University of Vermont

Academic Ceremonies - Commencement

Opening Reflection - David Huddle - Professor of English

Opening Reflection
David Huddle, Professor of English

david huddle

 Screech Owl
     by Ted Kooser

All night each reedy whinny
from a bird no bigger than a heart
flies out of a tall black pine
and, in a breath, is taken away
by the stars.  Yet, with small hope
from the center of darkness
it calls out again and again.

I haven’t tried to memorize a poem since I was in high school, but if I ever have to do it again, this is the one I’d try first.  Ted Kooser’s “Screech Owl” has made its way out into the world without the rhyme and meter that help us memorize poetry, but each of its lines is solid and memorable.  Also, it’s only seven lines long--a little less than half a sonnet.  I never read it aloud without being moved by it.  It makes a quiet and plain-spoken sound.  It’s a lullaby for grown-ups.  It’s one of the darkest songs of hope we’ll ever hear--and therefore the hope it offers is all the more valuable.  It’s a song of courage.  It speaks to and for all us living creatures whose lives are so absurdly tiny and insignificant in the great looming blackness of our galaxy. 

In my teaching, I’ve read “Screech Owl” aloud maybe a couple of hundred times now, but I’ll read it again for you now and hope maybe this will be the time when its seven lines take up permanent residence in my brain, and I won’t even need a written text the next time I want to pass it along to someone. 

Screech Owl
     by Ted Kooser

All night each reedy whinny
from a bird no bigger than a heart
flies out of a tall black pine
and, in a breath, is taken away
by the stars.  Yet, with small hope
from the center of darkness
it calls out again and again.

And now speaking of memorizing poems, I want to tell you about a student I had some years ago--I know at least one of you here who knows her pretty well.  Charity Clark.  A Vermonter and an outstanding student here at the UVM.  In the final class of the semester, I often invite students to bring something they’d like to read aloud for our goodbye occasion.  Sometimes students read their own poems, sometimes they bring poems they’ve found that they’d like to share, sometimes they forget to bring anything, or they just don’t want to do it at all and say so, which is fine.  I tell them silence is the basic ingredient of poetry.  On this particular day--a sunny early springtime afternoon--we’d taken our turns with reading almost all the way around the table when we came to Charity.  And she said, “I didn’t bring anything to read, but I think I remember this poem from high school.  If you don’t mind, I’ll try to say it.”  She straightened herself in her chair and gathered herself and recited clearly and with feeling Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  It was one of the most transcendent experiences I’ve ever had in a classroom, such a dear few minutes to me that I’ve recently written about it in a poem of my own.  So I’m going to read you what I’ve written.  It’s a single piece of writing, but it’s a trio--Robert Frost and Charity Clark and I are all three speaking to you here: 

Once in a last class

my student Charity
Clarke recited from
memory Robert Frost’s
“Stopping by Woods
on a Snowy Evening”--

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near

in that twangy accent
she’d brought down
from St. Johnsbury.

Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

Springtime sunlight
filled our windows,

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.

we’d reached the end
of our work, but for those
minutes we did not want

The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Charity ever
to stop saying the poem.

Thank you.

Last modified May 25 2009 08:56 AM

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