before heading off to the pool with anna and nick i reread a couple of essays by joseph brodsky. what put me in mind of brodsky was a story i heard on NPR last week [the past two weeks re the working life has been intense leaving me little time but to return home every night and regroup for the next day] about commencement addresses. i'm not one to care terribly much about such occasions. i'd rather do the job and then get out. i suspect if i were to win the nobel prize [yes, i know, a snowball has a better chance for survival in hell than little ol' me, an obscure alt-lyric poet with a common name from california, of getting a nobel, but one can dream, okay] i'd attend the ceremony. of course i would. but for graduation ceremonies is a big deal for a very many; but they are not for me.
at any rate, i wonder at our self-importance. there are 30 million californians. there are over 300 million people living in the u.s. there will soon be 9 billion people on our planet. each person is unique, i grant, but how individual and famous can one person want or need? fame is illusory, especially for a writer, particularly for a poet. an oxymoron: a famous poet. given the sheer numbers of people on the planet one should cultivate humility and gratitude for the opportunity of being alive and having the skills and gifts of reading and writing. as for fame, writerly immortality even, the numbers ain't good. get on with your work, celebrate what you love and let that be enough.
but why did i reread brodsky in relation to the story on commencement speeches broadcast by NPR last week? the late u.s./russian poet and pain in the ass published a commencement speech in his last book of essays, on grief and reason
[noonday press; 1995] titled 'in praise of boredom.' to illustrate his thesis of boredom is undiluted time, nee infinity, which is larger than all of us, brodsky recites a short poem by the late german poet peter huchel to the dartmouth college class of 1989.
whispers the dust.
according to brodsky we are less than dust before time therefore we must practice humility. for in boredom we stare infinity in its face.
For boredom speaks the language of time, and it is to teach you the most valuable lesson in your life
-- the one you didn't get here, on these green lawns -- the lesson of your utter insignificance. It is
valuable to you, as well as those you are to rub shoulder with. "You are finite," time tells you in a
voice of boredom, "and whatever you do is, from my point of view, futile." As music to your ears,
this, of course, may not count; yet the sense of futility, of limited significance even of your best,
most ardent actions is better than the illusion of their consequences and the attendant self-
For boredom is an invasion of time into your set of values. It puts your existence into its perspective,
the net result is precision and humility. The former, it must be noted, breeds the latter. The more
you learn about your own size, the more humble and the more compassionate you become to your
likes, to the dust aswirl in a sunbeam or already immobile atop your table.
i quoted this passage at length because i love the beauty of its prose and the message of its author. remember the dust because of its insignificance it is charged with life. this is the kind of commencement that perks up my ears and charges me with significance. for if i am less than dust and i am conscious i can appreciate, as rimbaud says at the end of his a season in hell
, salute beauty and love life. death is the mother of beauty, as another poet said. i believe it. humility and gratitude for the gifts of a thinking mind [however wobbly it is] and a life in language, no matter how minute its source, is a source for a good life packed with significance. i am one of 9 billions poets on our earth.