Ask Yourself the Best Questions

On May 13, 2023, Traci Brimhall, Professor of English and Poet Laureate of Kansas, provided the commencement address for the College of Arts and Sciences at Kansas State University. Below is the text of her speech. Many thanks to Traci for allowing us to share it here. (You can view her presentation through the university’s archived video at 22:00.)

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

These may sound like questions a child might ask their parent, but they’re also the first lines to the poem “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. 

Whenever I travel and meet a stranger who asks what I do, I often answer with half a truth and say I’m a teacher. It’s the half of the truth that’s easier to talk about the joys of learning, the luck of such a wonderful job. I don’t want to tell people I’m a poet because then they grow afraid of me or at least deeply uncomfortable. They look for the nearest exit, worried I’ll recite something. They think poems are cryptic riddles they need to answer, little puzzle boxes they need to be a wizard or genius to take apart. They think they need to know that Robert Frost saw two paths in the woods and turned left, and then turn that answer into an essay on the importance of turning left. But I promise you, poems don’t have a single answer anyway. What they’re best at are, like Mary Oliver’s poem, making us consider a question.

You’ve all gathered here today to celebrate a momentous achievement. You’ve spent hours in the library; weeks and months in classrooms and labs; years navigating between one limestone building to the next. Teachers and lessons have helped shape your minds, friendships and experiences have helped shape your heart. For moments like these where we celebrate and honor an accomplishment like graduation, we try to share our best advice, which we often think of as imperative statements — Wear sunscreen. Take your vitamins. Be kind. Do one thing every day that scares you. And please do those things. Take care of your skin and take those vitamins. Be kind to others AND yourself. Be fearless.

But I think some of the best advice on how to live is to ask yourself the best questions.

Scientist and vaccine creator Jonas Salk said “What people think of as the moment of discovery is the discovery of the question,” and this is what has always united both the arts and the sciences — standing with one foot in the known and one foot in the unknown, seeking the next question. This is also what makes a life.

It is mysterious to me that I am standing in front of you today to try and offer advice for the future. This wasn’t part of the plan for my life. Very little of my life today would be recognizable to the me of 20 years ago who was graduating college. I got a job in the arts, had a house, the same relationship since high school, and a cute dog. I checked all the boxes. My life looked so good on paper, and if Instagram had existed back then, it would’ve looked to some people like I had it all. 

The philosopher Soren Kirkegaard said: “The most common form of despair is not being who you are,” and I felt that common despair, that mismatch between the life I was living and who I felt I was. For younger me, I got to a point where the risk of staying trapped in a life I thought I wanted was greater than the risk of leaving it. 

I had to ask myself :

What dreams for my life do I need to trust? 

What places do I need to go?

What things do I need to try? 

And I’m still asking myself those questions twenty years later. 

I found one of the great sources of good questions was poetry. When I was in the first draft of my adult life, someone I worked with kept leaving me books of poems in my mailbox, and I’d read them over and over as I fell back in love with the world. I could feel my curiosity come back; my wonder; my ability, like Mary Oliver’s, to kneel in the grass and pay attention to the grasshopper resting on my hand, snapping her wings open before floating away. 

Those books of poetry in my mailbox are when I discovered the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who said in his Letters to a Young Poet: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

That’s the advice I offer you today: Be patient toward the unsolved things in your heart. Don’t tolerate the unknowns embrace them. Stay curious. Ask good questions, the way Mary Oliver does at the end of her poem without seeking any answers:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do 

With your one wild and precious life?

Traci Brimhall, Professor

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