Faculty member Charles Baxter’s July 2013 MFA Graduation Address:
To this year’s graduates, and their beloved spouses, and partners, and children, and parents, and to my colleagues, and guests of the college—welcome. It’s my great pleasure and honor to offer a few words today, with emphasis on the word “few,” to the graduates. After all the sacrifices you’ve made—the writing, the revisions, the readings and lectures, the packets, the tuition, the hours alone struggling with words, and the sacrifices your families and loved one also have made—after all this, I know you’re just dreading the valedictory wisdom speech that goes with any graduation. I certainly would be dreading it. Fortunately for you, I have no wisdom. But I do have a story. I’ll give you that.
I’ve been teaching off-and-on in this program for a very long time. I’ve seen students come and go. But two of the most remarkable students stay in my memory. They were friends, two guys from Spain. You could hardly tell where they were from; they spoke without accents. One of them was tall and thin and went around with a sad face and a distracted expression. He had read all the books in all the libraries. He was always quoting from what he had read. The books had made him a little crazy. He said he was from La Mancha, although I have no idea if he was telling the truth about that. He was a poet, of course. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call him “Don.”
His friend was this short fat guy. This guy watched the world carefully, figuring everybody out. He had a crafty shrewd look. At lunch he always went back to the salad bar two or three times, and he spilled food on his clothes, and he belched, and there were always weird stains on his manuscripts. Of course he was a fiction writer. He had the somewhat unusual name of “Sancho.”
I worked with both of them.
I first worked with this Don guy. I remember our conferences in Jensen. I’d be talking about poetry, the semester’s reading list, and suddenly he would say, in a loud voice, “Blue is the color of distance!” And to calm him down, I’d agree: “Yeah, right, distance is blue.” I’d go on advising him about his poems, and suddenly he’d interrupt and say, “Blue is also the color of nobility.” And to placate him, I’d say, “Uh huh, nobility is blue.” It went on like that. After the residency, his packets started to arrive. They were thin, containing a few eloquent, sometimes incomprehensible poems, along with an enthusiastic cover letter, filled with ravings about his girlfriend, Dulcie.
How can I describe his poems? They were visionary and beautiful, but sometimes they made no sense. They also had some sort of moral agenda, but I could never figure it out. Evil, he thought, should be defeated; giants must be subdued. The poems represented the speech of the angels. I was in awe of these poems, I loved them, but what could I say about them? They created some utterly new world on the page, in which trees were giants and the giants were forces of nature and distance was blue and the forces of nature were colorful and rapt and aromatic, and the words he employed somehow seemed free of the things they referred to, and they hypnotized the reader. He used phrases like “the bubbling aquarium of eternity.”
Well, he eventually graduated, and he started his own press, Blue Distance Press. He never seemed to care about how many copies of his books he sold or what reviews he got or whether anybody read his work. I once sent him an order for several of his books, along with a check, and he never deposited the check. It’s still out there somewhere. He was impractical, oblivious, and his head stayed in the clouds. If people laughed at him, he never noticed. He didn’t believe in success and failure. He didn’t believe that the literary world had winners or losers. Literature is not a sack race, he once said to me. If he had never sold a single book, he still would have been a happy man.
I loved him. Everybody loved him.
I also worked with his fat friend, Sancho. The fat friend wrote fat novels, clear-eyed studies of how people actually live. You always knew what was going on in them. They told the truth, and this truth was precious. The sentences were lucid, sometimes witty. His packets were so fat that they occasionally exploded when the letter carrier dropped them on my front stoop. (This was before we had length limits for the exchanges.) Once the fat guy graduated, his first novel turned out to be an Oprah pick, a best-seller, and he sold thousands of copies and became quite rich. He still shows up at the Warren Wilson receptions at the AWP. If you go there, you’ll know him: he’s the fat guy standing near the hors d’oeuvre table, with the barbeque stains on his Brooks Brothers shirt. I never loved him the way I loved his tall impractical friend, but I admired him, and the program still asks him for charitable donations.
My dear friends, beloved graduates: I lied. I never actually taught Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. They were never actually students here. But I contain both of them. So do you, men and women both. When you are looking carefully at something, practicing the religion of attention, trying to remember how people talked and thought and how they acted and what they did, when you are watching and watchful and shrewd, you are Sancho; and when you are having visions, and when only the right words in the right order will do, and when you don’t know or care how successful you are in the world’s eyes, and when you forget to cash the checks because only the work is important, you are Don Quixote. You have to be Don Quixote to have the visions, and you have to be Sancho to pay the bills. But you don’t have to be either one; most of us are both.
What is it like to be both of these people? I promised you no wisdom of my own, but I have some borrowed wisdom, from the great modern Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. Cavafy thought long and hard throughout his life about what it was to acknowledge oneself (as a gay man, as a poet) in public, and he thought endlessly about what we say to ourselves about our own successes and failures. He wrote one of the greatest poems ever about graduating into the life of writing. If there is a better poem about this subject, I don’t know it. The poem is called “The First Step” and Cavafy wrote it in1899. Here it is in a translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. The poem contains the word “idyll”, meaning a poem about country life.
The young poet Eumenis
Complained one day to Theocritos:
“I’ve been writing for two years now
and I’ve composed only one idyll.
It’s my single completed work.
I see, sadly, that the ladder
Of Poetry is tall, extremely tall;
And from this first step I’m standing on now
I’ll never climb any higher.”
Theocritos retorted: “Words like that
Are improper, blasphemous.
Just to be on the first step
Should make you happy and proud.
To have reached this point is no small achievement:
What you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.
Even this first step
Is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step
You must be in your own right
A member of the city of ideas.
And it’s 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 reached this point is no small achievement:
What you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.”
Graduates of the summer class of 2013, what you’ve done already is a wonderful thing. To quote Cavafy, it is a hard, unusual thing to be enrolled as a citizen of this city. Well, now you are enrolled in that city, and now you are citizens there. Congratulations and blessings and all good fortune to you all, in your writerly lives as spiritual Spaniards, as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.