing straight out
There was the whole day about him
The greatest thing, he said, was presence
To be yourself in your own time, to stand up
That poetry was precision, raw precision
Truth and compassion: genius
I had hardly begun. I asked, how did you begin
He said, I began in a tree, in Lucerne
In a machine shop, in an open field
He said If you don’t write, it won’t
Get written. No tricks. No magic
About it. He gave me his gold pen
He said What’s mine is yours