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Commencement Address -- Daniel Hoffman

29 May, 2005

In 1964, the centenary of this college, I was asked to write the Phi Beta Kappa poem. Today I'd like to read two sections from that poem, for I think those lines of four decades ago are still relevant to you.

Are we ready to go forth? Where you have come from
The students will be ever young; there it is only
The faculties and trees grow older. Leaving this friendly
Hillside, you will reach your destinations — be sure
In your luggage, among trophies, clothes, and lists
Of those Important Books as yet unread, to bring
The Catalogue of the Ships and tales of revolution -
the Russian, the Industrial — and explications
of both the valence table and the vertebrates
who, since the Good Duke dreamed a green world where the court
corrupts no man, agree upon hypotheses
that define the Good and tell the False from the True.

And now, as you go forth, may your lives be rewarded by an active joy: the rewards of your own creative imagination. Emerson warns us that "Society is everywhere in a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members," a conspiracy of the encrusted customs, mores, beliefs, obligations, and expectations that comprise and limit the texture of our lives. How best escape this imprisonment of custom? Through independence of mind and spirit, break out of the box, shatter the shackles with the vision imagination can provide.

If I take my examples from poetry it is because, as Thoreau said in Walden, he writes about himself because that is the subject he knows best. What I say of the creative imagination in poetry is of course equally true of the novels of Jonathan Franzen, and of the medical discoveries of Anne Schuchat. We know, whatever the field of its application, the creative process is the same.

Robert Frost describes this process as:

The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same for love. No one can really hold that ecstasy should be static.... It runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life — not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but a momentary stay against confusion.

You need not be a Robert Frost, or Jonathan Franzen or Ann Schuchat, to enjoy the impulse that leads to a momentary stay against the confusions of life. You may find it vicariously. As Emerson reminds us, "There is creative reading as well as creative writing.... One must be an inventor to read well." At Swarthmore you have learned to read inventively, to think creatively. Among the confusions of the world from which creative imagination can redeem us are the false distractions of popular culture, of midless mechanization, of technologies beyond human needs, of lies in public places. We can tell the False from True, and find joy in the creation, or the creative reading, of works of literature or art or music, in the discovery or contemplation of advances in science. This is the educated pursuit of the pleasure principle.

You graduates of this great college, where I had the unforgettable experience of teaching for ten years, you are ready to go forth. May I bless your going with these concluding lines from my poem "The Peaceable Kingodm":

Defend your visionary quest,
Humane intelligence, that we
Who've eaten fruit from nature's tree
And know perfection but in art,
May, schooled and chastened by our past,
Conceive our city in the heart.