(Oct. 30, 1997, Gazette)
There is only one position at a university that I truly covet: that of Public Orator- for it is a function mandated simultaneously to the manufacture of gorgeous lies, and licensed to kill. If the craft had "emblems of shop" they would have to be a fulsomely laden trowel and a fiendishly honed scalpel.
The Public Orator enters equipped upon his mission with the tongue of Daniel Webster and the instincts of Doc Holliday.
I recall in those palmy days when the late and revered G. M. Story filled the office, in a ceremony remarkably similar to this one this morning, he was called upon to hoist the virtues of John C. Doyle, Our Man in Panama (hoist the virtues of John C. Doyle- this required a derrick of not inconsiderable prose) unto the indulgent gaze of an expectant convocation.
Dr. Story orated. The registrar stood ready with the hood. Dr. Story orated some more. Beneath each fusillade of praise the thresher worked relentlessly.
It was a prodigy. With each cadenced tribute, the great industrialist wilted- visibly. To that day I had thought it impossible, refused to believe that it was possible, that a person could be seen to lose weight before your very eyes. Midway through the oration Mr. Doyle's suit collapsed about him, like a tent when a mighty wind screams across the Witless Bay Barrens. By the time the oration was heading into the home stretch, and about to touch down on honoris causa, the bursar was seen to be slipping beach rocks into that wonderful buccaneer's pockets, just to keep him from drifting, weightlessly (like Mr. Crosbie's blimp at the PC leadership convention) off the stage.
You may understand now, from this example, why I so covet the office. To mate ceremony of address with elegance of dismemberment- why it seems to me a life-calling.
I begin with commending my commendor. I have seen today the public orator in his merciful phase. After all that Mr. O'Dea has said here, in words harvested with rare acuity and choice, it seems rather ungrateful of me to be still above ground.
To embroider that scantling vine, my life, with such tumid, blossoming efflorescence as Mr. O'Dea has done- so barren a soil, so fecund a plow- is not just a trick of rhetoric, it is a feat of some considerable botany.
Not since the Eden ground of Mount Pearl hosted the lighthouse bauble of the hydroponic greenhouse and Brian Peckford was bewitched by the phallic promise of Philip Sprung and his monstrous tuber has so much eloquence been spent on so hopeless an object.
We went through the 500 year anniversary celebrations of Newfoundland's discovery this year, and we're far too guileful a bunch not to have reckoned the attendant ironies.
That the bounty which brought us here was, very neatly, exhausted on the very cusp of the moment we decided to throw a mid-millennium celebration of our arrival. It's not every birthday party that coincides with a near post-mortem.
But then, we seem to have been chartered to heroic ambiguities. The very idea of Newfoundland seems to demand some collision or, at the very least, encounter with fundamental challenge or perplexity of fate.
Whatever its destiny from this day forward, the cultural force and animation of the fishery is too deeply intertissued with our being here, its presence will flourish always, secure and unimpeded.
Defiance is mixed in with our being. We began, remember, forbidden to begin: the laws against settlement being the first of the grim oxymorons that have etched our tenure here. And then, of course, there has always been the weather and local politics.
DNA of Newfoundland life
I can say that. I stress the personal here. In a certain light I doubt I could tell a dory from a Volkswagen; the sum total of my adventures "on the water" is confined to a select number of voyages on that sterile trek that CN Marine initiates so forbiddingly at Port aux Basques and so desperately terminates in North Sydney. In a flash quiz I couldn't distinguish a halibut from a wolf, and to this day I only know the arrival of lobster season when the good people who operate the Kenmount Restaurant set "Lobster Cantonese style" on the sad neon billboard outside their hospitable door.
My ignorance of the Newfoundland fishery is so complete I may one day write editorials for the Toronto Globe and Mail or, God save the mark, be president of Greenpeace and get to rub noses with the mediocrities of Canadian film, stage and letters, and sip decaf in Yorkville and Queen Street, and gum veggie burgers outside Love Craft then, fully stricken by that strange yuppie fever of minding other people's business, swear by Jeanne Beker and Alicia Silverstone that Birkenstock and Gucci together, we shall not rest till every penis of every seal is where it should be.
The fishery is the DNA of Newfoundland life. Attacks upon it, however collateral, however monumental and smug the ignorance from which they issue, always therefore reach to the centre of what we are or what we like to think of ourselves as being.
When I stress that even I can make that statement, it is to point, to give force to the consideration, that even those of us radically unattached to the fishery, with neither competence nor appetite nor experience, for as with its prosecution are, as Newfoundlanders, stamped with its reality; the transactions of the fishery, over its history, infuse and color, they have left, as it were, a reflex pattern upon the character and imagination of the Newfoundlander.
Without the codtrap there is no Kelligrew's Soiree. Take away handline and flake, and we subtract from the sum of us the dearly articulated melancholies of folk song and chant. Excise, if you could, from the collective experience of this place, the endless daily launchings and returns of the inshore, the million repeated encounters with weather and wave, and you would have carved and obliterated in a single rash stroke the heart and pith of our singular idiom. We would be mute; or, what is worse, bland.
Weather, rock and water; shore, sea and sky: these are the elements which framed our being here. The node of their triple intersection, the point of contact of our commerce with them, is the outport: the outport is the house of our being.
The headlands and bays, inlet, harbor and cove, ominous, giving and grasping deep. You may clasp the magic of this place merely by calling the names off a map. To travel Newfoundland is like wandering through an incantation.
Bareneed, Gaultois, St. Bride's and Angel's Cove; Trepassey, Twillingate, L'Anse aux Meadows and Harbour Grace; Brigus and Burgeo; Blow Me Down and Bonavista; Isle aux Morts, Random Island and Little Heart's Ease; Comfort Cove and Cappahayden; Come by Chance and Carbonear: the place names of Newfoundland are the poetry of a scrupulous people, and the naming of the outports was a rebellion of delight against a grim tapestry of austerities we have, for the most part, forgotten.
Something of the mystical power of poetry, something of poetry's shrewd and unaccountable insinuations into the souls of men and women, hangs over this place: belongs- or so it is my opinion- to the interactions, over the time of our being here, between Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders.
And as metaphor is the dynamo of poetry, so has the practice and presence of fishing been to the manic chemistry that binds Newfoundlanders to Newfoundland.
Newfoundland, orphan of Empire, late waif of Confederation, gymnasium of Smallwood and Coaker, where a judge wrote the history and history pardoned the judge, and a scholar of this house, Memorial, named Story wrote the story of this place, Newfoundland, in the only kind of book that could possibly contain it: a dictionary. He put the ship in the bottle.
And this, graduates, is the place from which you graduate.
The only purpose of being in university is to leave it larger than when you came. You didn't come here to "get" anything. We have supermarkets and car dealerships and political nominations for people who want to "get" something.
You came here to dip, however fleetingly, into one of the truly great transactions of humankind; to achieve, however warily, a purchase on the one great art of our species: that link of mind with well-tutored mind which yokes the generations.
Learning is the flame of our abiding on this earth. Save for family and faith, poetry is as close as we ever get to a justification of our stay. The university is the house, the cradle, and the rock of them both.
Memorial University is the university of Newfoundland, a house of learning in a native seat of poetry. To you who are graduates this morning, without any of the flourishes that are the prerogative of the public orator, I say that graduating from here is a doubly-amplified enhancement. My good wishes to you.
There are another 500 years waiting. They will not be as austere- they could not be- but then again they might not be as much fun either.
I have always been a friend of Memorial University, despite the odd turmoil I might have caused it. Thanking a friend is one of our most honest human delights. For the honor bestowed and the delight it brings me, I thank you all.