The following remarks were given by Daniel Tobin (poetry, ’90), Poetry Faculty, MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, on January 12, 2017.
Graduation Remarks, Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, January 12, 2017
What better way to begin my first foray into an unfamiliar genre—in this case the venerable custom of offering graduation remarks—than with the familiar welcome to fellow faculty, to the college’s administration and staff, and especially to this residency’s graduates, their families and friends. We join together today in our own admittedly quirky but beloved ritual, our own eccentric and ebullient take on tradition, to celebrate the achievement of our newest graduates, an accomplishment that to my mind at least is neither an arrival nor a departure, but something more like an indelible, essential way-marker or station along a pilgrimage, though the route ahead isn’t entirely known—an understatement–and the way here was anything but singular. Rather, each of us found our passage to this unassuming magic mountain through the clearings and bewilderments of our own lives, and though it may have felt like it at times, none of us made it this far by themselves.
I say “none of us” now with some conviction since I, too, am a graduate of the program, and I’ve been doubly honored over the years to teach here with many of my own esteemed teachers, fellow writers, friends—all scarily brilliant people. That deep and extensive sense of community makes me want to revise the word “familiar” I used above to “familial,” especially since this program does nothing if not seek to dislodge “the familiar” from its moorings in the received idea, the received poetic image, the received narrative plot, and to help us to encounter the world again, to borrow from Wallace Stevens, in a manner “at once more truly and more strange.” “Familial” is also truer to the experience of community one encounters in the program, and after one leaves the program. And it is truer to the kind of support given by partners, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and friends without whom their beloveds might not have been able to embark on their individual artistic paths as short story writers, novelists, poets, much less make their way to standing here today.
On the other hand, since being asked to contribute these remarks a while back—it almost seems another world ago in light of recent political events—the prospect that now has become the moment filled me with more than a little trepidation: from the Latin trepidatio, “agitation, alarm, trembling,” itself from the past participle stem of the Latin trepidare, “to tremble, hurry,” from the prefix trep, “to shake,” which in turn echoes the Sanskirt trprah, “hasty.” I love how words in their etymological DNA can embody the stories of their identities, and the identities of other words, maybe even the trappings, existential, of the species: Is there something of the shuddering fear of the cornered one inside the word “trepidation,” the one so harried they become hasty, hurried, and start to shake? I believe there is. I believe if I look hard enough into the word and beyond it I should be able to see that encounter. If I listen hard enough I should be able to hear it. If I push past a threshold I might even be able to smell it, touch it, taste it—not only the life inside a word, but the words inside life, words hidden in the lives as in a hedge, and not something for us to corner, not our prey but our inviters, solicitors, the signs, the signals: the calling that summons us.
So trepidation to my way of thinking isn’t an entirely bad thing, but one doesn’t want to tremble too much, and while one wants to make headway one doesn’t want to become too hurried, too hasty. One wants, through any trepidation, to remain intrepid. That is why it is good to have a stick. A good walking stick is among other things a reminder that you can go places especially well by taking your time. My stick, which I earned here some time ago, has none of the aplomb of some variations on the theme. There are no climatis tendrils wound around the polished natural wood, and it doesn’t rest in the hand like a staff—Charlton Heston would never raise my walking stick in technicolor above the now suddenly turbulent waters of a Red Sea, an entire nation behind him ready (so to speak) to make the move, and Yul Bryner, aka Ramses the Pharaoh, in hot pursuit. I could part no waters with my stick, or pretend to.
Mine is more a cane, its wood lacquered with brown paint, oblong nicks around the shaft for decoration, a cane’s jutting handle, useful for steadying oneself along the way, for gaining leverage, very little drama if any, just one step at a time. Un-showy. Enabling.
It is the kind of stick that, if I chose to, would help me to feign a limp and allow me, perhaps, to be among the first to pre-board a plane, maybe the plane I took here. That would have been, I believe, a misuse of my stick. Sticks, it must be said, incur upon us responsibility, not unlike dreams. You who are about to receive yours, whether plain cane, or cut from a hedge of rhododendron, or recycled—these sticks if you use them well and honestly will take you to a place of vantage in your art, not necessarily an advantage in purely worldly terms—but an artistic vantage, which I think inevitably involves, however understatedly, a vision of and for the world.
Another thing about sticks–around the turn of the last century there was a President who advised: “Walk softly” and carry a big one. I assume he meant a stick; he definitely used the word “stick,” if I’m not mistaken. He also often used the word “bully,” apparently as a way of communicating approval. I know this from watching certain movies in my parent’s apartment when I was growing up. There were, incidentally, very few books in that house and no sticks, no sticks, until my father broke his ankle on an icy curb one night coming back, a bit shakily with insufficient trepidation, from playing poker. In any case, the phrase “Walk softly and carry a big stick” when I was a child struck me as sagacious advice.
Spoiler Alert: this same President travelled into the West with the naturalist John Muir and, an ardent naturalist himself, eventually founded the American national parks system, thereby putting his big stick to very good use for the future of the country and its citizens. Some of you may find yourselves moved and intrepid enough (with the use of your own small sticks) to help preserve these and other treasures and freedoms, now that walking softly has yielded to bombast and stalking and demagogic tweets, and the stick become a tumescent cudgel.
It often strikes me that, with the possible exclusion of monks, more often than not there appears to be two kinds of people who really walk softly with absolute confidence: the people who carry the big sticks, the powerful, who own the big sticks that empower them to walk softly if they choose to walk softly at all; in contrast to those who are required to walk softly, by circumstance or someone else’s intent, precisely because they do not have a big stick. They may have no stick at all, or might have to cut a stick for themselves out of a hedge, the way they might have done in one of the Hedge Schools of my own heritage, classes conducted outside in secret, in protest, away from villages and towns, away somewhere (to borrow Edmund Spenser’s phrase from “A View of the Present State of Ireland”) in “every corner of the woods and glens,” after the language had been outlawed by the reigning authorities (of which Spenser himself was a member), all “legal” education compelled to conform to the reigning order.
“Out of every corner of the woods and glens” the descendants of these hedge schools denizens would come, some four centuries later, starving from famine, which was an outcome to which Sir Phillip four centuries earlier was not averse. Cue mass death, mass emigration. Cue my father’s father’s father’s father human ballast on the boat to New Brunswick. Cue, nearly a century and a half later, Seamus Heaney mapping the poles of Irish literary culture in his essay “The Pre-Natal Mountain”: Joyce, Yeats, and the older linguistic order, yes, but also Louis McNiece and, yes, Edmund Spenser—literary magister and colonial magistrate. Heaney, in his vision of the future as well as the past, refuses erasure and retribution and chooses a spectrum of imagination—imagination, that at its best seeks justice and inclusion.
There is something of the subversive nature of the hedge school in what we do here, I think, a pursuit of communal and individual excellence despite the odds stacked up like so many lots in so much of the world. It is what the writers I love best have somewhere deep in their core: some refusal of the terms, loving, impatient, maybe angry (maybe all three), like someone for whom tradition gives as much reason to answer back as it gives answers; though maybe the best of all worlds is to find a way to answer forward. “The dotted line my father’s ashplant made / On Sandymount strand / Is something else the tide won’t wash away” Heaney again, with a baffling refusal of bafflement, or is it just a moment’s astonishment indelibly making its mark on the ephermeral. It is the imagination’s intrepid refusal of the given material finality of things. Then again, the Greek mathematician and inventor, Archimedes, said that if he found the right place to stand he could leverage the Earth with a stick: one person with one audacious stick moving a world.
I mean now, and you know all along I’ve meant this figurative kind of stick, the kind of stick you have. You already have your stick. These sticks lined up here are just the outward sign of an inward grace, the inward grace of your calling, your responsibility. It is good to walk on ahead but maybe not too softly, to let your stick enable you, maybe to help you to stave off too much trepidation, but allow just enough for you to gain the inward leverage of the words that move you beyond any settled place of comfort and so to reach the vantages to which your own path will bring you in solitude, but not only for yourself, and not alone.
Daniel Tobin, Faculty (Poetry) & Alumni (poetry, ’90)