Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon provided the annual Founders Day address at Centre College on Jan. 20, 2016, in Newlin Hall of the Norton Center for the Arts. As part of the ceremony, the College awarded Lyon the honorary degree Doctor of Humane Letters.
A native of Harlan County, Ky., and a 1971 Centre graduate, Lyon’s highly acclaimed work is often rooted in Appalachia and speaks to a broad audience. She has written four books of poetry, a novel, a memoir and a short story collection, as well as nearly 40 books for young readers. Her honors include an Al Smith Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nomination and a feature in the PBS series The United States of Poetry.
A Meditation on Vocation
Whether you have one semester or three-and-a-half years left at Centre, sooner or later you’ll realize you’re coming to the top of the escalator that has carried you pretty much all your life, and now you are going to have to get off and walk. Where will you go? What will you do? How will you decide?
You will have many voices and emotions making suggestions, guiding, cajoling, perhaps insisting: family expectations, financial considerations and your field of study. You may be in love. You may be in shock. Whatever your state, I want to offer some thoughts to go into the mix.
First, that notion of plan.
Years ago I was speaking at a school in Louisville and saw these words on the door to the music room: “Be Flexible. Make Great Mistakes. Life Is Movement!”
Whatever your plan is, it’s liable to fall apart if there’s no flexibility. Sometimes your road may seem more detour than route. And the GPS coordinates you began with may have you heading down a boat ramp.
Mistakes are how we learn. We find out what works by trying out what doesn’t. Our flexibility allows us to turn around, to focus on the larger plan, which doesn’t want us to drive on into the lake. If you stay close to your purpose—the heart inside what you set out to do—your plan can grow and change as you do.
But how do you know what that purpose is?
This is where vocation comes in. Ideally your plan flows from your calling. But how do you find that? You do it by identifying your gift. I believe each of us brings something unique to the world.
So the questions to ask yourself are: “What is my gift? How can I give it and support myself? What do I require to give it most fully?”
In our middle school and adolescent years—addled essence, I call it—we are usually trying to be anybody but our uncool selves: a hero, an actor, a character, our best friend—anybody who might relieve us of the burden of our uncomfortable identity.
But as poet William Stafford says, the only authentic choice we have is to be ourselves. All the other jobs are taken. At the center of our self is our gift. I believe we find it by discovering and exploring what we love, which is a large part of what your four years here are about.
St. Teresa of Avila said, “Do what most kindles love in you.”
What? How could that be right? Surely if it makes us happy, we should do something else! Aren’t we supposed to suffer?
Suffering comes with the territory, whatever you choose to do. Better to suffer doing what calls out your deepest self and shines the light that only you carry. The path thus illuminated may be zigzag, but it will be yours.
To illustrate this, I’d like to share some of my journey. It makes more sense to me now than it did at certain points along the way—particularly in that hidden part of the map called lost—and I hope you will find that reassuring.
I came to Centre in the late ’60s—1967. Now I’m back in my late 60s—almost 67. I finished my senior year and set off to make a life as a poet. Now I’m another kind of “senior” coming to speak to you as poet laureate. Pretty funny!
Before I went to kindergarten, I wanted to be a neon-sign maker. But when I went to school my ambition began shifting. I wanted to be a tightrope walker, then an astronaut, a veterinarian, a zookeeper and eventually a folksinger. All of those dreams I carried into my becoming, just as you carry yours. For instance, I don’t bend glass tubes to hold neon gas, but I still want to make words that glow. I didn’t become a zookeeper, but I did marry a “Lyon.”
My husband Steve and I met in music classes, and he has supported my writing just as I’ve supported his music ever since.
I only agreed to come to Centre to placate my parents who didn’t want me to go directly from Harlan, Ky., my hometown, to Greenwich Village, where my plan was to sing alongside Bob Dylan at The Bitter End.
For my parents’ sake, I would attend Columbia University, too, on the side. The deal was that if, after one year here, I still wanted to head for New York, we would talk about it.
However, just as they hoped, I fell in love with Centre: classes, professors, friends. For starters, I had a great roommate, Kristan Lenning.
In October of freshman year, I wrote home: “Fine Arts is still my favorite course. I love every minute of it. All the people in the department are just great. Dr. Cantrell reads poetry till it hangs in the air and nobody moves. Did I tell you that on Monday he played one of the few records in existence of Wm. B. Yeats reading his own poetry? He played it without saying who it was and then read us one of Ferlinghetti’s poems that gives reference to him. We were already spellbound by Yeats’ voice and very quietly Dr. Cantrell said, ‘Listen again,’ and he played the passage: ‘If you have any sense of the gone-ness of life, what I’m about to say is sure to give you a chill.’ That was the voice of William Butler Yeats.”
I’d fallen into an undreamed-of richness, and found folks who were as besotted with language as I was and eager to open door upon door. While I took guitar and voice lessons, and sang with other folkies under the trees, and as time went on, I focused more and more on writing poetry. I began working on the literary magazine, Vantage Point.
It was working on the magazine that I met Professor Roberta White, who took me under her wing in an extraordinary fashion. Not only did she read and comment on poems I gave her, she suggested I apply to a writer’s conference in Oklahoma and then spent her vacation driving me there and back. Why would a person be that generous?
I can’t answer that, but the fact that she took my work seriously, helped me do the same. Along with an independent study with Dr. Cantrell, it gave me strength and clarity when I came to that senior reckoning: What am I going to do with my life? I would be a poet. And, since that was income-free, I would go to graduate school, study poetry-writing and prepare myself to teach. That was my plan.
I sort of did it, too, though all the writing programs I applied to rejected me, except Indiana University, and I had to get an M.A. elsewhere before I could have a teaching fellowship there. But my detour to the University of Arkansas put me at IU at the right time to study with Ruth Stone, who was the next teacher to change my life.
Ruth listened to your poems as if her life depended on them. Studying with Ruth, I discovered that I’d been trying to write like a man—and not just a man, but a man from somewhere besides the mountains of Kentucky. Folk music might come from there, but poetry? Surely not. Never mind that I’d been writing down my grandmother’s stories and sayings for years—tales of Honey-Eatin’ Richard and Pie-Belly Miracle, statements like “I feel like a stewed witch.” Ruth welcomed these stories to the poetry table. My writing possibilities grew exponentially.
However, IU set me on another detour. Because I already had an M.A., I had to get a Ph.D. as my ticket to the teaching fellowship and the poetry seminar. A pretty big detour! However, without it, I might never have found my way to that great boundary-breaking writer, Virginia Woolf.
I’d read Woolf at Centre, of course, but it was only in the deeper study and research for my dissertation that I discovered this word-mother I was looking for. I’ve been reading and writing about Woolf ever since.
Not academically—here’s another zigzag. After I secured that Ph.D. I could not get a job. I had credentials, teaching experience, I cleaned up pretty well and could navigate an interview, but despite three years actively on the job market—while teaching part time and doing my share of child care (I had a baby while writing my dissertation on “The Problem of the Body”—life has such a sense of humor)—I never got an offer. What was wrong with me?
Here’s a fake application letter I wrote during that time to another great writer-mentor, Gurney Norman. Gurney invited me into the community of Appalachian writers and introduced me to another branch of my tribe.
October 21, 1981
Dear Professional Norman,
I wood like to apply myself for the creative, etc., writing position which I saw advertised on a phone pole by [the bar] High on Rose. (I was not.)
I have a Ph.D. in Anguish from Indiana Universe City but no hood and no gown. One of those hats, I don’t want. Should you hire me, we will have to talk about the hat. Or do they march in your department?
You must know Pro. Norman just the worth of words. I have them. They have me. They bite, I nibble. They get hungry. I feed them. Late mornings, they take me out for a walk. They are my credentials. Victuals also. All they do not do is make money. Their gold goes in the air, their vein is deep and loud with blood. Their four I must make this mistake…
In clothes you will find a vita. I have revised it many times. Gains and losses do not show because this is a clean copy. Even its toenails.
Very truly yours,
I did not Xerox that letter [a slide as part of the talk] crooked on purpose. The crookedness crept in on its own, just as a secret watermark in my job-application letters must have said “DO NOT HIRE THIS WOMAN. SHE IS SUPPOSED TO BE DOING SOMETHING ELSE.” What I thought was my failure was my guardian angel steering me in another direction.
Some of those directions seemed way off course. I edited papers for doctors; I wrote the newsletter for the Rational Behavior Therapy Center, including a column as a dog called Rational Ralph; I even wrote limericks about irritable bowels for a drug company, which shows just how odd odd-jobs can get. I wrote grants, worked as a secretary—I was hopeless; they were kind—and then, shortly after that letter to Gurney, I won a poetry competition for Mountain.
I’d been submitting books for 11 years, but suddenly people saw me as a writer. On the heels of that breakthrough, I had poems accepted in an anthology for high school students, and the editor wrote to ask where I got such a strange name. I wrote back and he liked my letter, so he shared it with his editor, Dick Jackson, who then wrote to ask whether I wrote for children. I replied, “No, but hold on. I’ll try.”
Thus another great friend and teacher came into my life, bringing with him work I love which has done its part to support us for over 30 years. I was able to quit my part-time temporary status and teach as a visiting author, conference speaker and workshop leader. Still no benefits, but no papers to grade either! And more writing time, even with the travel.
Fast forward 17 years. It’s 2001 and we have a second son, now 14. We decide to go to England en route to visiting friends who have moved to Italy. If we’re going to England, I think, why not go to Cornwall, where Virginia Woolf spent her childhood summers?
And if we’re going to Cornwall, why not stay in Talland House, now a hotel, which was her family’s summer home till she was 13? And if we’re going to stay in Talland House, why not stay in the nursery?
I’ll tell you why not. For a certain type of person, i.e. me, it is going to be haunted.
Our last night, I asked for a dream of Woolf. What I got didn’t make sense to me then:
I’m in a clearing in the woods, cooking over a campfire. I’m toasting two pastries—one savory, one sweet—wrapped on iron rods. A tall, thin older woman comes out of the shadows and kneels beside me. “I’m hungry,” she says. I share the pastries with her when they’re done.
“What’s your plan?” she asks.
Plan? Why would Woolf ask such an exasperating question? And who cooks pastries over fires?
The answer to the second query came in a teacher workshop I gave a couple of years later. An Australian woman wrote about just such a campfire treat she had learned to cook in Girl Guides. “Very British,” she said. This gave me a chill, along with a laugh at the incongruous notion of Virginia Woolf at a camp for Girl Guides.
But Woolf had been my guide for years. And I had invited guidance in courting the dream. And we were both former girls, so there you are.
In a recent interview in The Writer’s Chronicle, National Book Award winner Nikky Finney told of her first poetry workshop with Toni Cade Bambara. In response to Finney’s initial poem, Bambara said, “That’s pretty. Is that what you want to do—write pretty poems? What’s your plan?”
Finney then reflects on the importance of this question in her formation as a writer. She says: “You must be taken with yourself to do anything well in this life—anything. I’m talking about looking at yourself in the mirror and understanding that you have come here to do something.
To be taken with yourself is to say: I have come to do this. I am here to do this well.”
Finney’s words, like Woolf’s question, urge us to wake up, to live consciously so as to make our life’s work as meaningful as possible. Note that Finney isn’t talking about writing only. She says “you must be taken with yourself to do anything well in this life.” You must continually articulate your intention and stay open to what life offers. Don’t lose sight of your gift, and be flexible about ways you might give it. I never set out to write for children, but doing so has enriched my life immeasurably and been the closest thing my poetry has to a patron.
To honor your gift, you have to stay in touch with your inner self, the part that knows what matters to you most.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove says, “I would like to remind people that we have an interior life—even if we often don’t talk about it, because it’s not expedient, because it’s not cool, because it’s potentially embarrassing—and without that interior life, we are shells, we are nothing.”
It’s when we lose that awareness that we get really lost. Dutch writer and priest Henri Nouwen writes: “When the deepest currents of our life no longer have any influence on the waves at the surface, then our vitality will eventually ebb, and we will end up listless and bored even when we are busy.”
Whatever your plan, I’m sure that “listless, bored and busy” is not in it. Ask yourself: what gives me the most joy? What makes me feel most alive? What catches my imagination and heart? Once you’ve got that clear, your compass is in your hand. Then, as poet Elinor Wilner says, “Go be unstoppable.”