A LUMP IN THE THROAT
Winter Commencement, University of Colorado Boulder, 19 December 2015
PRESIDENT BENSON, HONORABLE MEMBERS OF THE BOARD OF REGENTS, CHANCELLOR DISTEFANO, HONORED GUESTS, AND—ABOVE ALL—GRADUATES OF THE UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO BOULDER:
IF I WERE ANYONE but a professor at the University from which you will momentarily receive degrees, this would be a much shorter address. I would simply say Congratulations, graduates!, then compliment you on your accomplishments; briefly reminisce about my long-ago days as an undergraduate, or (if you were lucky) tell a joke instead; offer a hint or two on how you might go about salvaging the world that my own generation has conspicuously screwed up; enjoin you to keep in touch so that we who remain behind will know of your future successes; and close with a subtle hint that when we open the note that brings those glad tidings back to Alma Mater, we will not be in the least offended to discover that you have also enclosed a check. Unfortunately for you, however, I am a professor, well aware that you are still technically students and that this is the last moment you’ll feel obliged to listen to anything a CU faculty member has to say. I have, therefore, prepared remarks that may sound less like a commencement address than a lecture. Sorry. The good news is that I don’t expect you to take notes. The bad news: I haven’t yet decided whether or not to end with a quiz. I trust you brought your clickers.
At some point since you came to CU you probably walked along Norlin Quad past the south front of Old Main. As you did, you might have noticed a handsome bronze figure seated on a stone bench, who seems to be looking up, pen in hand, after having finished writing something. If you paused to look at the text before the figure, you’ll have seen that it is a complete longhand copy of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and so will have realized that the fiftyish man on the bench is Robert Frost. But unless someone had previously told you the story, you cannot have known that this was the favorite poem of Bruce Ekstrand, a psychology professor and vice chancellor for academic affairs (today he’d be called provost), in memory of whom the statue was erected in 1996. Should you pass that statue again before you leave campus, you might stop for a moment and give the old guy’s head a rub, for luck, as many students have over the last two decades. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll try to explain why.
Frost was of course one of the best-loved American poets—and one of the hardest to understand. At least in part this is because he was notoriously cagey about himself and his writing. He described the moment that the statue depicts, for example, as a quite specific instance of inspiration on a June morning in 1922. Frost had been up all night working to complete a volume of verse, “New Hampshire,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in the following year. At dawn, exhausted, he went outside to watch the sun rise and—“as if I’d had a hallucination”—conceived a poem “about the snowy evening and the little horse,” which he tossed off in “a few minutes without strain.” Given the rigor of the poem’s meter and the difficulty of its rhyme scheme, this seems unlikely; indeed, the surviving early versions make clear that it was anything but a casual composition. Like all Frost’s poetry, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was the product of many drafts, and a lot of hard work.
What makes this story even more problematic, however, is that Frost at other times described the poem’s origins in an utterly different way. On separate occasions in the 1940s he confided to his daughter Lesley and to N. Arthur Bleau (a student who attended a reading Frost gave at Bowdoin College in 1947) that it emerged from an emotional crisis he experienced just before Christmas in an unspecified year between 1900 and 1911. Frost and his family were living then on a farm in Derry, New Hampshire. “Times were hard,” he told Bleau, “and Christmas was coming.” He had taken a sleigh-load of produce to town for sale, intending to buy presents for the children, only to find “there was no market for his goods.” He returned at evening with no gifts, defeated and depressed. As he neared home, the snow falling around him, he let the reins go slack; his mare, Eunice, slowed and eventually stopped. Then, he recalled, “I just sat there and bawled like a baby.” Finally Eunice shook her harness. The jangle of sleigh bells jolted him into the realization that he had no choice but “to face his family” and explain that “it would be a poor Christmas.”
Because Frost was such a crafty narrator of his own life, we cannot know which (if either) account most accurately reflects the poem’s beginnings. Something Frost had earlier said in a letter to his editor, however, suggests why he told the story in the two ways he did. “A poem,” he wrote to Louis Untermeyer on New Years’ Day, 1916,
begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought finds the word.
This passage makes it possible to imagine that both stories might actually, in some sense, be true: when Frost stopped between the woods and frozen lake and wept, the lump in his throat arose from a “sense of wrong” that ultimately “found its thought” a decade or more later. When “the thought [found] its word” at last, in June 1922, he captured the meaning of his experience of defeat in a triumphantly memorable way, writing one of the best short poems any American has ever produced.
Now, at the end of your CU careers, it may be worth stopping for a moment to ponder what Frost wrote to Untermeyer a century ago because that passage speaks to something you may well have learned about yourselves in the course of earning your degrees—and also because this ceremony marks a moment when many of your parents, and more than a few of you, may find it hard to swallow, master powerful emotions, and blink back the tears. That’s because it’s not just poems that begin with a lump in the throat; all the important transitions in life do. The births of children, for example; weddings; funerals. That commencements and funerals alike can create a lump in the throat, in other words, is a phenomenon that bears looking into.
What exactly is that feeling? The sense of constriction, the need to swallow thwarted by the difficulty or impossibility of doing so, actually has a scientific name: globus pharyngeus. Medical reference works define it as a feeling that a mass of varying size (which some describe as a too-big vitamin pill, and others as a golf ball) has lodged in the throat somewhere between the Adam’s apple and the sternum. Asked to indicate its location, most people point to the location of the cricoid cartilage, which sits at the top of the trachea. Interestingly enough, that mass of cartilage anchors the cricopharyngeal muscle, which forms a kind of “sling around the esophagus . . . . [and] acts like a sphincter to prevent food from coming back into the mouth after swallowing.” The contraction of the cricopharyngeal muscle, which creates the sensation of a lump, can happen for a variety of reasons, including gastric reflux and pathological conditions with names like Zenker’s Diverticulum and thyroid hypertrophy that you’ll be glad to know I will refrain from describing. But the most common cause of globus pharyngeus is simply emotional stress.
That powerful emotions make it hard to swallow is, as it turns out, pretty interesting. The root cause resides in the autonomic nervous system’s management of stress reactions over which we have no control, like the fight-or-flight reflex. If you round a bend while hiking the Mesa Trail and find yourself facing a mountain lion, you can expect your heart to race, your blood pressure to shoot up, your respiration rate to skyrocket—and your cricopharyngeal muscle to grab your esophagus like there’s no tomorrow. You would not, in all likelihood, reflect on the significance of the lump in your throat at that moment because you’d either be running for your life or preparing to go mano a mano with a beast that has every reason to see you as dinner. But no matter how little you might appreciate it just then, at that moment your cricopharyngeal muscle is your best friend on earth. In tightening up it has not only flattened your esophagus but opened your windpipe to its maximum diameter, allowing you to take in as much air as possible with each breath. In evolutionary terms we owe this highly desirable reaction to those ancestors who managed not to become hors d’oeuvres for sabertooth tigers and cave bears. It’s still with us now, long after the sabertooths and cave bears have vanished, because all profound emotions—including not just fear but love, grief, anger, and joy—are alike in releasing adrenaline and noradrenaline into our bloodstreams and provoking the physiological changes I’ve described. The chemical kinship between what we would ordinarily think of as vastly different emotional states indeed was what C. S. Lewis described in the first paragraph of his remarkable chronicle of bereavement, A Grief Observed: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like Fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. . . . I keep on swallowing.”
So what Frost meant when he said that a poem begins with a lump in the throat was that poem-writing originates in powerful emotional experience, but it doesn’t end there. Writing the poem is the process by which an ineffable, urgent sensation acquires a name and, as it were, an address; that is, it becomes knowable, communicable, and therefore understandable to others. When Frost wrote his letter to Untermeyer in 1916, at age forty, he had experienced many more moments of emotional dislocation than his moment of frustration and self-pity in the winter woods. His father had died when he was eleven and his mother when he was twenty-six; his three year-old son Elliott had died when Frost was thirty, and his one-day old daughter Bettina when he was thirty-three. Those experiences had informed “Home Burial” and other poems Frost had already published. But what for our purposes is most interesting in how he described the transformation of emotion into verse was his suggestion that the process was not entirely under his conscious control. “The emotion finds the thought,” Frost wrote, “and the thought finds the words,” phrases that suggest the poet is something like the channel that an emotional state passes through on its way to becoming something that can be articulated, and understood.
Given what scholars know about how Frost wrote, this suggestion—that he was the channel through which powerful emotions flowed into beautifully ordered, metrically impeccable poems that sound just like ordinary speech but are in fact anything but that—is at least disingenuous, at most absurd. Frost filled notebook after notebook with observations, which he then turned into lines, which he wrote and rewrote until they had acquired a form that satisfied his desire to write in a rigorous meter that somehow evoked mere conversation. Then he grouped those lines into verses, which he ordered and reordered until they communicated precisely the meaning he wanted. What one gets from looking into Frost’s notebooks not at all a sense of emotion flowing through channels of consciousness to find the thought, and the thought flowing through natural channels of language to find the words of the poem’s final form. Rather, if we preserve the hydraulic metaphor, what springs to mind is the image of Frost as a kind of indefatigable ditch-digger excavating irrigation canals, opening each one to the water source and testing whether or not it delivers the water to some crucial part of the field; then filling the ones that don’t do the job, grading the field once again, and starting over—and over, and over—until at length the field is perfectly graded and fully ditched and properly watered. At which point the ditch-digger poet shoulders his spade, walks to the next field, and starts it all again. The process is as exhausting to watch as the result is beautiful to read.
This version of the creative process seems to me both to be true to the way Frost actually wrote and to communicate something that I hope all of you have discovered for—and about—yourselves in the course of earning your degrees. Some of you, I know, have created poetry or stories or works of art that began with powerful emotional experiences that you proceeded, Frost-like, to channel into forms that expressed their meanings as fully and as truly as you could make them. Far larger numbers of you, I dare say, have more mundanely produced research or other projects in your various majors. In all likelihood you began your project with some notion that a topic interested you, and your inquiries in time yielded a question to which you did not know the answer. Perhaps with help from more experienced researchers, you broke that question down into component parts that could be investigated, and in the course of investigating them you accumulated evidence or data that you hoped might somehow prove useful. With growing insight and perhaps excitement you arranged and rearranged the information or data until you could see patterns forming; then you reconsidered your question and revised your project until question and evidence came together as a single whole to form an argument, an explanation. Then you wrote it up, and ideally you didn’t stop until you had made the paper or thesis as clear and complete and definitive as you could. That is: you, like Frost, dug the ditches, let in the water, noted its flow, filled in the ditches that proved unsatisfactory, re-graded the field, and dug anew. And in the end, for you as for Frost, the thought found the word not in some flash of insight, but because you kept working at it until you had made the connection. You simply refused to quit until you got it right.
Unless I miss my guess, you worked as hard as you did not only for the grade you hoped to earn, or the degree you hoped to complete, or the anticipation that the degree would someday lead to gainful employment. Rather, I suspect, what kept you going was that you found satisfaction in the work you were doing, and so kept on at it—a little blindly at first, more confidently as you progressed—until you were satisfied that you had done the best job you could. And that sense of satisfaction, in the end, was what made the work you did worthwhile.
Thus, to state the obvious, the robes and mortarboards and cords and medals you wear this morning, and the even the diplomas that you will receive just as soon as the registrar certifies that you’ve passed this final term’s courses and the bursar determines that you’ve paid your last fine or fee: all these symbols are not, in fact, what matters about this moment. More important by far is that you have learned how to practice the disciplines you have studied here; that you have found it in yourselves to work hard at projects within those disciplines; and that you did this hard work, in the end, because it was your work, something in the completion of which you found a satisfaction that was its own reward.
And if at this moment many of your parents, and perhaps even a few of the learned colleagues on the platform behind me, are swallowing a little harder than usual, it may well be because they remember what it was like, once upon a time, to be where you are right now. That is: they remember making the transition from being learners who simply did what their teachers asked of them to being independent thinkers and actors. They recall reaching that time of life when they first asked questions to which they did know any answer could be found, or imagined original works of art, or set out to attain goals that they were not sure they could reach. They remember the time when they began to sense in themselves the capacity to accomplish tasks they set for themselves. In short, they remember becoming what you at this moment have become: educated men and women who can assemble evidence into conclusive arguments, who can work and rework envisioned projects until they became objects of beauty, who can plot the steps and execute the procedures necessary to achieve goals that you define for yourselves. For if we your teachers have done our jobs and you our students have done yours, you have indeed become people who can make a beginning with nothing more than a lump in the throat and persevere until you have created something of value.
And so I’ll leave you with a poem, not by Robert Frost, but by Thomas Lux, “An Horatian Notion.” It says, more eloquently than I ever could, what I’ve been driving at this morning: that it is the love of doing that makes our work something more consequential than just the way we get our livings.
The thing gets made, gets built, and you’re the slave
who rolls the log beneath the block, then another,
then pushes the block, then pulls a log
from the rear back to the front
gain, and then again it goes beneath the block,
and so on. It’s how a thing gets made–not
because you’re sensitive, or you get genetic-lucky,
or God says: Here’s a nice family,
seven children, let’s see: this one in charge
of the village dunghill, these two die of buboes, this one
Kierkegaard, this one a drooling
nincompoop, this one clerk, this one cooper.
You need to love the thing you do – birdhouse building,
painting tulips exclusively, whatever – and then
you do it
so consciously driven
by your unconscious
that the thing becomes a wedge
that splits a stone and between the halves
the wedge then grows, i.e., the thing
is solid but with a soul,
a life of its own. Inspiration, the donnée,
the gift, the bolt of fire
down the arm that makes the art?
Grow up! Give me, please, a break!
You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.
And with that your heart like a tent-peg pounded
toward the earth’s core.
And with that your heart on beam burns
through the ionosphere.
And with that you go to work.
(From Split Horizon, 1994)
For the complete speech with footnotes, please click here.