Campus & Community

Sobering poems, more sobering oration mark PBK

5 min read

Goldbarth reads, Engell speaks

Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) chapter first met in 1781, two years before the end of the Revolutionary War.

Late Tuesday morning (June 2), in the shade of trees outside of Harvard Hall, this year’s recipients joined centuries of history. They gathered for the traditional fife-and-drum procession to Sanders Theatre and the PBK Literary Exercises, first held in 1782.

“All the tradition of Commencement,” said Vivek Viswanathan ’09, “is what makes it memorable.”

Just after 11 a.m., with bells tolling at the Memorial Church nearby, seniors settled into Sanders Theatre to watch the sedate Harvard tradition unfold. Joining them were about a thousand well-wishers, including President Drew Faust.

At the heart of the PBK ceremony are two addresses. One is by a poet, who reads a work written just for the occasion. The other is by an “orator” invited to offer a timely discourse.

Guest poets from the past include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens. Among the guest orators have been John Quincy Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

This year’s Phi Beta Kappa poet was Albert Goldbarth, the Adele M. Davis Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Wichita State University.

The orator was James Engell, Harvard’s Gurney Professor of English Literature and professor of comparative literature.

Howard Georgi, president of the chapter and Harvard’s Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, moderated the 100-minute ceremony.

Delivering both the invocation and the benediction was the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church.

Goldbarth, a widely anthologized essayist and poet, is the author of more than 40 books and chapbooks, including — most recently — “To Be Read in 500 Years” (Graywolf Press, 2009).

He read two poems: “Voyage,” published last year, and “Days with the Family Realist,” written for the Literary Exercises.

“Voyage” is an homage to a young Charles Darwin, traveling aboard the HMS Beagle — a curious, relentless, and brave observer who seized the natural world with “the gale force of his zeals.”

But the sea brings Darwin down to size, a man whose seasickness was “his ocean-going frailty,” wrote Goldbarth.

That picture of anxiety extends “to my friends in their various sleeplessness,” he wrote — stand-ins for “… every one of us awake/ all night in a private hell on Her Majesty’s Ship Insomnia.”

But in the end Darwin awakes optimistic “when the bed has reached/ the shore of another morning… He says: Get up, go out./ Go out and see what’s new today with the species.”

With his second poem, Goldbarth offers a grittier view of the coming world — “just to put the brakes on that optimistic enthusiasm,” he told the seniors. The brief work begins:

A doorknob on a chicken/ my grandmother said once, meaning/ useless, stupid. Most of us,/ most of the time, are that/ exactly. …

Engell’s erudite oration offset Goldbarth’s evocation of the youthful Darwin’s loving amazement with the natural world, putting the brakes on enthusiasm.

He drew a picture of humankind that is, 170 years after Darwin’s voyage, racing to abuse, deplete, and threaten nature.

“We are living,” he said, “a giant Ponzi scheme played upon Nature and Earth. …We’ve entered an unprecedented era, and it will last.”

Needed are “tectonic shifts” in habit, learning, and ethos, said Engell, a faculty associate at the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

Our daily habits — for all that “we buy, build, and own,” said Engell — can’t be sustained. These old ways — “billions of daily habits thrown together,” he said — exert an insidious force stripping the Earth of its riches.

New learning is needed too, said Engell, wishing that Harvard’s new General Education requirements included instruction in the environment. After all, he said, “it’s utilitarian, it’s relevant, [and] it’s idealistic.”

Harvard’s Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Ann Blair — the PBK chapter’s president-elect — announced the traditional PBK teaching prizes, an honor based every year on student nominations.

Recognized were Joseph K. Blitzstein, an assistant professor of statistics; Daniel Donoghue, John P. Marquand Professor of English; and Jeffrey Hamburger, Kuno Francke Professor of German Art and Culture.

Everett Mendelsohn, professor of the history of science emeritus, introduced this year’s five honorary chapter members, including poet Goldbarth.

The others: Episcopal bishop Frank Tracy Griswold III ’59; history of science scholar and college administrator Jane Jervis ’59; law professor Roberta S. Karmel ’59; and Ralph Mitchell, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Biology, who retires this year after 43 years at Harvard.

Two gorgeous musical interludes — anthems by Gustav Holst and Sergei Rachmaninoff — were performed by the Commencement Choir, conducted by Jameson Marvin, Harvard’s director of choral activities.

The choir led in singing the “College Hymn,” too, joined by the crowd. It was a send-off for Harvard’s latest PBK scholars: “Farewell! be thy destinies onward and bright!”