Poetry professor Gerald P. Costanzo of Carnegie Mellon University

Poetry professor Gerald P. Costanzo of Carnegie Mellon University

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gerald P. Costanzo moved his poetry class online March 10 because of coronavirus. As the semester ended, he wanted to leave his students with “something more substantial than goodbye.” We share his farewell with permission, and with our best wishes to all who are graduating in these uncertain times. 

Here’s what will happen. In three months or six months or a year. Or in two years or three years, what we are living through now will be over, and you will be changed forever — as I will. What will amaze you is that no one who is born after it ends — and I’m talking about your children —  will have any understanding, emotionally or intellectually, of what it was.

Poetry can do many things. But I’m not sure it can account for or articulate adequately what has happened to us. And you will be disappointed by the limits of human communication — especially as these apply to the ones you love. But you will know because you have experienced some of the worst that can happen to us.

Read Roy Peter Clark’s commencement letter to the 2020 class at Providence College here. This year’s graduates will also be saluted in virtual celebrations by Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James and a cast of other luminaries, including former President Barack Obama, Friday and Saturday.

Whatever this life is, as the poets we’ve studied have told us, we are firmly in its midst. It is what we decide and imagine it is. And you are like me — and I wish there were so many more like you than there are in this country — that is, you want to be more than what or who you are. Whatever you accomplish, you will want to accomplish more. I told you during class on Tuesday that many around you will be so traumatized by this that they will have a difficult time surviving. I’m talking not about the virus, but its impact and its aftermath. And some will not survive. Dr. Lorna Breen of New York — who must have been precisely the kind of doctor you and I would have wanted had we needed care — taking her own life in the face of this horror.

You will live, and I’m asking you to be an aid and a comfort to those who have difficulty doing so. No matter what you learn during the rest of your years at Carnegie Mellon, or in graduate school, or from your occupation, please remember this: life is a mystery to be lived; not a problem to be solved.

As I’ve mentioned before, because of the requirements of my teaching schedule in the English department, this is the final time I will be teaching this course. So, of course, I was hoping this day — and this minute — would never come. It has been an honor to have spent this semester with you, even in the ways we were and were not together. For me, in addition to what we have achieved, it has been so much fun.

Originally from Portland, Oregon, Gerald Costanzo attended Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities.  At age 24 he became a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, where he just completed his 50th year. His recent book is “Regular Haunts: New and Previous Poems.”

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