For the final project in a class on adolescent development, we were asked to write a speech for adolescents on the cusp of graduating. So this speech is dedicated to all the graduates of 2022 ❤.
You will need the heart of a poet. I do not mean you will need to write poetry, although I encourage you to do so. I understand it takes a certain amount of audacity to write poetry and even greater audacity to call oneself a poet. I implore you to find that audacity, wherever and whenever such may be found. But even without writing a single word, you will need the heart of a poet as you grow and love.
You live in unprecedented times. To be sure, one could utter that phrase to any group of adolescents on the cusp of adulthood in any era of human history. It is safe to say that one could at any future age. But for you, recent high school graduates residing in the United States of America, crossing the threshold of adolescence and adulthood, at this place and time, you will need the heart of a poet. These unprecedented times include the intersection (and really the collision) of a climate and extinction crisis hurled forward by human activity, an increasingly divided society, and unjust rule by a government that was never designed to serve all of us.
It takes a canny mind to understand exactly how we (humans, Americans specifically) ended up here. One needs the loving heart of a poet to interpret what the mind sees and to surface what it cannot. Love, as author and artist Kahlil Gibran stated in his seminal work, The Prophet, is:
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.
And wake you must, despite the heartache and sorrow one naturally amasses as a living, thinking, and feeling being. Love, and the undying heart of a poet, can be the difference between a life spent as Homo Sapiens (wise, clever, gentle) or Homo Ferox (wild, bold, fierce). All of you gathered here have reached a stage valued by the dominant society. The completion of high school and survival to age 18 ostensibly means that you may further matriculate to college or a university, that you can vote in government elections, and may even be called to war. You will now be called adults by many, though you might not feel like it. Many will seek to define you. You may be called citizens, workers, the public, denizens, rabble, winners, losers, valued, worthless. But let me say to you now, lest you never hear it again, do not let them define you! Each of you is a great intersection of many things, some of which you are aware of and surely some you do not yet or cannot yet comprehend. Walt Whitman wrote of himself and which is universally true of all of you:
I am large, I contain multitudes.
I charge you to value your intersectionality, to know that you are a wonderfully diverse being, teeming with life; forever unfinished and forever changing. You contain multitudes and are a beloved member of a universe of interconnected beings. You will never be alone. Joy Harjo tasks us with holding onto this sacred knowledge in her poem Remember:
Remember you are all people and all people
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
As multitudinous beings, having the heart of a poet can mean different things to each of you, and that may change ad infinitum. Although I have stated that you will never be alone, that fact may be of little solace in the hard times. It might be no ready salve for the times when you are hurt, separated, confused, defeated, uncertain, sick, or even dying. In those times, as in the good times, it can help to seek the words of the many poets who live and have lived. In words printed, scrawled, sung, and whispered, they reach out to each of us with a loving embrace. Let us do so now.
The poet Peter Meinke, in his poem Advice to My Son, acknowledged the danger life poses and urged his son to simultaneously value each day in its moment and to keep an eye cast toward the future in steady and calm preparation:
The trick is, to live your days
as if each one may be your last
(for they go fast, and young men lose their lives
in strange and unimaginable ways)
but at the same time, plan long range
(for they go slow; if you survive
the shattered windshield and the bursting shell
you will arrive
at our approximation here below
of heaven or hell).
Wallace Stevens, another poet we may regard, stated that “Death is the mother of beauty.” Our lives are fragile, both fleeting and long, as Meinke alludes to. We know that none of us can remain forever in this form. Stevens, and many others, attribute humanity’s ability to create and appreciate beauty to that knowledge. All of you have seen the violence perpetrated due to the color of one’s skin, one’s identity, or one’s expression. Police officers across America murder Black people whose only crime is being Black and are rarely, if ever, held accountable. Adrienne Rich, in her poem Rape states that police have “access to machinery that could kill you.” And indeed, they do. Having the heart of a poet means seeing these murders for what they are and having the bravery to gather en masse to dismantle the machinery that enables these killers.
As burgeoning adults, your birthright is your ability to say “enough.” You may stand up, utter the words “no longer,” and challenge what many accept as merely the status quo. Gwendolyn Brooks captures the electric possibility in the iconoclasm of youth in her poem We Real Cool:
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Brooks portrays the esprit de corps and the everlasting possibility of youth, of change, and of rejecting what has always been in favor of what can and must be. She describes the natural rebellion of youth, a quality so key to human flourishing. Young people, defying authority, gathering together to partake of that which is forbidden by the dominant society. In Brooks’ time, even mentioning the word Jazz was tantamount to sin and iniquity. But for us, let us use Jazz as a placeholder for what is urgently now. Jazz is building the future world from that urgent now, even if that means dismantling what is present. Young poets, you must use your love, an eternally burning fire at your core for all eternity, to create a world that is just for all. A world that is cared for, as you are stewards of all things on earth, living and otherwise. A world that does not push the global majority down to lift up a tiny minority of elites. A world that is made safe by humanizing those who have been dehumanized. A world that does not push many to hunger so a few may lavish in their excesses.
An essential aspect of love is hope. Langston Hughes, in his poem Youthcaptures this hope as if in amber, evergreen as each generation faces the future:
We have to-morrow
Bright before us
Like a flame
Yesterday, a night-gone thing
A sun-down name
And dawn to-day
Broad arch above the road we came,
Hughes sees tomorrow as a burning pillar in the desert, a beacon of hope. He acknowledges that the past is gone and cannot be remade or rewritten. Toward the future, we must go. Gibran again so wonderfully says in few words what I hope to convey in many words here:
The timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness. And knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.
Both Brooks and Hughes employ the pronoun we. Like me, they are saying that you will never be alone. So, graduates, be exultant in who you are and where you are. Having the heart of a poet means carrying with you the eternal catalyst with which you may transmute the present into the future. Join together your hearts, link arms, and with love, create a just and thriving world in which all may live peacefully.
The poets are with you.