Speaker Bruce Dethlefsen’s Commencement Speech
I'm honored to be here today as part of the celebration of your graduation. Thanks for inviting me but mostly thank you for accomplishing what you have done to better yourself. When you do, you better your family and your community. You make my communityour community-- a better place.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., a writer and one of my heroes, asked what should young people do with their lives today. Many things, obviously, but the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.
Here's a poem I wrote from the perspective of a teenage girl. It's called Flowers at Risk.
If someone will watch the baby
And my check comes in tomorrow
I can go downtown and plant some flowers
It won't cost much
And I'll still have some money left for prom
But who knows maybe Steve won't even be around
And mom's no help
Sure she's out but she's more interested in the bars
And at thirty-four next week
she's getting pretty tired
I'm thinking some long green vines
A couple of those spiky things
And a few petunias ought to do
Just a little color
Something finally growing down there
maybe between the bank and the video place
Sure I know new flowers are at risk
But they're worth it
And they need a little water and some sunshine
And somebody to watch over them
From time to time
Welcome to the community. It's time now for you graduates to step up and take responsibility. Get a job. Pay taxes. And vote. We need you to speak up. Share your opinion and fight against unfairness and injustice. We take care of each other.
Here's a poem by Ted Kooser "Boardinghouse"
The blind man draws his curtains for the night
and goes to bed, leaving a burning light
above the bathroom mirror. Through the wall,
he hears the deaf man walking down the hall
in his squeaky shoes to see if there's a light
under the blind man's door, and all is right.
Also remember who you are and where you can from.."Missing a Spot."
I wipe and dry the casserole dish
that fancy one with the see-through glass cover
and as I reach to put it in the cupboard
I discover I remember aunt Nancy
now she's been gone forever
yet there she was
in the kitchen telling me
I missed a spot
they never really ever
go away do they
one touch recalls a thought
a thought a notion
the notion a feeling
the feeling an emotion
so then we cry or not or smile
mostly somewhere in between
and when you go
will remind me of you
And as you remember, please remember the arts. Sure, America is based on business and that's all well and good for progress but it's the arts that make us human. The musicians, the painters, the sculptors, the dancers, the writers, and the poets. You have my permission to be an artist. We need you. If you can't be an artist, fine. Support the arts. The community will be a better place for you and your family. Oh yeah, love and support libraries. We know that libraries save lives.
As poet laureate of Wisconsin, I visit schools. One middle school students asked me a question: Am I wealthy? After my reading, a very serious sixth grade girl asked me if I was wealthy. Well, I said, I have twenty-two dollars in my wallet right now, my purple truck has 235,000 miles on it. I'm wearing clean and mended clothes, I'll sleep in a warm bed tonight, I've got my health, my hands, my eyes, my family and friends who love me. And I can come here to Sennett Middle school to read poetry to you guys for free. So, yes, I'm very wealthy. Very wealthy, indeed.
Here's a poem I wrote to help guides poets in their work and I think you can apply it to whatever you decide to do: "The Way of the Poet Warrior" (for Thomas Lux) and it begins with an epigram from the movie "Bang the Drum Slowly."
throw the ball back to the pitcher better
pay perfect attention to what's going on
what's going under
and what's going on under
question everything that moves
interrogate everything that doesn't
use your x-ray vision
but pay no attention to those little editors
behind the curtain
shower and sleep with pen and paper
don't let the big one get away
keep your antenna up
but if the voices get too bad
wear a square of aluminum foil
under your watch cap
learn each rule then break each rule
be prepared to read anything
anytime anywhere for nothing
what do you think you're some kind of genius?
there's always a faster gun in town
when you're with others
try to act normal
as if all this matters somehow
walk as though you have somewhere to go
when you're alone float for all I care
connect the strings you see
that flutter in the wind
eat bruised fruit
howl at the moon from time to time
dance with everyone
even before you hear the music come
learn another language
know that although it seems like it
not everything is poetry
understand that one average plumber
is worth five good doctors
or three great poets
in short pay attention
and yes the flying dreams are the best
Be sure to thank your folks and teachers. I wish you health, I wish you compassion and public happiness. You are not alone. Here's a poem by John Donne "No Man is an island."
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Can you hear it? You belong in our community. Welcome, again. Now, take a little break, celebrate, and get to work.
I'll finish with a poem. That's what poets do they start with poems, too.
Artists (for Denise)
we chase the moon
too hard sometimes
and stumble in the stars
that sparkle always blinds us
we trip and tumble down
we suffocate in stardust
drown in floodlight
and still we recreate
we sing we write
we dance we paint
we one more time in space
gracefully we rise againThank you very much.
grateful for another dreadful chance
to chase the moon