Rituals of Commencement

John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent

Today St. Mary’s College of Maryland holds its graduation and I expect that someone will read Lucille Clifton’s “the blessing of the boats (at st. mary’s).” Lucille taught for a number of years at St. Mary’s, her poem graces one of the walls of our campus center, and it has become a tradition to read it every year at commencement. I’m not writing about it today because I’ve done so in the past, other than to note that the tension in the poem—between looking back and moving forward–plays off nicely against the tension in the Robert Creeley graduation poem that I am sharing instead.

Clifton’s poem imagines the settlers leaving English in 1634 for Maryland, where they would found St. Mary’s City, home of our college. It works as a graduation poem, however, because it describes anyone who is leaving what is familiar to embark upon an uncertain future. Although there is a moment when the boats look back, their gaze thereafter is forward. Clifton imagines that they do so with the confident certainty that the wind “will love your back.”

In Creeley’s poem, written I believe on the occasion of his daughter’s graduation, there is a tension between constancy and change. The parents in “For the Graduation” know that the path their children are taking is one that has been taken many times before. “The honor of being human will stay constant,” Creeley writes, and then points out that the earth too will be constant. And yet, even though the graduates trod a predictable path that, like the earth, will come full circle, paradoxically it is also true that “No One knows what will happen.” I like how Creeley describes life’s circles finding the graduate, not the other way around. Life is happy because it is always finding new graduates within which to manifest itself.

For The Graduation

By Robert Creeley
Bolinas School, June 15, 1973

The honor
of being human
will stay constant.

The earth, earth, 
water wet, sun

The world will be 
as ever round, and
all yourselves

will know it, 
on it, and around
and around.

No One knows 
what will
happen. That

is the happiness
of the circle, 
finding you.

As I sit in what will be my thirtieth St. Mary’s commencement (I have graduated to the front row of the faculty—or “death row” as we call it), I will experience the paradox. Even though each student is different, the rituals render all students throughout the years curiously the same. Around and around the world goes. And yet the eternal circle will reach out and, in that way that it has, touch each one individually.

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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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