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Graduation Poetry

Graduation is one of those times during the year when poetry suddenly abounds. Speakers dissect words of wisdom from famous poems, borrowing advice in couplet form from those who can say it better. The retrospective nature of poetry lends itself to this occasion- the ceremony marking the end of so many things, and the opening of new paths and opportunities. Not only useful for the commencement address, poem snippets are a popular choice for messages within graduation cards. A line from Frost or Longfellow will stick longer in someone's mind than the usual "good job/good luck" platitudes.

Most popular graduation poems involve advice. During this time, graduates become quite used to being pulled aside- by mentors, family members, strangers- and told what exactly is ahead of them, and what they should do to achieve their goals. They receive enough of this advice to make their heads spin. Phrasing the advice poetically, sometimes with a little rhyme and meter, may ensure it doesn't leave their heads completely.

Rudyard Kipling's "If-" is a practical guide to living one's life. The poem rocks back and forth, balancing between extremes:

If you can dream--and not make dreams your master;
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

"If-" preaches moderation, presenting many examples. The sheer amount of examples shows just how difficult living a perfectly balanced life can be. If, however, the reader follows these exhortations, then "Yours is the Earth, and everything that's in it".

The poem "Up-Hill" by Christina Rossetti reads in question-answer format. The questions are allegories for life and its challenges and difficulties.

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.

Though Rossetti's poem does not sugar-coat the truth, it also offers hope based on merit:

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

Though practical advice is important, graduates must also be encouraged not to forget their hopes and dreams. Langston Hughes exhorts readers to "hold fast to dreams". In a slightly less orthodox manner, the poem "Be Drunk" by Charles Baudelaire urges just that:

So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.

Whatever advice you wish to give your graduates, whether traditional or modern, rhymed or free verse, you have many respected poets to choose from. Or if you simply can't find exactly what you're looking for, try your hand at writing it yourself! Words from the heart will not miss their mark.

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Content copyright © 2013 by Jessica Smith. All rights reserved.
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