posted May 7, 2006

2006 Commencement Address

"Seeking the Spheres"

Hope College Commencement Address
Sunday, May 7, 2006
Holland Municipal Stadium


Dr. Rhoda M. Janzen, Assistant Professor of English


A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark'd, where, on a little promontory it stood, isolated;
Mark'd how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them - ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing - seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need be form'd - till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

Walt Whitman 

Friends, Colleagues, Families, and Members of the
141st Graduating Class of Hope College:

I invite you to consider with me the words of the Psalmist, who said that day after day the heavens pour forth speech, and that night after night they display knowledge. "There is no speech or language," says the Psalmist, "where [the voice of the heavens] is not heard." What does it mean for the heavens to pour forth speech and to display knowledge? Those of you who have survived a couple of English courses at Hope will know that the psalmist is using the language of metaphor to describe the awe and majesty of God the Creator. Stars and skies don't really talk; hopefully we do not hear actual voices when we look up at a clear blue sky. The psalmist knows that whatever is pouring forth from the heavens is not literal but figurative. He has used a metaphor, something that does not exist, to describe something that does exist. He didn't have to use metaphor. He could have spoken literally. He could have said, "The complexity of the solar system suggests to me the possibility of a God whose existence I cannot prove, but in whom I nonetheless choose to believe." But the psalmist did not choose literal language to express his message.

Why is when we feel great emotion - overwhelming awe, breathless passion, debilitating despair - that we gravitate to metaphor? It is because metaphor by definition offers a pliancy that can accommodate the expression of extreme feeling, since it compares an actual emotion to something so large, so extravagant, that the speaker must imagine the degree of hyperbole. Metaphor needs to be loose and elastic for it to do what we want it to do. We ask it to describe the indescribable. I can think of two reasons why we need metaphor. One is that beneath all our highfalutin achievements, we're just not that articulate: we double back, we muddle things up, we repeat, we flounder; we say things we don't mean to say, and, maybe worse, we mean things we don't say at all. The other reason is that we have a lot to say about stuff we don't know for sure. And since we have no language for that which we cannot know, we use metaphor, which allows us to imagine so much more with its hints, elisions, connotations, and slippery syllables.

When the psalmist says that the heavens pour forth speech, he means so much more than "Hey! Evidence of a benevolent God!" The psalmist is also calling our attention to the endless deferrals of language. What are speech and language but fancy systems of metaphor?  Where is it cast in stone that the word mortarboard really means mortarboard? Why couldn't we have used the word mortarboard to mean microphone? For the sake of effective communication, we have all agreed that the fungible word can and should be used to represent the thing with which convention associates it, but we must also acknowledge that there is a weird gap between word and thing. That's what speech is: a series of sounds to which we assign arbitrary meanings.

Words are like helium balloons held on a string: they're at their best when you let them fly as far as the string will go. Tellingly, though, you can't let them go altogether. If you do, no balloon. And if you tighten your grip and hold the helium balloon by its blowhole, you don't get to see what that balloon can do - after all, the point of a helium balloon is to fly and bob and command our attention with its beautiful defiance of the laws of gravity. Therefore we may say that the string is necessary. The string calls our attention to the essential blank space between balloon and hand, between word and meaning. For the psalmist, the essential space is between speech and God, who, fittingly, is beyond speech. The psalmist uses metaphor because this luscious language offers us the possibility of what Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century called lectio divina, or "spiritual reading." To read the text of a clear blue sky spiritually and creatively rather than literally - ah, that gives us satisfaction: the satisfaction of admitting the haphazard imprecision that constitutes all human expression.

That space, that gap between word and meaning, is necessary for our imaginings. Inside that gap, you might say, is the very thing that makes us human, that separates us from the animals. Inside that gap is the nameless yearning for you-don't-know-what,  the inkling for the ineluctable, the thing we can imagine but not catch, the word we can invent for the meaning we cannot know. We use metaphor to imagine God. We use metaphor to invent a wheel. We use metaphor to build goals and government.

Graduates, you have all learned some stuff in your years at HopeCollege. You have learned the words, the terminology, the vocabulary and all the concepts they represent. But I urge you now to look at the string you hold in your hand, not at the balloon it is tied to.  Find the space inside you that wonders, imagines, and questions. If we professors have done our job at Hope College, you have become men and women whose strength lies not in giving answers but in asking questions. All 622 of you have been deemed competent in your area of study, and we are here today to celebrate that competence. But I believe that an even greater cause for celebration is that you have become men and women who know how to think and to feel good doing it. It's not what you have learned; it's who you have learned to be - you have become thoughtful Christians and citizens who can challenge authority rather than accept it blindly. You have learned to ask who profits and at what cost to the environment, the nation, and the global community. You have learned both to build and mend fences. You have learned the greatest lesson we professors have been trying to teach you - that we all have so very much more to learn.

Graduates, I pause here to thank you for the privilege of speaking before you. But I remind you that I am a poet. And if you ask for a poet, you will probably get a poem. This is the first poem I have ever written specifically for 622 people. I have called it "Seeking the Spheres," which is also the title of my address today. "Seeking the spheres" is a phrase from a beautiful Walt Whitman poem about a guy who comes across a spider that is spinning a web. The speaker describes the spider as launching forth filament, filament, filament into the universe, and those essential strings become metaphors for the efforts of the human soul to reach and build and believe. So here is my poem to you, to all 622 of you, my friends and my students, the graduating class at Hope College 2006:

Seeking the Spheres

for the graduating class of HopeCollege, 2006

In the bright possibility of a May afternoon
we stand as on a platform awaiting departure,
you for the train that speeds the future, I for
postcard news of you. This poem is the hankie
I wave from the platform - Good-bye, good-bye,
God bless you all. You have packed your bags
with what is yours to take. Yes, wheel them away.
But know there will come a day when
you will set them down. You will discover
it is better to travel light, to carry only what
fits in the secret breast pocket inside your coat.
And in this secret pocket you bear a valuable
too small to fold, too large to hold. It is shaped
like a comma - no, a question mark. Like
reading glasses, it can see. Like bee balm,
it can soothe. Like lint, it can be thrown away. 
Like a lucky rabbit's foot, it wants petting.
Take it out, then, and pet it. When you say,
What does it mean? it will say, What other
meanings might there be? Now here is
what it isn't. It is not a pocket dictionary,
busy with answers. It is not a consolation
for failures, losses, cancers. It is not a manual,
textbook, playbook, Bible.

My friends,
what you seek pulls you forward beyond
the click and clack of rhetoric, beyond
the sound of motion's certainty, a night train
that rushes the tunnel before you see it.
You will pass through to vistas unseen, you
cannot stop, the train is a silver streamlined verb
forever acting in the future. Listen, then,
in the hours before the dawn. If you are awake,
press your forehead to the glass and consider
the world as it slides by, how distant cities
pass and recede, how scape and scope before
you seem to spin.  Travelers, seek the spheres.
Your destination never nears. You do not
finish here. You begin.