Bourque to grads: Work for change

If you read one thing today, make it this — the former Louisiana poet laureate’s Dec. 26 commencement address to UL graduates.

[Editor’s Note: Following is the Dec. 26 commencement address delivered to UL graduating students by Darrell Bourque, former Louisiana poet laureate and a retired English professor and department head at UL. A UL professor emeritus, Bourque is the author of several books of poetry including his most recent, Megan’s Guitar and Other Poems from Acadie_, published last year by the UL Lafayette Press. The following is republished with Bourque's permission.]_

Darrell Bourque

President Savoie, deans, department heads and faculty; family, friends, spouses and children here today honoring the graduates, and especially the graduates of this One-Hundred and Forty-eighth Commencement Exercise at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, I am honored to be able to say a few words to you on this important day when we come to you to acknowledge your work, your intention, your accomplishments, and your success. Today is a milestone day for you and it is a milestone day for us too because we will be forever linked together in common purpose. The degree conferred on you today sets you free to do your work in the world but it is also a certificate of trust and a certificate of faith from us to you.

We live in a threatened world. We can start close to home. We see the dying vegetation all along our coastline. The plants that served as protection barriers against natural disasters are succumbing to salt water intrusion and its erosive effects. We read in papers and documents about alarming land loss and we wring our hands in worry and grief over what is not being done. You who are receiving your degrees today are the answer, and the answer is not singular. The time for singular solutions is long past. The work of turning widespread environmental disaster around is not the work of the environmentalist alone. There are jobs right here in our state for the chemist as well as the story teller; jobs for the physicist, the engineer, and the poet; jobs for the painter and the filmmaker, the biologist and the dramatist, the composer, the marketer, the computer scientist and the botanist; jobs for teachers on every level and in every discipline. These jobs are calling you if you want them.

Even closer to home we are called to examine every aspect of the preservation and protection of the Atchafalaya Basin, one of our great natural treasures. In such cases, we have models that work and models that are homegrown, such as the model set forth by the Lafayette Parish Bayou Vermilion District which has a teacher, poet, and environmental activist David Cheramie as its CEO, an historian as its board president, a professor of traditional music as its vice president, an artist as secretary, and a board made up of an anthropologist, two architects, a photographer and music business entrepreneur, a civic leader and human rights activist, two of our best fiddle players, a music archivist, and a middle school educator. In taking care of the planet and every piece of the planet everyone has a stake in the game: the business owner, the economist, the historian, and some one in every discipline taking a degree from this university today.

We live in an unsettling world. Every day we wake up to violence and ruptures that are impossible to absorb. Children are slaughtered in their classrooms in Sandy Hook and in Pakistan. Our rates of incarceration soar in this country at huge expense both in dollars and to the moral integrity of our communities. Incarceration figures are a blue print for our prejudices and biases. There is not equal justice under the law and that’s a fact. Who can turn that around? Not just the psychologists, not just the sociologists and the criminal justice workers. The work of making communities safe and productive is just as much the work of the journalists as it is the work of the artist, the photographer, and the writer. Social justice and community building are part of the work of everyone here who pursues a law degree or a counseling degree, a political science degree or a psychology degree.

And, we have powerful models for this work too. Nelson Mandela and the Reverend Martin Luther King are of our time and our history. Two of the most heroic people alive today are Pope Francis and Malala Yousefzai. We are not lacking models for peace workers and expanders of what it means to be exemplary human beings. These two living models are models, not just a religious leader and an human rights educator, not an old man and a young woman, but two enlightened human beings leading the way for anyone and everyone who wants to work for the betterment of human kind. Neither of them will ask what discipline you received your degree in if you work in their causes and in their missions.

We live in a changing world and it is the ability to change with change that will mark our successes as a species. It is innate for us to label and classify and analyze. We label and classify and analyze because we work with language, the great gift we have brought to high levels of effectiveness. But it is good to remember that there is something deeper than language. The Portuguese Nobel laureate in literature José Saramago said “Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.” What Saramago is suggesting is that that something is our source connection to the divine, in fact so close to the divine that it cannot have a name. What that great Portuguese writer imagines us to be is true I hope. But as we go about the business of being human we name names and a great danger lies in being lazy or mean in that use. We live in a time where it seems to me it is too easy to label, too easy to freeze ourselves into limitation. We label our politics and our beliefs, we label our desires and expectations to the point that we forget how to talk to each other. We think politicians and politics are bad, we have these intractable ideas about what is liberal or conservative or otherwise without giving much careful thought to the consequences of that kind of rigid and calcified thought. We operate with all kinds of barely camouflaged racism in our talk. We bully each other with labels and we teach our children to do the same with their peers. Who has the power to change how we manage and navigate discourse? You do. You have shown that in the ways you have managed and navigated the forms of discourse required of you as you moved into this moment we celebrate today.

Just as we were entering the modern world as we know it, the great French writer Gustave Flaubert in the 1870s compiled a set of notes that became Le dictionnaire des idées reçues, a dictionary of useless ideas, a dictionary of received ideas, a dictionary of language not based on experience or deep and responsible thought. This great purveyor of realism and the author of Madame Bovary points to all the dangers of careless use of language and the ways such use of language can erode not only sense but morality and responsible, humane in-the-world-being. In one way or another all the suffering, despair and injustice his characters experience stem from allowing themselves to be the receptors of received ideas. Robert Frost reminds of much the same thing in his poem “Mending Wall” when he says his neighbor will “not go behind his father’s saying.” The neighbor is saying “good fences make good neighbors” but the speaker in the poem is wondering what this means. One neighbor grows apples and the other has mostly pine on his property. What is the fence for, the speaker puzzles over. We do much the same with language on volatile and divisive issues. We choose sides, without much inquisitive or independent thought, on issues like immigration and amnesty and platitudes like “we want life to be like it used to be.” We become intractable without giving much thought to how we all came to this place we call home. The truth is we all came here as immigrants or slaves or refugees or colonizers of native inhabitants’ homelands, and none of us really want to go back to “the way things were,” except maybe the native inhabitants.

What does this have to do with you who are receiving your degrees today? We are depending on you to be the independent thinkers, we are depending on you to make things work better than they work now, we are depending on you to take this article of faith and this article of trust which you have earned and make the world a better place because your heart and your mind and your body and your spirit are in the right place as you work to forge a life for yourself. Flexibility is one key, agility is one key, creativity is one key, possibility is one key, compassion is one key, empathy is one key. The keys you pick to unlock your future will define you in ways you cannot even imagine today. Thank you. Be safe, and remember to be fiercely your best self.