Return to the Arts

Kevin Rabas, Poet Laureate of Kansas (2017-2019)

On December 9, 2017, Kevin Rabas (M.A. ’98) provided the commencement address for the College of Arts and Sciences at Kansas State University. Below is the text of his speech. Many thanks to Kevin for allowing us to share it here. (You can view his presentation through the university’s archived video as of 22:40.)


Hello, and congratulations.

When I was asked to give this brief speech, I thought long about what I wanted to say. And I decided I wanted to say something about the arts in each person’s life, regardless of major, regardless of your calling or job. I wanted to say something about the extraordinary nestled in the ordinary, about the arts in all of our lives.

I’m going to start with a quote about the joys of participating in the arts. About doing ordinary artistic things. Things we all can continue to do.

Go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something”  ― wrote Kurt Vonnegut Jr., in A Man Without a Country.

I’m here to encourage you to appreciate and participate in the arts again.

Maybe you played saxophone in high school, but gave it up when you came to college. No time. Or you danced or cheered in HS, but didn’t try out, when you came here. No time. Or you used to play guitar at parties or fireside, but put it down and picked up a red Solo cup. Or you used to draw Valentine’s and Christmas cards for your friends and family members, but you put your paints and colored pens away. No time. Or you used to write poems and long letters, freehand to your friends, but took to reading thick books and writing only essays, when you came here. No time.

You now have time. Actually, you might have always had the time, but it’s tricky to make time, to juggle the arts and schoolwork. I know. I’ve been there. I’m still there. I stayed with school, and teaching is not so very different from learning. Instead of writing the essays, I’m grading them. Instead of just reading the book, I’m reading it and composing discussion questions. I stay up late cramming, still. But I love it. And when I get tired of grading, a little worn down, I write on my own. A poem. A scrap for a story. I read a little bit for pleasure. Then, I get back to grading those papers, renewed, reaffirmed in why I’m grading them. Because I love the literature behind them. And I love that you, writing that paper, may be thinking on paper towards your own novel, through that essay you’re writing. You’re figuring it out. I digress.

But in all of that reading and writing, whether it be for biology or chemistry or architecture or engineering or art history, you’re learning something. About science, the humanities, the arts, and culture. And one day, you’ll apply it. And that process is an art.

But don’t lose sight of the things that used to sustain you. Bring out that guitar, once in a while and create a new song. Or play an old one. Yours or someone else’s. Dance to the radio or your MP3, late at night, when no one’s looking. And when it comes to taking a break with art, know you’re not alone. When Einstein was stuck on a problem, the math escaping him, he’d take out his violin. He’d take a break. He’d do something he loved to quiet his mind for a while. Or keep it running.

So, I encourage you to return to the arts. Or keep the arts in your life going. Go do something artistic today. And also do something artistic tomorrow. Do it for yourself; do it for your artistic soul. Learn a song you like on guitar. Color in between some lines. Or color outside the lines. Draw or write or put some musical notes along the program margins. Go dance with your friends. Memorize a line from your favorite movie and recite it at just the right time. Take some photos or videos with your phone. Text someone a poem. Go have some fun. And remember that the arts are always a part of you. Get out and create something each day.

Kevin Rabas, M.F.A., Ph.D.
Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2017-2019
K-State M.A. (’98)

Kevin Rabas, Poet Laureate of Kansas, teaches at Emporia State University where he chairs the Department of English, Modern Languages, and Journalism and leads the poetry and playwriting tracks. Rabas received the College of Arts and Sciences Alumni Merit Award in October 2017.

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