Joseph Brodsky commencement speech, Hanover, NH

Click on photos to enlarge.


I am not an expert on Joseph Brodsky. I’m not even the greatest admirer, I must admit, although an admirer I am – my first gift to my future wife Oksana Mysina was a set of two collections of Brodsky’s poems published by Ardis – Parts of Speech and The End of a Beautiful Era. (The latter of which was not exactly the perfect gift for one wooing a future life partner, but, then, Oksana and I rarely do things by the book.) Oksana later met Brodsky; it’s a pretty good story that I’ll have to tell in its own time. Anyway, all of this means nothing, really, it’s just tidbits I bring up before admitting I may not have all the information I should have for this short entry about the place where Brodsky delivered a commencement address to the graduating class of 1989 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH.
As best as I can tell, Brodsky delivered three commencement addresses – Williams College in 1984, University of Michigan in Winter 1988 and Dartmouth in 1989. The latter two came on the heels of the poet receiving the Nobel Prize in literature in 1987, thus giving Williams bragging rights for prescience.
Brodsky made an effort to be clever in his choice of topics for commencement speeches. At Williams he spoke on the qualities of evil and on the dubious nature of turning the other cheek when evil is done to you. The following year at UMI he bucked up his listeners with advice for the future, even providing a numbered list of his primary advice that included an exhortation to be precise in one’s use of language, a call to be kind to parents, and a suggestion not to put much store in politicians. At Dartmouth he spoke “In Praise of Boredom,” which we’ll get to in a moment. First, however, I want to warn readers to be careful about the various commencement texts floating around on the net. You can get wrong dates (a few places put the Dartmouth speech in 1995, I assume, because they confuse it with the date it was published in book form). You can also get wrong texts. I’ve seen two versions of the UMI speech that are quite different – not in substance, perhaps, but in wording. That’s unfortunate for the work of a poet who was as careful with words as any, to say nothing of a speaker who actually preached the necessity of being precise in one’s use of language. A presumably reliable version of the Williams address was published in the New York Review of Books. I am assuming that a text on a UMI host reliably reflects what Brodsky said at December 1988 ceremonies at that institution. One can find the Dartmouth speech, as published in the collection On Grief and Reason – Essays, on the Relambramentos blog site. It has a few typos, but otherwise appears to be a replication of the published version.

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I mentioned this speech not long ago in an entry on the Russian emigre poet Lev Loseff, who taught Russian and Russian literature at Dartmouth for 30 years, and who would have been instrumental in inviting Brodsky to do the graduation honors. In the last photo below you can see Brodsky (left) and Loseff, both spiffed up for the occasion. The photo rests on a shelf in the Russian Dept. at Dartmouth and was pointed out to me by the current Dept. Chair John Kopper, who was kind enough to chat with me and walk me around the department recently.
I presume that Brodsky spoke in June, although I cannot confirm that. One source indicated it was in July – but a July graduation? I think not. In any case, all Dartmouth graduations over the last six years have taken place in mid-June. If you want to get a feel for what it might have looked like the day Brodsky spoke, you can watch this time lapse film of the 2014 ceremonies. While spending three weeks at Dartmouth this summer, I asked several people where Brodsky would have stood while speaking, and all of them – admitting they knew nothing about the 1980s – suggested it surely would have been in the niche before the clock tower at Baker Hall and between Webster Hall on our right, and Sanborn Hall on our left. You can see Baker and Webster in the two photos immediately below.
During my short stay at Dartmouth I walked past this place on the green anywhere between two to six times a day. Not once did I walk past it without looking over towards Baker and thinking about Brodsky up there speaking. His presence for me was real. Oksana wanted her photo taken before the tower, and when Russian director Boris Yukhananov came to visit, I felt compelled to point out that Brodsky had once spoken there. It seemed like something I had to tell a Russian of culture.
As for what Brodsky said that day, you can read the entire speech yourself by going to the link above. But I can’t help but insert a few nice excerpts here. Speaking specifically of “art’s saving grace,” Brodsky said:

“Not being lucrative, it [art’s saving grace] falls victim to demography rather reluctantly. For if, as we’ve said, repetition is boredom’s mother, demography (which is to play in your lives a far greater role than any discipline you’ve mastered here) is its other parent. This may sound misanthropic to you, but I am more than twice your age, and I have lived to see the population of our globe double. By the time you’re my age, it will have quadrupled, and not exactly in the fashion you expect. For instance, by the year 2000 there is going to be such cultural and ethnic rearrangement as to challenge your notion of your own humanity.”

He goes on to add:

“But even in a more monochromatic world, the other trouble with originality and inventiveness is precisely that they literally pay off. Provided that you are capable of either, you will become well off rather fast. Desirable as that may be, most of you know firsthand that nobody is as bored as the rich, for money buys time, and time is repetitive. Assuming that you are not heading for poverty – for otherwise you wouldn’t have entered college – one expects you to be hit by boredom as soon as the first tools of self-gratification become available to you.”

Later suggesting, in what is surely the gist of his entire talk:

“When hit by boredom, go for it. Let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is, the sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here, to paraphrase another great poet of the English language, is to exact full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.
In a manner of speaking, boredom is your window on time, on those properties of it one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. In short, it is your window on time’s infinity, which is to say, on your insignificance in it. That’s what accounts, perhaps, for one’s dread of lonely, torpid evenings, for the fascination with which one watches sometimes a fleck  of dust aswirl  in a sunbeam, and somewhere a clock tick-tocks, the day is hot, and your willpower is at zero.”

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