Potash Hill

Clear Writing

Er Haßte das Ungefähre  

That part of your curriculum that is called “Clear Writing” is one I am aware of, and of which I wholly approve. You may not know quite yet, because it’s habitual here, how extra-ordinary such an expectation is, how fortunate you’ve been to study in a school where close attention to expressiveness continues to be paid. Where your teachers are your colleagues and engage in the same quest.

It’s difficult to say a clear thing confusedly or a confused thing clearly, though I may just have managed to do so. Take it as an article of faith, I mean, that there’s a nexus established between clarity of thought and clarity of diction, and that a thing worth saying is worth the saying well. As the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “Er war ein Dichter, und haßte das Ungefähre." Neither my German accent nor my German is impeccable, but I translate this line to mean: “He was a poet, and hated the approximate.” Or, “despised the inexact.” “Clear writing” asks you to do so, and it’s a credo by which I hope you all will continue to live.

Whether your course of study is dance, philosophy, or history, whether you make a life in language or law or computer science, I trust the lessons learned will be with you enduringly. That’s what we mean by commencement of course, and the cliché is no less true for being often uttered: the word is oxymoronic, both a beginning and end. May each day be a commencementas well as a completion for you all.

—Excerpted from the comments of Nicholas Delbanco, Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, who received an honorary degree from Marlboro College at this year’s undergraduate commencement. See more on commencement.  

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