Bennington Commencement Speech (tropes, propositions, fish, bicycles)


Originally a commencement speech given at Bennington College in 2010.

(note: for the most part, I’m going to use the word “poetry” to refer to all the various disciplines represented here today–if you don’t think of yourself as a poet, please take it as a term of the highest respect. By poetry I simply mean work I admire and respect, work that fills me with awe. Everyone here I consider a poet.)

There’s a trope from the last century (circa 1972) that if you do what you love the rest will follow. The rest, supposedly, is money. Or happiness. Or fame. Immortality, maybe. Transcendence. Illumination. Eternal salvation.

One of the flaws in this thinking, we discovered, is that even if we front end the process, even if we begin from a place of love, we can never quite forget the carrot dangling before us–

The carrot of money and fame. Or love and happiness. Or immortality and transcendence. Whatever your carrot is.

Snacks and prizes. Bitches and bonghits.

Even as we are doing whatever it is we’ve decided we love, we can’t (do we ever?) forget the promise of that golden carrot immortal bonghit in the sky.

And what if some days the thing we love doing doesn’t go so well, what if some days the poem we have been wrestling with for the past few months reveals itself to be utter shit?

Let’s call this “ego.” (eternal damnation–ask me how!)

Maybe I should introduce myself:

I am the approximate age of Madonna and Michael Jackson, of Obama and Osama. On a good day I say I am in the middle of my life. On a good day I know there is no one else in charge. That if anything is going to change in this world it is my turn to step up.

There’s no one else in charge, yet some days I have no idea what I’m supposed to do.

What I do is write, and I try to write as closely as I can into what I call the mystery. Is this enough? Has it ever been enough?

That said, there is something Wizard of Oz in this day (I have a two year old, and so I watch the Wizard of Oz on a continuous loop), I can’t help but think of the end of film as we’re about to give out degrees, to declare each other masters: The only difference between you and those others who claim to be poets is that they have something you don’t have: a degree from a prestigious university.

It has always been this way–we have always had to pretend we were poets before we were poets. And then after we get our degrees we have to pretend we’re professors, or editors, or someone able to start a literary magazine. This, thankfully, is the same for nearly every job, at least the ones I’ve had. I captained a boat before I was officially a captain, I was wiring houses, getting the lights to come on, before I had an electrician’s license.

To be honest, in my five years as an electrican, I never got the license.

Writing poems is the same, we push into the unknown–blindly, half on faith–knowing only that others have gone before us–we know this because their poems are tacked to our walls.

Some of us got to hear one of those poets this morning, Donald Hall–whenever I hear him talk about poetry I feel I’m sitting at the feet of a Zen master–he starts with the seemingly mundane and simple–change a comma–and we somehow end up in the midst of meteor showers.

Our job as writers, as far as I can tell, is to attempt to express what seems inexpressible. The way we do this, I think, begins with a level of absolute attention to the world, which in and of itself is a difficult practice. But it doesn’t end there. Attention merely leads us to the threshold of the unknown, beyond which is where poetry lurks.

Jung calls it “the collective unconscious.” Andrew Joron calls it “the unsayable.” Lorca calls it “duende.” Aristotle calls it “The mind in the act of making a mistake.” Freud calls it “a slip of the tongue.” Fanny Howe calls it “bewilderment.”

Whitman asks: Who speaks of miracles? I know of nothing but miracles.

A proposition: people will want to read your work in precisely the same measure you are able to pulse between your conscious and subconscious realms.

The artist Bruce Nauman says: I think the point where language starts to break down as a useful tool for communication is the same edge where poetry or art occurs. It is how the familiar and the unknown touch each other that makes things interesting.

Nauman is talking about that threshold between the conscious and the subconscious realms.

Nearly every artist or thinker tell us the same thing–Richard Foreman (the experimental theater genius) says: The world in fact waits and is hungry for your uniqueness.

Yet, as the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno asks: How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?

Donald Hall might have answered Meno this morning, when he said (approximately)–In the middle of the process I reach a point where I don’t know I exist.

As poets we sometimes reach a place where the ego dissolves into the meteor shower….

(Dazzling and tremendous, how quick the sun-rise would kill me / If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me . . . Whitman said that as well.)

So, another proposition: Our writing, I believe, must be, or strive to be, utterly egoless.

This may sound like a paradox. How can one be utterly unique and utterly egoless? How to write a memoir, or a poem–anything–that is true to your inner life, and yet be egoless? How to make it both about and not about you? How to escape from this cage of self?

The bars of this cage are, yes, carrots.

I believe poetry has very little to do with memory. Memory is the scrim, it is the story you (or your ego) tell about the past, and that story is already dead. The real poem is pulsing behind the story, waiting for you to find it.

Brenda Hillman, at the Dodge festival last year, said that all poets start in the seemingly autobiographical, but as we write we write our way into the universal, and if we push harder we enter into the deeper mystery.

As she spoke her hands moved down her body.

It does seem part of the job description of the poet–to go into those dark places–usually in our own psyches, or perhaps hidden in the cells of our bodies–where others can’t, or won’t, go within themselves–and bring forth what we find there. “Find” is the word, I’m more and more convinced of this that the book is already there, perfect in its imperfection, waiting for you, me, to find it.

I have a recurring dream, especially when in the midst of an intense sustained writing project–the dream is simply pages of a book, slowly turning–pure text, with only the passage I’m reading coming into focus, the rest a blur.

It’s pretty good, sometimes, what I read in my dreams.

Think of all the books you will write, already waiting somewhere for you to open them. In this version the whole question becomes, simply, how to find them.

It is barely, if ever, about creation. Maybe this is what Roland Barthes meant, or maybe it is simply the time/space continuum the quantum physicists can see so clearly.

Donald Hall referred this morning to “the pleasure when something is delivered to you.” which speaks to the idea of poetry as a Gift.

Some will tell you that in order to write you should nurture your obsessions, but this seems a bit of a tautology–aren’t obsessions, by their nature, already being watered, daily? Maybe it is more important to simply become aware of your obsessions–none of mine have ever gone away once I name them, besides, the act of naming is as much a Rorschach as anything else. Naming will at least allow you to be dimly aware when you once again wander into that realm–be it the mom realm or the dad realm or the sex realm or the money realm or death realm or the time realm–whatever your obsession it will be clear that you are there again. How will you know? Because once there you will again encounter your own personal closed-image system, and whatever image is given to you–be it monkeys or waterfalls, wheatfields or stilettos–try to see it as merely a threshold, a signal from your subconscious that you should enter into this image more deeply, follow the thread, deeper into the mystery, into the unknown, into the subconscious realm, which is the only place, after all, we are going to find our poems.

The conscious mind cannot create art, as Mamet says.

Put that alongside Frost, who says: The whole great enterprise of life, of the world, the great enterprise of our race, is our penetration into matter, deeper and deeper, carrying the spirit deeper into matter.

The whole great enterprise of life…

Let’s face it, the only reason someone will want to read what you’ve written (beyond the beauty of the language we construct–or find) is that we are revealing something of our own inner lives.

A proposition: The way and the place to cross that threshold is through what I am calling a meditative state–I don’t expect you to join an ashram, or to shave your heads–almost any sustained attention, as Simone Weill pointed out, is a form of prayer. Weill also praised the virtues of hesitation, which is also a type of meditation. You can also achieve it through walking. Listening. Listening to a child. Studying bird songs. Oiling the chain of your bike. Reading about the oil pumping into the Gulf.

When I was an electrician (maybe I’m still an electrician? Once an electrician, etc…?), I spent hours crawling on my back beneath floorboards, pulling wire through the holes I’d drilled through the joists, always attempting to figure out the most elegant pattern, the pattern that would make the lights to go on which was usually the one which used the least wire.

Pushing aside cobwebs, holding a flashlight between my teeth–electricity probably taught me as much about writing as any workshop.

Here’s another proposition: There is not any difference between a workshop and the real world. My first writing workshops, in college, were taken under the cloud of that tired threat–Wait until you get into the real world.

If I remember one thing from my undergraduate years it was my first writing professor, when he said–In what way is this not the real world?

If you don’t believe that everything you do, every step you take, is the real world, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

Here’s a true story: for the last three summers we (my wife and child and I) have lived in a 150 year old barn in upstate New York. I renovated it two years ago, putting in just enough work so we could spend the warm months sleeping in it. One night, when the baby was one and a half, our second summer in the barn, an hour or so after she’d finally drifted off into sleep, the light in her room suddenly switched on (her door is made up of glass panes covered with a thin fabric)–then it switched off. Then on. Then off. On. Off. For the next half hour this continued–we crept to the window–she was standing in her crib, reaching out to the switch, then looking around the room as it snapped into light, aware that she was the one controlling it.

She’d only learned to walk a few months earlier.

Her room, from a distance, pulsed like a huge firefly.

What’s interesting about this, beyond the image itself, which I find remarkable, is why I remember it, why I am choosing to tell you about it now. Remarkable. But then, nearly everything she does is, I believe, remarkable.

I am her father, after all.

“Pulsing like a huge firefly”–the word “pulse” is also remarkable. Unlike the electrician, who simply makes the lights go on, our job is not simply to enter into the darkness, but to pulse in and out of it (there is a real danger when we pack our bags and move into the darkness permanently).

The pulse is what gives it life. It’s what makes our writing (or any art) a living thing. It’s one of the things that makes reading an active, rather than a passive, experience.

Another true story: I went to a museum in Houston a few months ago, with a writer who hopes to write a memoir. We were standing before a Maurizio Catalan sculpture–thirteen bodies covered with thirteen white sheets, lined up on the floor at our feet. As we took it in, we saw that one of the bodies appeared to have had his head cut off, yet it was placed back in the spot the head should be. Another was missing a hand. Then we realized that each was carved out of a single piece of marble. My friend asked me if it had been cathartic, to write my memoir. I looked down at the sculptures–it was cathartic for me to look at them, but I could imagine it might have been hell to make them. No, I answered, but how was it for you to read it?

The good news is the same as the bad news. Aristotle, in his Poetics, never promised catharsis for the makers of art, only for the audience. The makers, on the other hand, have to find a way to become the person who can write the poem they need to write (Stanley Kunitz said that). This could be cathartic, or it could destroy you. But you can’t go into it hoping for catharsis.

In the original Greek the sense of the word catharsis was as a daily practice, that we woke up each day with who we were, and each day we had to find a way to carry ourselves through it. This contrasts with our more contemporary idea of catharsis (which I blame on a misreading of Freud) as a one-time event, a revelation, a light coming on in an empty room. In this version, once we find the switch to turn that light on, we then get to see clearly what it was in our pasts (mom, is that you?) that causes us to act the way we do, and then we are able to integrate it (her) into our lives, and we are healed.

The hull scraped clean. Freud as electrician, makes the lights go on.


Let’s consider anything done with attention a type of poetry. I can tell you that, as an electrician, crawling through the dirt on my back beneath the floorboards, I had moments of joy, as well as moments of despair. One minute I was looking forward to flicking the switch when I finally emerged, dirty beyond recognition, and the next minute I could imagine myself pulling that wire forever. On the darker end of the spectrum were the moments that the most I could hope for was to get old enough to hire some kid willing to do the dirty work for me.

How to go forward, with such bitter hope?

One final trope from the last century, which made it onto bumper stickers and t-shirts for a few years, was this: A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

As we speak, oil is pouring into the Gulf, and it has been for two grueling months. Plumes and tophats. Estuaries and golfballs.

Of course this oil is also spilling, oozing, onto every page we write, mixed with the blood of US soldiers and Iraqi children. Of course it is. How can we write if it means we are not loading the van for the annual trip to the School of the Americas? How can we write and not be steaming toward Gaza on the Rachel Corrie?

A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. It always troubled me, the logic of this, ignoring how it does the way we are all completely interconnected.

If we all rode bicycles we woudn’t need to drill for oil a mile under the surface of the Gulf, and the fish would certainly not end up pumping our poison back into us.

Women need men. Men need women. We need fish. Fish need bicycles.

Look around you. The people you are sitting beside right now, this is your tribe–look at them closely, take them in. One will become an agent, one an editor, and one will start a literary magazine. You will form a writing group with a couple of them. One will call you in five years, ask to see a poem. This is just how it goes.

We are not alone, nor can we write a poem without everyone in this field with us right now. We are sitting at Aeschylus’s feet, the line from the Oresteia to your poem is unbroken–it contains the same pulse.

Aeschylus understood bewilderment, his prayer was simply this–God, whatever you are . . . .

Rachel Corrie said: “We have got to understand that they dream our dreams and we dream theirs. We have got to understand that they are us. We are them.”

In the end, it seems ludicrous, the idea of me giving you advice. Wittgenstein said: I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking, but if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own . . . and this seems a sentiment worthy enough to tack over our desks.

Mary Gaitskill, when an interviewer said that he was confused by her characters in her novel Veronica, that he didn’t know how he should feel about then, snapped back: You don’t know what to feel? You’re an adult, you feel what you feel. It’s not my job as an artist to tell you what to feel.

Both Gaitskill and Wittgenstein are speaking of creating art that respects their readers, that allows them to become active participants in the making of meaning.

Maybe our job is to simply create the scrim upon which the reader can project their own mystery.

This is catharsis.

What I can safely say is that it’s not the worst way to spend one’s time, standing before works of art that bring you catharsis. Just don’t expect it from your own work. Don’t expect to get anything from your own work. The carrot is an illusion at best, but more than likely it is a cage. Feel what you feel as you make it, whatever that feeling is. Track it. Trust that you might bring some small cathartic moment to another human being. It might only be one other human being, or it might be a handful. And it might not be now, it might not be for a hundred years. Or ever. Even this has to be enough.

The good news is the same as the bad news. There is no carrot in the sky.

Just this eternal pulse.

This is what we need to do–pay close attention to the world, and track what we notice, for whatever we notice is a glimmer of the blueprint of our glorious subconscious realm. And this is the only reason to write–to get and give a glimpse of this hidden realm.

Just don’t expect anything more from it. Don’t expect to be healed. Try to be grateful for the glimpse that is offered.

Go forth in wonder. Cross the threshold from the real world to the real world. We await your gifts.


Nick Flynn has worked as a ship’s captain, an electrician, and as a caseworker with homeless adults. His poems, essays, and nonfiction have appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and National Public Radio's This American Life. He is currently a professor on the creative writing faculty at the University of Houston, where he is in residence each spring. His most recent book is My Feelings (Graywolf, 2015), a collection of poems. In 2019, two new books will appear, Stay (Ze Books), a collection of collaborations and writings, as well as I Will Destroy You (Graywolf), a collection of poems. His work has been translated into fifteen languages. More from this author →