Poetry in the Commencement Ceremony

Veronese, "Allegory of Wisdom and Strength" (1580)

Veronese, “Allegory of Wisdom and Strength” (1580)

Here’s a report about how poetry showed up in our 2013 Commencement—further testimony to how, at our most important moments, we rely on poetry to do much of the heavy lifting.

First, in a move that jolted a number of us, my colleague Jose´ Ballesteros of the Foreign Language Department read “Imagine the Angels of Bread” by Puerto Rican poet Martin Espada. While the poem was in line with one traditional commencement theme—the hope that this graduating class will help bring about a brighter future—it was startlingly specific about the reality that needs changing.

As you read it, imagine how this would strike a graduation crowd just settling in for the ritual platitudes we expect upon such occasions. Even when we have moved beyond platitude to poetry, it has been to verse far more serene. For instance, for many years we read Lucille Clifton’s “blessing of the boats (at St. Mary’s),” which concludes, “may you in your innocence sail from this to that.” Espada’s poem, by contrast, is a revolutionary wish fulfillment, and suddenly sailing from this to that involves squatters evicting their landlords and refugees deporting immigration judges:

Imagine the Angels of Bread

By Martin Espada

This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year
that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.

This is the year that those
who swim the border’s undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side;
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts the vine,
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery;
this is the year that the eyes
stinging from the poison that purifies toilets
awaken at last to the sight
of a rooster-loud hillside,
pilgrimage of immigrant birth;
this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded
in the ear of an infant;
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.

If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.

So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.

Jose concluded the reading, “Class of 2013, this is the year!”

By the way, I think Lucille Clifton would have loved Jose´reading this poem. She was all about “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” and Espada keeps us from becoming too comfortable.

We didn’t hear any poetry from our valedictorian, which surprised me as she was an English major (also an Economics major). Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, meanwhile, focused more on the economics of education than on its humanistic dimensions. “We need leadership that is entrepreneurial,” he told us, and “Open up community-based solutions on a national scale.” (Just as an aside, O’Malley has been a good governor but I can’t imagine him as President of the United States, even though his name is often mentioned amongst potential Democratic candidates.)

But the student chosen by the senior class to deliver the “Quintessential Student” address did quote Maya Angelou. Wonderfully named Jasmine Jones, this African American student roused us all with her citation of Angelou:

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.

All in all, it was a very good day. I hugged all my majors and told their parents how fortunate I was to have had their sons and daughters in my life. Yes, Class of 2013, this is the year. Most of you have come to know who you are, and this self-knowledge will help you get through the inevitable defeats that lie ahead.

Be angels of bread to the world.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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