On the occasion of the graduation ceremony of the Clemente Course in the Humanities in Worcester, Massachusetts, held at the Worcester Art Museum on May 21, 2017
In studying the humanities, should we do so for their own sake?
Does Rembrandt stand as an end in himself? What about William Blake?
Or should we seek the humanities to awake and to stay woke, so that we know a real hombre apart from a fake bloke?
Tyrants will come, and tyrants will go, and tyrants will hold the keys 5 to Lamborghinis and Air Force Ones, but not to humanities.
Tyrants can slash the budgets, and tyrants can forcefully lead,
but tyrants can’t tell us what we can say, or think, or write, or read.
There may be beauty in tyranny, but is that beauty truth?
Don’t ask me—go ask John Keats—go ask an urn, forsooth! 10
What’s true is true, what’s false is false, in this much we believe— unless we regard mere shadows, from an allegorical cave.
From picket fence to picket line, is there any hope left at all?
Could citizenship die on the vine? Must we keep mending the wall?
No automatic answers, here, past the gantries, beyond the Pike— 15 but we humanists haven’t met a single question we don’t like.
For months we’ve been asking them weekly, within our group of nineteen: sometimes, twenty—sometimes, twelve—with ice and snow in between.
How to recap our six until eight on Tuesday and Thursday eves?
By rhyming, of course, by slant if I must, in a-a or a-b rhyme schemes. 20
So how did we look? And how did we act? And how were the lessons taught? The faces of our instructors offer a logical place to start.
Ruth nodded softly, Ousmane grinned, Barbara paused for a glance,
Jim stressed and unstressed with furrowed brow, Alex knew how to relax!
For writing assistance, Rob is the man, for other help ask Doreen, 25 our sponsoring emcee’s name is Frank—Elizabeth is our Queen.
Twenty students taking a Clemente Course, in the city of Worcester, are, if you ask Vanessa, in twenty cities of Worcester.
Renee was bussed to a high school, from her Roxbury home.
Years later, reading Etheridge Knight, she said: “I lived that poem.” 30
Articulate Angela grew up in Brooklyn and like a New Yorker she suffers no fool— this couplet was writ in dactylic octameter: You too can learn this in Clemente school.
Of Olympians, Roundheads, and tuna, such odes did Neide read:
She watched them wrestle, and watched them fight, and then said: “let them bleed.”
Michelle has come a long, long way from her high school history class: 35 She speaks of equality, racism, power: no more Betamax!
John played it coy when his classmates suggested he make a speech, and, accepting their nomination, he asked them how he should preach.
Angélica thought through difference, and difference in difference, and so,
it’s not just ¿Habla español? but ¿de Argentina, o Cuba, o México? 40
Ivelisse gave a statue of a Haitian slave breaking chains to her history instructor, on Teacher Appreciation Day.
Benjamin spoke en Français of five races for everyone’s edification, displaying an excellent grasp of his sound colonial education.
For Fauston, in terms of humanities, all is not quite as it seems— 45 appearing to be a man of few words, he reads poetry in his dreams.
Nicole was impressed by Nietzsche, and also kept Kant on her shelf. She came to us when her time was her own—a law unto herself.
Miguel heard Martín Espada, and that music was hardly ajena,
leímos “En La Calle San Sebastian,” y bailó bomba y plena. 50
Patrice read The Epic of Gilgamesh, and noticed something cruel in the way that the gods and goddesses treated poor Enkidu.
Claudia understood freedom as a problem that was quite evident, and this was before we turned in fear, confronting the next term.
Liz studied U.S. history, reading Loewen to the max, 55 and to the lies the teachers told, she argued: “Check your facts.”
Georgianna spoke of justice, in a voice uniquely hers,
joining the long and distinguished train of Greek philosophers.
Hermes was a cunning linguist, whether for good or for ill.
He turned many heads in the program. His will be big shoes to fill. 60
Monica hardly held her tongue on poets or thinkers as lovers, scorned the hero’s machismo, and also doubted mothers.
Eight months in Clemente with Anna—it’s gone by in a blur: One night she played us “Lean on Me.” In fact, we lean on her.
So, yes, it’s been Kirk and the Family, and Bono, and Mary J., 65 But also the Declaration, and the Ode, and Les Desmoiselles.
If poetry is a making, and history’s made by the victors,
then don’t believe whatever you see in the books or in the pictures.
This skeptical turn of mind, sometimes known as critical thought
should help you discern who can’t be sold, and who is already bought. 70
This is our city: Its streets and its buildings are texts that we can read. We learn about them, and write about them, and give to those in need
of perspectives historical, philosophical, architectural:
We’ve given them to you, and now they must come from you all.
Look to your programs; there you will find a detail from tablets ancient, 75 held in this building, down in the basement, near the Roman pavement.
Older than Rome, and older than Greece, from the cradle of civilizations, extending back for millennia—a few hundred generations.
In the halls of ancient Babylon you could find a genius with wings—
that is, in the most well appointed halls … in those that had the most things. 80
But even a flying genius of stone is difficult to contain,
not to mention the geniuses that come with lungs, and a heart, and a brain.
Friends, take a good look around you, at the geniuses in these seats:
They won’t be contained by two hundred days, or thirty-something weeks.
Dear grads, a lifetime of learning awaits beyond these festive events, 85 and this is why to graduate is also to commence.
So onward, learned men and women, keep it up, persist— draw on Clemente’s riches: Drive the tyrants from our midst.