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March 3, 2016

Honors Convocation 2016

“Do you think a poem is more like an animal or a machine?”

The question, posed by a poet, presented an apt and evocative challenge during Pitt’s Year of Humanities.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher; Senior Vice Chancellor, Health Sciences and School of Medicine Dean Arthur S. Levine; and Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner listen as Terrance Hayes addresses Pitt’s 2016 honors convocation Feb. 26.

Pitt alumnus Terrance Hayes, an English faculty member and head of Pitt’s new Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, argued for the animate aspects of language over its machinelike perfection in his keynote address at the University’s 40th annual honors convocation at the Carnegie Music Hall.

“There’s a great deal of validity in striving for perfect language. Perfect language promises order for the day and for the universe,” Hayes said.

“It promises logic and clarity and moreover it’s biblical: It promises creation: ‘In the beginning was the word,’ we’re told in the Bible. Parenthetically, we’re also told the word was made flesh — not a machine.”

“We all would like to tie down language, fix it precisely to the page, make it do our own will. But maybe we need to see that wrestling with language means that it’s alive,” said Hayes.

“Language is an animal: The words are akin to cells and teeth and bones. It has to be alive, fighting, if we are going to tame it.”

Hayes, who earned a master of fine arts in poetry at Pitt in 1997 and joined the faculty here in 2013, was awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts in recognition of eminence and distinguished service in the field of poetry and poetics at the Feb. 26 honors convocation.

He has authored five collections of poetry, the most recent of which, “How To Be Drawn,” was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Among many honors, Hayes received a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “genius grant,” and last month won the NAACP Image Award for outstanding literary work in poetry.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher acknowledged Hayes’ unflinching exploration of race in his writing.

“He’s the only modern author that I know of who has written a sobering poem about race that echoes the style of Dr. Seuss; produced a series of poems packaged within a police crime report and written a piece that somehow manages to blur the lines between the rapper Tupac and a prayer,” Gallagher said.

“His words are resonating. The world is listening to what he has to say,” the chancellor said, expressing gratitude for Hayes’ decision to teach students here. “He has a microphone to his lips, a megaphone that many other authors would envy and yet here he is, dedicated to help other aspiring black voices to step forward and be heard and make a difference.”

Why can’t language be both animal and machine? Hayes challenged. “But I want you to choose a side: Maybe it’s an animal inside a machine like Robocop or maybe it’s a machine inside an animal, like Steve Austin,” TV’s Six Million Dollar Man.

For those who believe language is a machine, “I guess there’s hope for you,” he said. “You are, let’s say, Thomas Edison, tinkering with an old light bulb to make it burn brighter and longer.”

Language leaps and provokes, Hayes said. “Sometimes it obeys us. Every now and then we say exactly what we mean.

“Yes, language can be tamed. Taught not to piss on the carpet. Taught to roll over. But it has a self of its own. A self, born of etymology, context and conjecture.

“Language is an animal that’s far from perfect, far from being perfected or mastered.”

And yet, to be educated one is expected to possess a mastery of language, a capacity to communicate.

“I am not a master of poetry. I am not a doctor of poetry. I am an eager, bewildered student of poetry,” he said.

“Maybe every degree should be honorary,” Hayes posited, “as in your fight with language, whatever your language is — the language of math, language of science, language of basket weaving — whatever your fight with language is, even when you lose it, it is an honorable fight,” he said.

“I think we all know the consequences of trying to master something or someone that lives. Language is a beast. A sphinx. A chimera, alive with a mysterious dream of its own,” he said.

“Language is another word for knowledge. It grows, morphs and often skedaddles as we struggle to hold it.

“The pursuit of something that cannot be held or mastered is not unlike the pursuit of happiness.

“Let us honor the pursuit, not the mastery, of language. Let us set out after the beast and honor the constant, beautiful, impossible promise of pursuit.”

— Kimberly K. Barlow 

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