I want to extend a warm welcome to our graduates and their
families here today and greet my colleagues who I know share with
all of you the sense of meaningful accomplishment that is palpable
in this room.
I’ll begin by looking at a contemporary poem, a poem that to
some might seem like a Zen koan, and to others a kind of spiteful
antipoem. I see this poem as an irritant. It is not meant to give
pleasure but to provoke using traditional poetic techniques rather
These are the first few lines from Rob Fitterman’s
Payless ShoeSource The Body Shop
What does this poem seek to do?
With its attention to rhyme and rhythm, does it wish to
aestheticize or to point to the beauty of the language of commerce
that surrounds us? Is it recycling or colonizing this junk
language for the purposes of poetry?
Or is it just the reverse?
Does it want to tell us that brand names and market language
– and the materialism and consumerism they index -- have
become so omnipresent they take up the space where poetry should
Or does this poem, in appropriating language from a mall directory,
as its title indicates, challenge us to think about the space it
refers to; its repetitions forcing us to reflect on the generic
no-place of the chain store in the grid of the mall.
This site-specific text that has been removed from its proper
location, and its use as the guide to a map by being framed as a
poem, asks us to step back from our culture and look at it
critically; to pay attention to how we pay attention to different
kinds of cultural objects in different contexts; to read how we
This poem also has us attend to the specificity of a written medium
- a mall map - precisely by making that text circulate where it
shouldn’t, even though this poem appears online, in the
digital version of the highly respected journal Poetry. It would
also seem to prompt us to question whether we can address every
important dimension of a text by accessing it virtually or do
adequate work of comparison and discovery when we search a
collection online rather than encountering it physically.
Through digital culture, we have entered a new age of interaction
through reading and writing. We can use digital technologies to
assess and understand literary and other texts in ways unthinkable
without computing; and of course we can read books digitally.
And yet, as head librarian of Special Collections, Mike Basinski,
recently stated in a class visit to the Poetry Archive: “the
more media the better,” which is to say that for artists and
writers, and for those who study them, the virtual realm has not
made other physical media obsolete, but rather has increased
interest in those media and the specific qualities they possess
that cannot be “translated” to the digital. The many
different kinds of experience, interaction, reading,
interpretation, and thought they encourage through their use, as
well as the way they work synergistically together – not
replacing each other but rather creating a larger media ecology
through which they complement each other.
I’m thinking right now of UB’s map room, in Silverman
Library, with 450,000 maps from many different periods and
countries, readily available in their flat drawers for students to
peruse . Of Special Collections, with its world-renowned James
Joyce archive and its singular collection of rare North American
small press poetry magazines from across a century. Of my colleague
Joseph Conte’s course this semester on contemporary fiction
in special formats, whose books had to be read in specific physical
editions because interpretation of the text depended on physical
interaction with the material book.
I’m going to take a little swerve here. I know you graduates
all have learned to make well-argued connection and I’m
counting on you to fill it in for me.
I will simply assert that the kinds of reading and attention you
have cultivated in earning your English degree – up close and
at a distance – with full concentration and through
distraction or diffusion – along linear and non-linear
itineraries -- of literary texts and texts from other domains
and disciplines – as well as of many other kinds of media and
performance. The capacity for subtle, sharp critical thought you
have developed through these reading practices as you have
reflected on how meaning and experience are made -- these are
skills of resistance to “market thinking” that I hope
you will continue to value and foster throughout your lives.
To speak for a moment to the concerns of some parents out there
– and these concerns are reasonable and caring: What the
abilities nurtured in English, and in the humanities in general,
add to the economy tends to be undercounted; and these abilities,
while marketable in themselves, are also foundational to many
different kinds of jobs and professions
But I also want to suggest that what you have built here,
everything you have accomplished and that you have cultivated in
yourself as a person, can go towards building another kind of
culture than the one dominant here and now. A culture that is not
so consumer-oriented or profit-minded or entrepreneurial. One that
recognizes and makes central forms of value beyond or against a
narrow dollar value -- attuned to the demands of civilization as
opposed to those of economy.
The demanding course of study through which you have earned your
English degree. In our “liberal arts corner” of this
large university, has, of course, helped to make you outstanding
critical thinkers, insightful readers, articulate speakers, as well
as cogent, exciting writers – of literary and cultural
criticism and of journalism and poetry and fiction. It has also
honed your intellectual curiosity, trained your historical empathy
and your sense of differing histories from “above” and
“below”. It has made you aware there is no one
monolithic English, but Englishes in flux across time and space,
changing in response to different dynamics and pressures , while
you have also learned how all of these Englishes have provided rich
resources to makers of literature and culture. Through earning your
degree, you have fostered a capacity to sense absences and lacunae,
an aptitude absolutely essential to understanding how power can
work in society to silence and repress and exclude. You have gained
cross-cultural knowledge, sensitivity, and respect. You have become
generous listeners and interlocutors.
And I want to assert it as a strength. That all of these amazing
resources you carry with you now are not easily quantifiable. They
are not easily or comfortably harnessed to profit or accelerated
production. They are not easily instrumentalized.
Likewise, it’s not a stretch to say that the strengths
you’ve built here through the study of language, literature,
and culture can help shape a society based on care, collaboration,
collective-mindedness. An inclusive society that works against
indifference, competitiveness, distrust, fear, hard and soft
hatreds and their various forms of violence, which we sometimes
forget are learned ways of being in the world that we can refuse,
that we need to unmake every day
I’m not one to speak in imperatives, but the commencement
speech is a genre that encourages the imperative mood. So, as I
close, I will take it up on its conventions.
Don’t be excellent.
Don’t be part of a myopic celebration culture that adulates
“innovation,” that only looks towards a streamlined,
high-tech future. Take a critical stance towards problem-solving,
sit with a problem.
Engage in speculative, holistic thought about the short- and
long-term consequences of losing what is being engineered
Read and research deeply, so that underlying structural issues
Create solutions that don’t put efficiency, expedience,
standardization, or the “majority” first.
Don’t let your imagination and your desire for what
literature and culture and society can be, be molded by austerity
Always remember the capaciousness and largesse of your imagination,
against stingy austerity.
Be the positivity.
But more importantly, also be the interesting, thoughtful
Everything in this culture wants to speed things up, to force
obsolescence, to force disposability.
Think it through for yourself; do it the long way.
Be slow if you need to be.
Be the slowdown.
Be the holdout.
Be the wrench in the works, if there needs to be one.
And one last:
Do with your life what is truly fulfilling to you, as part of a
Huge congratulations to English graduates and your families on your
wonderful accomplishment. I know my colleagues join me in wishing
you the very best as you move on from UB
Stay in touch!