Sharon Alker

May 19, 2007

David Hume, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher, taught us that passion rather than reason impels us to action. That’s self evident, to a degree. If I give a well-reasoned, logical talk on passion today, you might, after you wake up, remember a sentence or two. But if I give an impassioned speech, you might not just hear it, it might motivate you to act.

When we’re passionate about something, we become immersed in it, we lose track of time and place (forget to get off at our bus stop, miss dinner, we might even (and I’m talking particularly to graduating students here) forget to update Facebook).

Because I’m an English professor, when I think of passion I think of poetry. But when I talk about “poetry” today, I mean it metaphorically to stand for whatever your passion is.
Your “poetry” might not be in a book of verse – it may be in a surgery, a lab, a courtroom, an office – wherever you feel inspired and invigorated. You might not be quite certain what your “poetry” is yet, and that’s all right too. One of my favorite writers, Daniel Defoe, found a new passion – novel writing – at the age of 60, when he penned a little novel you may have heard of – Robinson Crusoe. And I just read recently in the Toronto Star that Stephen Hawking (surely one of the most passionate individuals of our age) in his mid 60s has just realized a new passion – “floating weightless on a zero-gravity jet,” a precursor, he hopes, to future experiences in space. I want to encourage you to continue (throughout your life) to discover and harness your passions – your poetry – to continually energize and reenergize your life as you move on to unfamiliar territory. Here’s why:

First, passion makes you see the extraordinary in the ordinary. The Scottish poet, Robert Burns, was passionate about poetry (and I’m going to read you a little bit of his poetry in a minute – as it should be read – in full Scottish accent, but don’t worry, I’ll translate the difficult bits). Burns held various jobs throughout his life – mostly he was a farmer. But whatever he was doing, he was always, as he put it, committing the “sin of rhyme,” transforming every tiny event or object into a poem. One of his most famous poems uncovers meaning in one of the tiniest of insects. His address “To a Louse,” describes an incident in church in which a rather pompous, genteel young woman is sitting in the seat in front of the poet, when he notices a louse on her shoulder. I’m not sure that my first reaction at seeing an insect on someone’s shoulder would be poetic. But to Burns, lice are inspirational. He writes:

Ye ugly, creepan, blasted wonner (ugly creeping cursed wonder)
Detested, shunn’d, by saunt an’ sinner (saint and sinner)
How daur ye set your fit upon her, (your foot)
Sae fine a Lady
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner,
On some poor body.

This wonderfully silly poem about the foolishness of snobbery, which goes on for a few more stanzas, is not just funny. His passion defamilarizes our world – it brings together unexpected things (the silly and the serious) to make us see things anew. It’s in this poem that some of Burns’s most meaningful lines appear:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
(it would free us from many foolish mistakes if we could see ourselves through the eyes of others)

Further transforming the ordinary, Burns wrote an elegy to his pet sheep when it died. He would occasionally get irresistible impulses to write poetic graffiti and etched poetry on tavern windows. And he wrote an “Address to the Toothache,” subtitled “Written by the author at a time when he was grievously tormented by that disorder.” Try writing a poem next time you have a toothache – you have to have a lot of passion.

Second, passion is infectious, and it changes things. The impact of Burns’s poetry and songs have far exceeded his expectations, because they inspire change. One of his songs, titled “For a’that and a’ that,” about the inherent equality of humanity, has been used by advocates of change to fight for class and racial equality. He writes:

Then let us pray that come it may,
      As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
     Shall bear the gree, and a’ that.
(that sense and worth shall triumph)
For a’ that, and a’ that,
      It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er,
     Shall brothers be for a’ that.——

A relevant and hopeful poem today (over 200 years after he wrote it), a poem that could be used to support increasing voting rights for working-class Englishmen in the early nineteenth century and to inspire Scots to vote for an independent parliament in the twentieth century. His passion makes real, material change. Burn’s work is still quoted today in the Scottish parliament – sometime by people on opposing sides, for whoever can claim Burns, can generally claim victory.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly on this day of transition, passion is a secret antidote to fear and adversity. Burns’s passion not only empowered him to succeed. It gave others courage to overcome adverse conditions. His example inspired another Scottish poet, the shepherd poet, James Hogg, a man with no formal education who spent his days herding, shearing, and treating sheep for diseases, to keep writing poetry despite his feelings of inferiority. Hogg would tie a little pencil and pad of paper to his belt, so that in between the herding and the shearing, he could write poetry. James Hogg’s work, (much of which was very gothic in nature) in turn, inspired some women writers you may be more familiar with, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, rural women writing in an male-dominated urban literary marketplace, to overcome their fears and insecurity and publish their work. Passion is powerful.

And thus I wish for you (as you face new challenges, some of which may feel overwhelming at times) – both literally and metaphorically -may you always have poetry in your life.