Mary Karr Gives Best Commencement Speech Of All Time, Deserves All Of The Awards

Poet, author, and Syracuse University professor Mary Karr spoke at Syracuse’s commencement ceremony earlier this month. Instead of a stream of rah-rah affirmations encouraging grads to “reach for the stars,” she delivered raw commentary on what to really expect from life, and strung her words together in the way that only a poet can. Every commencement address should be like this! The full transcript is available here and is absolutely worth a read, but in the meantime, here are some highlights from her speech (emphasis on key quotes mine). Feeling inspired yet?

On poetry:

“You start in a scared place and get zip lined somewhere truer. The real purpose of poetry, W.H. Auden said, is disenchantment. Not to throw fairy dust in somebody’s eyes, it’s stripping away what’s false so you can see what’s true underneath. I like to say poetry has to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.

On imperfection:

“Whether your degree is in architecture or exercise physiology, law, or mathematics, by being here you’ve added something to the conversation this city runs on the way a body runs on breath….Each of you is a spark that’s added something to our little flame. And I’m not just talking to the A makers, the valedictorians and salutatorians. I’m addressing the squeakers, the people that showed up today as if sliding into a base maybe dragging a few incompletes behind you. Good for you! You made it! I hope you all learned what had you come here for and what you didn’t. If you’re lucky, you fell in love here. And if you’re really lucky, you had your heart broken. Because that made you a deeper person and maybe forced you to find friends to lean on. Syracuse is now your alma mater, your soul’s mother, and mine.

I started out as a squeaker myself.  Yet for 30 years I’ve taught in college classrooms, and I promise the harder you were to work with the more you taught me and your fellows about the human heart. Also for 30 years I’ve been afraid of not having a PhD. Now, the prospect of getting one has turned into the most successful gut wrenching weight loss program in history. That’s how fear works though, isn’t it? Getting what you want can often scare you more than not getting it. As a young grad student I worried like hell that I looked like a bimbo, now that I’m an old maid schoolteacher I worry that I don’t.

My point being almost every time I was super afraid it was of the wrong thing. And stuff that first looked like the worst, most humiliating thing that could ever happen almost always led me to something extraordinary and very fine. So in this day of celebration and hope, I want to do the poet’s glum bunny thing of bringing up that deep, soul destroying fear and suffering that plague every human life, and I want to pass on a few tricks I’ve learned at such times, for I am an expert in fear.

For the vast majority of my life I had an anxiety disorder big as this stadium. I know I look like a calm, educated white woman. But believe me, I grew up kind of hard. In a swampy corner of east Texas where the only bookstore sold little religious figures and there were no books in sight. Of the six drug-dealing friends I moved to California with in my mid-teens, you can’t say we ran away, because when you run away they come looking for you. Of those six friends, four went to the pen, two of those were dead by 20, another HIV positive, another in the witness protection program. The drugs we all did back then that didn’t scare me a bit should have. They looked like the solution. For me they were the problem. What turned me to drugs I believe is partly a genetic gift from my family. I’m Irish and Native American. But I also grew up in a chaotic household where everybody was opinionated and because it was Texas well-armed. My much-loved oil worker daddy suffered a stroke and lay paralyzed for five years. My mom married seven times, during a psychotic break she once tried to kill me and my sister with a butcher knife. I ran into pedophiles twice as a child. Mine was not a childhood people wished for.

But I am not a poor thing or orphan, I adored my gambler daddy who taught me all the probabilities on a game of craps, and who had in his wallet on the day of his stroke my first published poem. And my beautiful outlaw mother read books the way junkies shoot dope, plus she got sober at 60 and showed me how to follow. In a key family anecdote, the guy redoing my mother’s kitchen held up a tile with a perfect round hole in the middle and said to my then 70-year-old fluffy headed mother, ‘Now, Ms. Karr, this looks like a bullet hole.’ And my sister said, ‘Isn’t that where you shot at daddy?’ And mother didn’t miss a beat. She said, ‘No, that’s where I shot at Larry. Over there is where I shot at your daddy.’ Which is funny as hell if it’s not your mother.

But pretty much every literary project I have taken on in the past 40 years grows directly out of what she and my daddy taught me. So was being their daughter good for me or bad for me? I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

On comparison:

“I practically started my academic career at the lowest point in my life. I checked into a mental institution for what they called suicidal ideation. While I was still in what they call custodial care, I got a fellowship to Radcliffe College. In fact, I had to get a day pass at first, and what scared me that day was that somebody might spy under my sleeve the little plastic wrist bracelet that marked me as a mental patient. Everybody else was sipping sherry and talking about ideas and I spent the whole day in the corner holding my wrist.

That stay in the mental Marriott as I called it, wasn’t the end of my life, it was the beginning. It’s where I finally heard enough to ask for help. It’s where I learned that as deep as a wound is, that’s how deep the healing can be. And since this is America, where cash is king, I made enough telling the story of that place to buy a New York apartment and cover my own kids’ college tuition.

So was it a nervous breakdown or a nervous breakthrough?

Bad things are going to happen to y’all because they happen to us all, and worrying about them won’t stave them off. Look around at each other. This is a good looking crowd. I’m telling you, y’all look sharp today! But at certain times don’t make the mistake of comparing your twisted up insides to other people’s blow dried outsides. The most privileged person in this Dome suffers the torments of the damned just going about the business of being human.

People they adore have been shot through the heart, they’ve suffered agonizing infirmities and even the best families, loved ones, however inadvertently, fail to show up at the key moment or they show up serving grief and shame when tenderness is starved for.”

On fear:

“When I was young and troubled, I thought feeling better would only happen when I found enough people to love me, but it turns out finding people to love and do for is way more healing. And that’s what Syracuse has given me. The opposite of love isn’t hate. It isn’t even indifference. It’s fear. Often fear of the very pain and suffering that we all know is inevitable. Every major religion tells you the solution to your fear is loving other people and they’re not wrong, but they don’t talk that much about how truly nerve wracking everybody is…Fear can take that expensively educated brain of yours and reduce it to the state of a dog crunched over a bone. You know the moments, heart pounding in your ears, sweat bumping down your ribs. Ask yourself at those times who’s noticing how scared you are. To me it’s this watcher, or noticer self, that’s who I think you really are.

That’s where your soul is. That’s where God comes in. That’s a place you can draw strength from.

And if I could, I would download into all your brains today a hard wired app that would permit you to observe your own rage and fear from inside that quiet, noticer place to install a button you could push during the bad times and have somebody say in a really convincing voice, this might be the start of something great that I just can’t foresee right now because I am scared shitless. And if you can get curious about what scares or infuriates you, especially if it’s part of yourself, you can get way less scared…Being smart and rich are lucky. But being curious and compassionate will save your ass. Being curious and compassionate will take you out of your ego and edge your soul towards wonder, a word I inadvertently stole from Chancellor Syverud today.”

[Syracuse University]

[Image via Syracuse University]