On April 27, Warren Wilson College inaugurated its seventh president, Steven L. Solnick, on Sunderland Lawn just before a heavy rain settled in. Exactly three weeks later, on May 18, there was no such luck with the elements; the 2013 Commencement had to be moved across the road to DeVries Gymnasium because of a persistent morning rain. But the quickly coordinated efforts of many people both inside and outside the gym somehow made the last-minute location work.
Of course, there’s at least a slight upside to nearly every shift in plans. As the College’s minister, the Rev. Steve Runholt, observed just before delivering the invocation, the Commencement location had been moved from lovely Sunderland Lawn to the hardwood home of the 2013 men’s basketball national champions. And, yes, the banner recognizing the Owls’ USCAA Division II title hangs on the wall the Commencement audience was facing.
But as always, the stars of the Commencement show were the nearly 200 bachelor’s degree recipients who had earned B.A. and B.S. degrees. The graduating class was Warren Wilson’s 45th as a four-year college.
Speaking of graduates, one of the College’s many distinguished MFA Program for Writers alumni, N.C. Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti, delivered an engaging main address. The text of his speech can be found below. You also can view his address online and see photos here.
This year’s graduating senior top honors went to Courtney Newsome, Pfaff Cup winner, and Felicia Hall, Sullivan Award recipient. Barnaby Ohrstrom was chosen by his classmates to be senior class speaker. Top teaching awards went to Laura Vance (faculty), professor of sociology and gender/women’s studies, and to Stan Cross (staff) of the College’s Environmental Leadership Center.
Here is the full text of Joseph Bathanti’s Commencement address:
Thank you for that gracious introduction, President Solnick.
Good Morning: Members of the platform party; Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College, Paula Garrett; Vice Presidents Blomgren and Ehrlich; Deans Kramer, Perrine and Robertson; Reverends Runholt and Ammons; Chair of Warren Wilson Board of Trustees, Alice Buhl, as well as other members of the Board of Trustees; Dr. Kehrberg; Mr. Bailey; Mr. Ohrstrom; Mr. Hays; President Emeritus Orr; distinguished Warren Wilson faculty, parents, family and friends, students and soon-to-be-graduates.
It is my great honor to be here with you today and also my honor to claim Warren Wilson as my alma mater. I graduated in poetry from the MFA program in Creative Writing in 1991, consistently rated the number one low residency MFA in America, though I cannot take credit for that, but I think you should. Though the MFA program convenes on this campus at times of the year when, by and large, the student body is absent, your spirit, even in your absence, invests every molecule of Warren Wilson. Certain places, certain plots of geography, possess a vibration and we’re sitting here this morning on one of those sacred tracts. It is additionally significant to point out that just next door, a touch over 6 miles away, is the site of legendary Black Mountain College – founded in 1933 by a band of disgruntled academic dissidents – that remains to this this day the greatest experimental academic adventure ever launched on American soil. During its shimmering stormy 23 year history, many of the nation’s greatest thinkers and artists were in residence or paid visits at Black Mountain: “It was” – as Martin Duberman points out in his history of Black Mountain – the forerunner and exemplar of much that is currently considered innovative in art, education and lifestyle.” In many ways, Warren Wilson has donned over the years Black Mountain College’s lofty banner.
I hope you’ll indulge me if I read a poem. However, please do not rush the platform and drag me off to tar and feathers when I announce it’s Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” a poem all-too-often brandished, since its initial 1916 publication, as a having an indisputably formulaic fixed moral, especially for gleaming new college graduates – and I’m sure it’s all-too-often read, for all the wrong reasons, at momentous occasions like this one. The Cambridge History of American Literature hails “The Road Not Taken” as … “a chestnut of high school teachers of American Literature and a frequent citation on greeting cards of rugged American sentiment. All in all, a veritable American adage, a pithy concentration of our proudest wisdom of self-reliance from Emerson to John Wayne: the very idiom of American desire.”
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The road of course and its inevitable crossroads is a well-worn metaphor, cliché even, hackneyed and overused. Everyone weighs in on it – even Yogi Berra, with his inscrutable Zen-like pronouncement: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I am not suggesting we discard this metaphor. It remains significant, useful, and I wouldn’t want for a moment to diminish the magnitude of this day.
In Frost’s famous poem, its speaker comes to that nexus where “two roads [diverge].” He pauses, ponders, then chooses presumably the correct path, “the one less travelled by,” the one that ends up “[making] all the difference.” I’ve taught this poem a hundred times and I’ve always been troubled by its closure. Again, the poem is often held up as a tiny parable of Emersonian self-reliance that embodies the American spirit of adventure and indomitability. If you have the good sense to choose the proper road, it will make “all the difference.” But Frost does not go on to explain what “all the difference” is. Is “difference” in this sense good (that’s what we’re led to believe, what our teachers have led us to believe) or is it bad?
The poem is titled “The Road Not Taken” – not the “The Road Taken.” The speaker is “telling this with a sigh.” In the poem’s final stanza, he broods over the path he neglected to follow, rather than abiding in the fulfillment of the path he did follow. He is not happy –though, like many of us, he’s become an expert at rationalization. Jay Parini, Frost biographer, suggests “ … Frost … is saying … : ‘When I am old, like all old men, I shall make a myth of my life. I shall pretend, as we all do, that I took the less traveled road. But I shall be lying.’”
This poem is not about making the right move; it traffics ultimately in complacent regret. It’s a cagey little cautionary tale laced with Frost’s deft, yet iron-clad, irony. Literary critic Frank Lentricchia says “The Road Not Taken” “might actually be the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Frost himself admonished: “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem – very tricky.”
You all are poised today at one of those mythic crossroads, one perhaps the culture makes too much of, one I remember standing at myself, the same one I circle back to again and again. When I finally left college and my home town of Pittsburgh with a Master’s Degree in English Literature, a most dubious credential back in 1976, I trekked to North Carolina to work in a prison as a VISTA Volunteer. As I murkily recall, I had no intentions of saving the world. I did not necessarily see myself as a do-gooder, even though I wanted to do good. In fact, my first geographical choice for a VISTA assignment was Montana simply because Montana struck me as grand and otherworldly. Period. Also I opted for a year in VISTA instead of two years in the Peace Corps because I knew I could stand anything for a year, if my assignment – even doing good – proved unbearable. However, because I fit the generalist rubric – meaning that unlike plumbers, electricians, physicians, etc., I had no specific skill in anything – I fetched an assignment at Huntersville Prison, in deep country, twelve miles north of Charlotte.
I had applied to VISTA not because I knew what I wanted to do, but because the list of what I couldn’t stomach doing was so ponderously long. I had never gotten over reading, as a 16-year-old high school junior, Albert Camus’s perfect little essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in which he cautions that the Gods “had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” Smoldering in me, as well, was the desire to leave home. Not because I felt trapped or nursed a grudge against it – on the contrary – but because I was sure that leaving was the right thing you do. Had I been rejected by VISTA, I planned to buy a Harley, throttle it cross-country to California, sell it there in the Golden State for a grubstake and see what happened. To complicate matters, I had decided, by the summer of ’76, I wanted to be a writer. But of course I hadn’t known what that entailed, how you arranged to be one. Nevertheless, I had fabricated for myself, at least internally, an identity as writer; and, like John Paul Sartre, I pretended to be a writer until I became one – which has been my strategy in most areas of life.
More than anything, I wanted to read. I wanted someone to pay me to do this – to remunerate me for simply sitting around and reading. That was the position I was waiting to be offered.
I don’t want to say I landed here on this platform by accident, though that might sum up perfectly for many, especially my early teachers, the nuns, this unlikely occurrence. I suppose I prefer to call it willed serendipity. Perhaps grace is a better word. Something I know for absolutely sure is that we arrive nowhere of any consequence without the help of countless others. You are prime examples, surrounded as you are by those who love you most, including many of your teachers, and many more, not here, invisible, anonymous.
Happenstance – call it random – does play an unfathomable role in destiny, and in career. Lentricchia also observes, in relationship to “The Road Not Taken,” that “our life-shaping choices are irrational, … we are fundamentally out of control.” Hearing that, you all, pondering this way or that, will not be comforted – nor will your parents, though they understand perfectly the wiles of random. But, remember, you now possess a genuine credential that can never be wrested from you: a college degree from a fine college that should never be taken for granted, that stands you in good stead intellectually, is the prime engine for your creature comforts and, who knows, maybe even wealth and notoriety.
The crossroads will become for you a ubiquitous reality – not just trope or metaphor or even cliché, though for many of us the metaphor of the road remains pervasive and predictably literal. These crossroads are not cause for hand-wringing, but exhilaration. Jaqueline Barbra writes: “The road is an instrument of entry and escape … a winding foreground for drama … This is the great promise of the road: the quick turn that affords you an unexpected view and, with it, a new perspective.”
I’m here to tell you, and I’d wager your parents and grandparents and teachers would corroborate this, that Frost knew what he was talking about when he wrote: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way / I doubted if I should ever come back.” Way does, inevitably, lead on to way. Roads lead into other roads – on and on exponentially. The circumnavigation is dizzying. Often you do not “come back.” Says Mark Richardson, another Frost critic. “We realize our destination only when we arrive at it …”
What does it mean to be changed – not trained or harnessed, as if the wondrous road unwinding is already fixed, akin to predestination – but to literally be changes, transformed? Schools like Warren Wilson “bestow” – what Loren Pope, in Colleges That Change Lives, calls – “benefactions to mind and soul …. Not only are [those schools] better, but they want you, and you will love them for making a new and better you. Your satisfaction will be life-long.”
You have loved this place, not merely in the anecdotal, rhetorical fashion we say we love something, but the way one loves her mother or best beloved or even God. And you have felt loved by Warren Wilson. And it is that love, I’ll attest, that comes out in very palpable ways when I encounter Warren Wilson graduates. They were changed, transformed, while here – the recipients of “benefactions to mind and soul.” It was not just a college, but a cathedral, a holy place. Not only have they, like you, been educated, but evangelized. You chose this college, and it chose you, for a reason. Now, as you take to the road – farm roads, two tracks, urban and international, streets and boulevards, alleys and avenues, and most importantly that sublime road that leads straight from the heart and soul into one’s joyous life’s work – those reasons will be made dramatically manifest.
By virtue of having walked on this campus, you now possess a creed more powerful than paper and ink, something very mysterious, even sacramental, that embodies this place, what few graduates, I think, even from the most vaunted institutions across our great nation, possess. It can only be love, ultimately, that perpetuates places like Warren Wilson.
While I never returned to live in Pittsburgh, I am permitted entry into my hometown regularly, and I return to it habitually in my imagination – not to mention that I’ve written incessantly about it, lo, these 36 years living here in North Carolina. My random assignment as a VISTA Volunteer truly “has made all the difference.” In truth, one never leaves home.
So, as you pause at the crossroads, pondering what next, what you must avoid, at all costs, is the kind of regret, second-guessing, and self-recrimination, even bitterness – “telling this [or that] with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence” – that beats ever so subtly just beneath the deceptively brilliant lines of Robert Frost’s little poem. You are, at this moment, this carpe diem moment, in the advantageous position, this moment of truth, if you will – and there will be more of them, I promise – to strike out on something bold.
But tarry a little longer in contemplation. Weigh the risk involved with doing the predictable – or even the unpredictable. Your station in life, at this moment affords you that opportunity – while you are young, blessedly so, when hubris and benign ignorance are not so lethal as they’ll become as you age. I urge you to act not on whim, but conviction; to unite in reconciliation rather than suspicion or xenophobia; to move forward in the spirit of cooperation and charity. The future of the planet depends upon our threshold to embrace and adapt to difference. Way will inevitably lead onto way.
Philosopher and theologian Thomas Moore stresses that “deep changes in life follow movements in imagination.” Einstein takes it a step further: “Imagination is more important than knowledge … Imagination encircles the world.” And Keats: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination.” You must remain imaginative, wildly so. Travel, read books, see films, go to museums and zoos, be kind to children and animals and the aged, remain intellectually precocious, fall madly in love, care for the planet. Above all, have faith, dream prodigiously and leaven every bit of it with a social conscience and compassion for those less fortunate than you. The poor will always be with us. Compassion does not cost a dime.
And please keep sacred your stories. Words fail us all the time; but, nevertheless, as Samuel Beckett reminds us, “Words are all we have.” Without poetry, without all the arts, how would we as a species ever gauge how we very deeply and honestly feel? Would we even know how we feel? Apart from the pure enjoyment and edification they impart, The Arts and Humanities reorder and discipline our instincts in profoundly human and humane ways. They assure us we have hearts and souls, and dispense enduring advice on how to keep the two from sundering.
Finally, in the words of the great American poet William Carlos Williams – a contemporary of Frost’s: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die every day / for lack / of what is found / there.”