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Fall Convocation

Fall Convocation Archives: Spaar Speech

Lisa Russ Spaar, Horace W. Goldsmith NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor
Convocation Address – University of Virginia

November 3, 2017

Your Voice, Your Vocation

Just over 41 years ago, in October 1976, I sat in a folding chair on the Lawn of the University of Virginia with my parents, who had driven down from New Jersey to join me and other members of my third-year class, the class of 1978, and their parents and friends and faculty, to receive Intermediate Honors at the University’s Fall Convocation. It was a glorious day, not the least because I felt, that afternoon, as I imagine you do, too, not only “seen” by the academical village of which I was privileged to be a part, but also because I felt strangely summoned by the celebration, called, if you will, in a way that felt extraordinary, lucky, necessary, and replete with responsibility and promise.

What, exactly, is a “convocation”? The word is an old-ish one, dating back to the 14thcentury. It refers to an “assembly of persons” and derives from the Latin “convocare, “to call together”: COM ( “together”) plus VOCARE (“to call”), which in turn comes from VOX, the “voice.” Convocation. To call together.

The word “convocation” is also in the same word family as “vocation,” which early on had religious connotations, as in a “spiritual summons, a calling.” Now, of course, we associate the word vocation with “one’s occupation or profession,” a topic that certainly has to be on the minds of many of you third-year students (and your parents) assembled today. What will you do with your education when you graduate next year? What will call you? What will you become? What will your vocation be?

For me, vocation and voice are inextricably connected. One thing we do in poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction classes is attempt to help students find “their voice”—what it is about their own writing (sonic texture, insistent rhythms, vivid imagery) that gives what they write the feel of THEM about it. “Voice” in poetry is probably easier to HEAR than it is to talk about. I’m going to read you now the start of two very different poems. Here’s the first:

Whose woods these are, I think I know.
His house is in the village, though.
He will not see me stopping here,
To watch his woods fill up with snow...

Okay. And here’s the second:

Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ' damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,
Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! ' Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind
Off hér once skéined stained véined varíety ' upon áll on twó spools; párt, pen, páck
Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds – black, white; ' right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But thése two . . . .

You get the idea. The first, of course, is Robert Frost (plain-spoken and direct) and the second is Gerard Manley Hopkins (dense, baroque). The difference you hear is what we call, in poetry, voice.

(As an aside, I will add there are websites devoted to something called “poet voice,” which refers to the WAY poems are read aloud, and the big message of most of these sites is “don’t do it. Don’t do ‘poet voice.’” “Poet voice” refers to an affected, perhaps self-protective or falsely humble way of ending every line with the upturned inflection of a question [Whose woods these are I think I know? His house is in the village though?], which I’ll further demonstrate with these lines from the White Spot menu (which, I have to say, has graciously not fancied up its game much since the early days of the iconic “three G’s”: Gusburgers, Gravy (sausage), & Grillswiths—no quinoa. No seitan—or Satan, either—at the White Spot).

Three Sandwiches: A Poem
Crisp bacon, sliced turkey, cheese, lettuce & tomatoes piled high on toast?
Corn beef with tangy sauerkraut grilled on rye bread topped with melted cheese?
All served with lettuce, tomato & mayo on pita bread with choice of fries? Or … onion rings?

Another reason I’ve had “voice” on my mind recently is that a little over a month ago I had a surgery for skin cancer. The cancer itself proved to be very treatable, but its location—on my neck, right over my larynx, my voice box—and the requisite cutting and the resultant scar, gave me pause. Was there a risk, I wondered, that my voice—so important to my life as a teacher and poet—might be affected? I remembered how hard it was to parent, to teach, with just a mild case of laryngitis. Who would I be if I lost my voice?

Some research into the anatomical structure of the adult larynx (it turns out the nerves I was worried about being severed are safely behind the anterior larynx) and some good-natured reassurance from an ace UVA medical team allayed my fear, but the experience got me thinking, not only about the metaphorical resonance of being a poet with a scar over her voice box (my eldest daughter assured me I would look “badass”; one of my students said consolingly, before the surgery, “whatever happens, at least you’ll always have your poetic voice.” Another said, “It’s as though, without having to say a word, you transmit the message, “‘And I spoke anyway’”).

All of this had me musing about “voice” in general—what is it? What does it mean to have one? Not to have one? What are the attendant responsibilities of possessing a voice: metaphorical or real? And not just for me, as a poet and teacher, but for anyone. For you. For all of us.

Merriam Webster defines “voice” as “the sound or sounds uttered through the mouths of living creatures, especially of human beings, in shouting, singing, etc.” With our voices we cry, laugh, scream, converse, whisper, petition, pray, make music, argue, grieve, beg, apologize, protest, debate, woo, make amends, curse, take oaths, make vows, and proclaim our rights and those of others. Voice can be a private or a public matter, and often both at once.

Voice can also denote the right to express an opinion or choice (“to have a voice in the matter”); a person can lend one’s voice to a political or social cause. The person or agency through which something is expressed or revealed is another meaning of voice (“Kendrick Lamar is the leading voice of hip hop”). A singer can be in good voice; there are voice parts: alto, soprano, bass, tenor. One grammatical mode, often used by children, politicians, and others to dodge responsibility or agency, is “the passive voice” (a window was hit with a snowball; a wall was built).

We have voice votes, voice-overs, vocal fry. There is Hollywood Voice (think Katherine Hepburn or Cary Grant). We have Voice of America. There are voice talents (the sounds behind our favorite animated figures, audio books, radio shows—I can’t hear the voice of Pamela Adlon’s character Sam on Better (not Stranger) Things, for instance, without catching an echo of Bobby from King of the Hill). Heck, The Voice is even its own television show, on which various singers are voted (there’s that etymological link again to “voice”again) off the island. So to speak.

Voice development in human beings begins before we’re even born. At 4 weeks in utero, a rudimentary larynx begins to form. Vocal ligaments take shape by 10 weeks. By full term, most infants possess a fine working set of vocal chords. And as we grow—early childhood, adolescence, older age—our vocal chords continue to change. Cartilage hardens. The larynx descends. Vocal folds lengthen. Voices drop for some. Vocal range extends. Then shortens.

As it turns out, the larynx, the voice box, had a lot to do not only with our own development, but with the evolution of the very first human beings. Many experts believe that the development of a complex vocal apparatus and a brain capable of controlling it were absolutely crucial to our becoming human in the first place. As pre-humans evolved, language drove physiological evolution, conferring advantages to those capable of producing more complex language sounds. Apparently, an expanded and lower larynx—a physiological necessity for articulate speech—evolved in late Homo erectus.

And here’s something very interesting: there is a fascinating paradox in this evolutionary lower larynx position. Because although the lower larynx is important to the production of complex speech, the lower larynx also makes human beings more susceptible to choking and being choked than any other species on the planet. From this paradox, some have concluded that because the benefits of communication would appear to be more valuable than the costs and dangers of choking, we can assume that this larynx position is a key adaptation in the origin of language and of the fully human person.

What’s exciting to me is the suggestion that the linguistic advantages outweigh the physiological disadvantages of a lower larynx. And if the emergence of language is as vital to our evolutionary history as most anthropologists believe, and if language is indispensable to our species, it is perhaps no exaggeration to claim that the descent of the larynx permitted the ascent of [human] kind.”

Communication beats Choking. Voice beats Violence.

I want to turn now, before concluding these remarks, to what and how and why we have and might continue to choose to use our “voices” here at the University of Virginia, and beyond.

One thing that I did with my voice, quite publicly in my first year at UVA, on the one payphone at the end of the hallway on the third floor of Dabney, right outside the women’s bathroom, was conduct many tearful phone calls over a period of months, and then finally break up, with my high school boyfriend, a student at Rutgers. We had no e-mail, Skype, or cell phones. We didn’t even have landlines in our rooms. What I had to say, all that difficult and painful parting, was shared, albeit one-sidedly, with my patient, sympathetic, helplessly attendant hallmates.

But, more seriously: in live-time, face-to-face encounters in the classroom, I began to learn, as you have, not only to listen to others whose opinions and life experiences differed, often radically, from my own, but also to begin to find MY voice, to shape and express original responses to the ideas of my cohort, to argue, to concede, to change my mind, to have my mind opened, and to be wrong (because whenever we are wrong, we are on the brink of a new discovery).

In my courses, in other people’s voices, through deep reading in the sentences of those Wordsworth called the “noble living and the noble dead,” I began to deliciously excavate myself.

This kind of voice-to-voice engagement has always been crucial to learning. It is, after all, at the heart of the Socratic Method. But in our high-velocity moment, in which it is increasingly possible to “voice” (post, tweet, troll, flame, shame) an opinion without accountability or facts, or even using one’s real name in the faceless realm of cyber-ether, what is provided in  universities like ours (profoundly civil, profoundly daring) is a crucible, a forum for face-to-face, accountable interaction, an invaluable opportunity to begin to express and know our personhood and to make ourselves, as human beings, understood and real to one another.

On a recent October afternoon, on my way from my office to the Corner for a coffee, I decided to pay attention to all of the voices I heard as I crossed the Lawn. This was a few days before the launch of the Bicentennial Celebration. From the basement practice rooms of New Cabell Hall, I heard a contralto practicing scales. Two students on the steps of Cocke Hall were arguing about their answers on an Economics mid-term. At the “tabling corner,” architecture students were conversing about a fascinating white, spider-like construction being put up as part of the opening festivities (I came back the next day and the structure had moved, perhaps on its own, some yards down the Lawn). One of the many landscapers with whom I’ve become friends from my frequent visits to the Pavilion gardens over the years, stopped to tell me where I might find more of the pink-tufted Muhle grass I’d been admiring in front of Garrett Hall (Ivy Nursery is the answer). A clutch of Facilities Management people called out a “hello” as they were putting up a large TV screen.

I overheard a young man telling a small group of tourists peering into a Lawn room that Lawnies don’t actually LIVE in their rooms, but rather just use them for parties while mostly sleeping in apartments elsewhere that have en suite bathrooms.

A group of some 7 or 8 preschoolers connected by safety ropes trooped by shouting, gleefully, “no, no, no, no!” (and here I want to interject briefly with something a friend reported hearing in a sermon: that one of the first words little children learn to vocalize, after the expected “mama” and “dada,” is the word “no.” Because if we can learn to vocalize what it is we don’t want, the rector said, we are prepared to voice a “yes” that is meaningful, a yes that we can own, that comes from conscious volition and agency.) As I made my way down the slope toward Brooks Hall, I heard a capella singing—it sounded like a mash-up of the “Good Old Song” and Stevie Wonder’s “You are the Sunshine of my Life.”

In addition to the voices I heard, I saw signage everywhere that represented voices and spoke on paper, often for those who might feel that they don’t have a voice or that their voices are not heard. “No Home For Hate Here” “Love is Love” “Dreamers Welcome.” “Happy Columbus Indigenous People’s Day.” Pancakes for Parkinson’s.

Your generation, among the last to be born in the twentieth century, is often accused of being self-involved, narcissistic, and wired to the point of solipsistic cocooning, capable of tapping out only fleet, abbreviated thoughts on small screens (some of you may know that two years ago the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year wasn’t even a word, but rather an emoji—the one that is laughing and crying at the same time). But my experience of you and your cohort, as I’ve come to know you in my teaching and in my life on Grounds and in Charlottesville, is very much otherwise. Vocal, impassioned, risk-taking, you speak, you write, you talk; importantly, you also walk your talk.

The thing about voice is that it is, after all, a matter of relating, of relation. Vocalization is an opportunity for vulnerability, prompting greater fluidity between knowledge boundaries and social borders. And as we know from all aspects of our lives, but perhaps most recently and sharply here in Charlottesville by events on August 11 and 12, 2017, the voice is connected not only to experiences of intimacy, bonding, confirmation, healthy debate, and consolation, but also of disruption, fear, polarization, over-simplification, and threat.

This is why we must pay and pay and pay again attention to our voices and to how we use them. There are 500,000 words in English (and a million if you count highly specialized terms specific to certain fields and disciplines). How are we using those words, even the smallest of them: he, she, they? Many human beings probably get by on a fraction of that 500,000. Last year, Science magazine reported that the average educated 20-year-old knows about 42,000 English words—less than 1/10th of those at our disposal (and as Bill Clinton is reported to have said, that depends upon what you mean by “words.”) I think we must pay attention to what comes out of our mouths and find precise, evocative ways of articulating the complicated forces that roil our times. Are we over-simplifying? Generalizing? Abstracting? Offending? Is there a more nuanced, particular, evocative way to CONSCIOUSLY CHOOSE to say what we need to say? I believe that we must continually practice, learn and re-learn, what is really being communicated when we speak. And when others speak. And we must continually learn when not to speak, when to listen up. When to defend ourselves. When to concede. When to apologize. And also HOW to do so, and with words that come as close as possible, in language, to expressing the complexity and paradoxes of our ideas and our emotions.

There is perhaps no more civil, intrepid, and engaging place to practice this life skill than in the interdisciplinary, open-minded, real-time thrall of a liberal arts university. I’m sure I speak for my colleagues when I say that the privilege of traveling through this vocal landscape with all of you—in laboratories, seminar rooms, in the worlds of your essays, conversations, and creative work—is essential to our remaining relevant to one another and to the subjects that we teach and the lessons we must learn going forward.

In a recent poetry writing writing workshop, for example, rather than saying, in response to another student’s poem, “This offends me,” she went deeper, was more precise, saying, “When I read this I’m uncomfortable because the ending suggests a belief in the after-life, and I don’t believe there is one. Can you help me understand your point of view?” Or consider how often we say things like “That’s awesome” or “have a nice day” or “you’re beautiful.” Once in a while, choose to say more: “You amaze for the ways in which you continually make yourself a student of the universe.”

Our voices put us in the generative space of the shared, the relational; they engage us in a place of self and other, self and world, self and self.

What could be more important?

Knowing that I would be delivering this talk (which I promise is about to conclude), I invited some of my former and current UVA students to complete the sentence beginning “With My Voice.” Here is a cento, created from a selection of their responses. I should add that although these lines came from poets who studied English, their current jobs range from professor to midwife, doctor to lawyer, painter to stock broker:

With My Voice
With my voice, I am heard.
I summon a silence.
With my voice buried in the crook of its wing,
blood hums the orange-gold dark. Light through sealed lids.
With my voice steeped in talcum magnolias, can I speak the red-black of my blood?
With my voice I will not stay,
I will choke out foreign thanks,
I will speak my mind, stand up for others, know myself & my power.
With my voice I escape my body.
With my body I escape my voice.
With my voice I enter the last silences,
as the season siphons air, shines wet and rare as coal.
With my voice, I repeat your name
until it loses and makes all meaning,
lining the way with daisies, conducting infinite blossoming!
With my voice I will resurrect
What I've let lie dormant for this year. Give me your hand;
let's save ourselves the old fashioned way.
With my voice I cut rough wounds--
I raise close chapels to cover, hold, heal.
With my voice in chains I am ablaze.
With my voice: thunder. With my words: raindrop.
With my voice, I gather other voices,
yours, & yours, & yours.
I affirm and undermine myself.
I shape noise with my wish to witness. I vote.
With my voice I encourage, coax, and calm.
With my voice, I wake up. I pray with my ears.


In closing, then, I’d like to suggest that for all of you, dear class of 2019—whether you “become,” or hope to or believe you might become, an accountant, a health care worker, a religious leader, an activist, a librarian, a chef, a doula, a politician, a diplomat, a lawyer, an art historian, a landscaper, a mother or father, a teacher, a spy, a coder, a designer of costumes or websites or roller coasters, a journalist, a chemist, a nuclear engineer, a painter, a “lily of the field,” or even (don’t panic, parents!) a novelist or poet—your real vocation—your calling—is your human voice. Your human voice, in all the myriad ways in which you have and will wield it, is your calling, your “sounded self.”

How lucky we are to explore, expand, and change the territories and border-crossings of our individual voices in community here at the University of Virginia – something that we are reminded of, particularly, today, through this “calling together” afforded by the celebration of Fall Convocation.