The Friday Poem – The Purpose of Poetry

On October 26, 1963, less than a month before his death, U.S. President John F. Kennedy visited Amherst College to deliver a speech at the groundbreaking for the Robert Frost Library.

“In publishing the remarks after Kennedy’s murder, The Atlantic noted that he“identified himself, as no president before him has done so poignantly, with ‘books and men and learning.’ ”

Today, 54 years later, rather than a Friday Poem, the text of the address delivered that day by the 35th President of the United States, in recognition of the contribution of Robert Frost and the place of poetry in our national value set. This is what American leadership looks like.

Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation. “I have been” he wrote, “one acquainted with the night.” And because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair. At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world. In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored in his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet in retrospect, we see how the artist’s fidelity has strengthened the fibre of our national life.

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style. In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society–in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”

I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.

Robert Frost was often skeptical about projects for human improvement, yet I do not think he would disdain this hope. As he wrote during the uncertain days of the Second War:

Take human nature altogether since time began . . .
And it must be a little more in favor of man,
Say a fraction of one percent at the very least . . .
Our hold on this planet wouldn’t have so increased.

Because of Mr. Frost’s life and work, because of the life and work of this college, our hold on this planet has increased.”

Listen to speech

Text and recording courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library and the U.S. National Archives.

 

The Friday Poem ‘What Kind of Times Are These’ by Adrienne Rich

It has been a week. Another week. A week that began with NFL players joining Colin Kaepernick‘s protest@work. If you are confused by the fog of publicity over the past week, let Charles Blow clarify the issue for you.

“…patriotism is particularly fraught for black people in this country because the history of the country’s treatment of them is fraught. It’s not that black people aren’t patriotic; it’s just that patriotism can be a paradox.”

“We have to accept that different Americans see pride and principle differently, but that makes none of them less American.”

The Friday Poem this week, ‘What Kind of Times Are These’ was written in 1995 by poet and activist, Adrienne Rich. It was one poem in a collection described by her publisher:

“Her explorations go to the heart of democracy and love, and the historical and present endangerment of both.”

“This parable-like poem raises difficult questions about the nature and dangers of leadership and the complicity of ordinary citizens in their government’s uses (and abuses) of power.”

It just seemed the right choice for this week@work. “our country moving closer to its own truth and dread..”

What Kind of Times Are These

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

 

Adrienne Rich
‘Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995’ (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1995)

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Listen to the poet read ‘What Kind of Times Are These’

 

The Friday Poem ‘Baseball’ by John Updike

The Friday Poem this week is for the ‘Boys of Summer’: those who go to work playing baseball, those who spend their hours after work on a diamond with friends, and the real boys who grab bat and glove after school on the way to Little League practice.

On Wednesday evening, one of those who make a living @baseball, the Dodger’s Rich Hill, threw eight perfect innings of baseball in Pittsburgh, coming up short of both a perfect game and a no-hitter when a third base error in the ninth and a lead off home run in the 10th gave the Pirates the win.

Less than 200 miles northeast, the Little League World Series approached its championship weekend as players ages 11-12 years competed for a chance to represent their country in the international final.

With baseball in the air, John Updike, baseball writer, is our choice for this week’s Friday Poem.

Baseball

It looks easy from a distance,
easy and lazy, even,
until you stand up to the plate
and see the fastball sailing inside,
an inch from your chin,
or circle in the outfield
straining to get a bead
on a small black dot
a city block or more high,
a dark star that could fall
on your head like a leaden meteor.

The grass, the dirt, the deadly hops
between your feet and overeager glove:
football can be learned,
and basketball finessed, but
there is no hiding from baseball
the fact that some are chosen
and some are not—those whose mitts
feel too left-handed,
who are scared at third base
of the pulled line drive,
and at first base are scared
of the shortstop’s wild throw
that stretches you out like a gutted deer.

There is nowhere to hide when the ball’s
spotlight swivels your way,
and the chatter around you falls still,
and the mothers on the sidelines,
your own among them, hold their breaths,
and you whiff on a terrible pitch
or in the infield achieve
something with the ball so
ridiculous you blush for years.
It’s easy to do. Baseball was
invented in America, where beneath
the good cheer and sly jazz the chance
of failure is everybody’s right,
beginning with baseball.

John Updike from ‘Endpoint and Other Poems’ 2009

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Photo credit: Charles LeClaire USA TODAY sport

You can’t go home again – keeping a journal to tell your story

“If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story.”             Terry Pratchett*

How do you turn your life into a story? A timeline of your social media posts might provide a hint to your narrative’s trajectory, but the best way is to begin recording what’s happening in your life on a daily basis; on paper, in a journal.

One of the best jobs I ever had was leading a freshman seminar, ‘You Can’t Go Home Again, Now What?’. At the beginning of the fall semester I gave each first year student a blank Moleskine notebook.  The direction was simple – “record your observations of people and place… keep your memories the old fashioned way – on paper. This is your personal space for your personal thoughts.”

Keeping a journal is way to establish a routine in a new environment and at the same time reflect on the unique experience of joining a new community. It’s a practice where you take ownership of your story.

“When  you leave college, there are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living.

But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.”
Anna Quindlen**

College is just one catalyst to begin the process of recording  and reflecting. The ‘Back to School’ aisles in your local Target are full of notebooks in every imaginable shape and size, just waiting to capture your creativity.

Why a notebook and not an online journal? It’s important to disconnect and avoid distraction when you’re talking to yourself about your day. And then there’s the apocalyptic view: when we are all off the grid, we’ll still have our journals.

When we scribble a few words, we are compiling a record that simply makes sense of the day. And on those days when things have not worked out as planned, it’s the perfect place to vent, in the privacy of the lined (or unlined) page.

What happened to all those first year students and their Moleskine journals? I think some may still be in a storage bin, blank. But for many, they contain the treasure of a story of transition and change, a template for continuous, lifelong learning.

String a few years of journal entries together and you begin to see career patterns emerge: choices, consequences and course corrections.

Your journal is your story. There are no rules. You’re writing your story in real time. Don’t edit, but do read what you write.

Take care of the life of your mind while paying attention to the life of your heart.

*Terry Pratchett   ‘The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents’ 2001
**Anna Quindlen   ‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’ 2000

 

The Friday Poem ‘The Good Life’ by Tracy K. Smith

The new U.S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith, considers the writing of poetry “a superpower.” 

“A good poem teaches you to look at the ordinary world and see something completely new within it.”

On Thursday she was interviewed by Charlie Rose on the CBS Morning News. He asked, “Why did you become a poet?”

“I loved what poems did for me as a reader. Even as a child I loved the sound of language and the sense of surprise that poems could inspire.”

The Friday poem this week is ‘The Good Life’ from the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning collection, ‘Life On Mars: Poems’.

The Good Life

When some people talk about money
They speak as if it were a mysterious lover
Who went out to buy milk and never
Came back, and it makes me nostalgic
For the years I lived on coffee and bread,
Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday
Like a woman journeying for water
From a village without a well, then living
One or two nights like everyone else
On roast chicken and red wine.

Tracy K. Smith    ‘Life on Mars: Poems’ 2011

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Photo credit: Shawn Miller/Library of Congress

 

 

The Friday Poem ‘The Way It Is’ by William Stafford

“There’s a thread you follow.” opens this week’s Friday Poem, ‘The Way It Is’, from poet, writer, and photographer William Stafford.

As a conscientious objector during the second World War, Stafford worked in civilian public service camps for the U.S. Forest Service in Arkansas and California. In 1948 he moved to Oregon to teach at Lewis and Clark College.

In 1963 he was selected to receive the National Book Award from a group of nominees including William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost. He served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1970, a position that today carries the title of Poet Laureate.

In addition to his 65 volumes of poetry and prose, he left a collection of 16,000 photographic negatives to the archive at Lewis and Clark College. In a 2014 interview for Oregon Public Broadcasting, his son, Kim Stafford commented on his father’s discomfort with the spotlight. “When he became famous, the camera allowed him to leave the center of the circle and document the other writers.”

His lifetime spanned decades of dramatic change, and yet he stayed true to his values. His accomplishments and awards did not distract. “…You don’t ever let go of the thread”.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

William Stafford   ‘The Way It Is’   Graywolf Press, 1999

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Photo credit: Kim Stafford

The week@work: Finding Amelia Earhart, Amy Pascal’s pivot, a ‘netflix’ of education and why you need a study plan

For a holiday week, there was a significant assortment of ideas and stories beyond the headlines. The History Channel broadcast the results of an investigation into the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, sparked by the discovery of a photo misfiled in the National Archives. One of Hollywood’s most powerful executives, Amy Pascal, reemerged as the producer behind the latest summer blockbuster and a career lesson for all. On the practical application of ideas to workplace; two articles explored the value of designing an organizational culture of learning and developing an individual study plan  as a catalyst for creativity.

At a time when there were few role models for women, aviatrix Amelia Earhart captured the imagination as she embarked on her first solo flight of the Atlantic, and later when she attempted to fly around the world in a twin engine Lockheed Electra. On July 2, 1937 she left Lae, New Guinea with her navigator Fred Noonan following a flight plan to Howland Island. They never reached their destination, fueling 80 years of theories and investigations, the most recent citing a photo found in the National Archives.

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According to the research conducted for the History Channel, Ms. Earhart and Mr. Noonan were captured by the Japanese and later taken to a prison on Saipan. The authenticated photo shows a man and woman with similar physical characteristics of the missing duo. To be continued…

Before the hack of the Democratic National Committee, there was the Sony Studios hack. The studio head at the time was Amy Pascal and the details of emails subsequently made public resulted in her termination. She’s back…Brooks Barnes reported on her career transition for The New York Times.

“Ms. Pascal, a 59-year-old woman in an industry rife with sexism and ageism, seems to have emerged stronger and happier, having reinvented herself as a producer through her company, Pascal Pictures. She will deliver three films to three different studios this year, with more than a dozen more movies on the assembly line. On a personal level, after a lot of soul-searching, some in a therapist’s office, she has tried to see the hack as freeing. After all, she has no more secrets.”

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How does the downfall of a powerful studio head relate to the rest of us? Chances are, in a career lifetime, you will get fired. Take note of Ms. Pascal’s evolution.

“I will always carry what happened with me,” she said. “There’s no other way. But you scrape as much grace as you possibly can off the ground and you move forward.”

Moving forward is the theme of the next two stories this week@work.

Karl Mehta and Rob Harles suggest ‘In the knowledge economy, we need a Netflix of education’.

“The problem is that we are drowning in content — but are starving for knowledge and insights that can help us truly be more productive, collaborative and innovative.”

“The solution for the learning and development industry would be a platform that can make education more accessible and relevant — something that allows us to absorb and spread knowledge seamlessly. Just as Netflix delivers entertainment we want at our fingertips, the knowledge and learning we need should be delivered where and when we need it.”

Their proposal analyzes the hurdles, and envisions “the democratization of knowledge” where employers provide “employees the skills and knowledge to thrive, which would have previously been time-consuming or impossible to obtain.”

While we wait for employers to create the learning culture utopia, how do we fuel our individual radical curiosity?

Todd Henry reiterated the importance of stimuli to creativity with ‘Why you should have a study plan (and how to make one)’.

“…most of the incredibly successful people I encounter in the marketplace have some form of study plan that they follow in order to help them spot patterns in their business, anticipate client needs, and simply spark new ideas and new categories of thought.”

He offers three steps to get started: “Dedicate a regular time for study. Study broadly and deeply. After you read, reflect.”

As we begin another week@work, #MondayMotivation – a quote from writer Maxine Hong Kingston: “In a time of destruction, create something.”

 

 

The Friday Poem ‘Remember’ by Joy Harjo

April is National Poetry Month and next Thursday, April 27 is ‘poem in your pocket day’. Download your favorite poem or one from the Academy of American poets site, carry it around with you for the day and share it with friends and colleagues.

The Friday Poem this week comes from the Academy’s selection, ‘Remember’ by Joy Harjo.

Remember

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Remember.
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Want to improve your communication skills? Spend the weekend at #bookfest

Want to improve your communication skills? I have two items to add to your ‘to do’ list: The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the ‘How I Got Here’ podcast.

How do these dots connect? Pulitzer prize winning author, Jon Meacham put it simply as a guest on the April 4th podcast:

“There is a direct connection between the number of great books you read and your own capacity to express yourself.”

Think about it. Now consider your catalog of reading materials over the past month. Could there be a connection with the difficulty you are encountering coming up with a business proposal in more than 140 characters/no emoji?

Time for a cultural intervention this weekend to jump start your personal ‘communication improvement project’.

Step one: Come to Los Angeles for the LA Times Festival of Books on the campus of the University of Southern California. Step two: Maintain the momentum with a subscription to the weekly ‘How I Got Here’ podcast.

The book festival is a two day event hosting authors, poets, and musicians discussing their work at moderated panels and outdoor stages. All the events are free and provide amazing access to those creating art in these interesting times.

As an example, my itinerary for the weekend includes a two panels on biography and epic history, four ‘indoor’ conversations with George Saunders, Roxanne Gay, Chris Hayes and Margaret Atwood, and an a cappella performance by the SoCal VoCals.

I doubt you will leave the venue without at least one new book (perhaps bearing an author signature) to continue your adventure in reading and improved communication.

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Next week on your commute or morning run listen to ‘How I Got Here’. The podcast, hosted by Georgetown University grads Tim Barnicle and Harry Hill, is a weekly exploration of the diverse career trajectories of various luminaries.

Imagine sitting for an hour with your career idol as they describe their path to success.

If you believe we learn from the wisdom of others, events and podcasts are a treasure trove of accumulated knowledge.

What are you waiting for?

 

 

 

The Friday Poem ‘Baseball’ by Gail Mazur

The Friday Poem this week is for those whose workplace is the ballpark. It’s the first week of April and the dream of a World Series Championship is possible for each of Major League Baseball’s thirty franchises and their fans.

Our ‘national pastime’ has often been used as a metaphor for life. Poet Gail Mazur shared her connection to the diamond with her poem ‘Baseball’.

“Well, of course, baseball, to the ardent fan, IS a metaphor and more. I couldn’t write that poem until I thought of denying baseball was a metaphor, then I could go all out. Everything about the game and the park seemed like metaphor. And a fan’s sense of loss—or exhilaration—no matter how intense, is more bearable than the real losses in our lives. But still, but still, one feels one lives and dies, as the saying goes, with one’s team! After the first line, I wrote it in a few minutes, one of those gifts”

Baseball
for John Limon

The game of baseball is not a metaphor
and I know it’s not really life.
The chalky green diamond, the lovely
dusty brown lanes I see from airplanes
multiplying around the cities
are only neat playing fields.
Their structure is not the frame
of history carved out of forest,
that is not what I see on my ascent.

And down in the stadium,
the veteran catcher guiding the young
pitcher through the innings, the line
of concentration between them,
that delicate filament is not
like the way you are helping me,
only it reminds me when I strain
for analogies, the way a rookie strains
for perfection, and the veteran,
in his wisdom, seems to promise it,
it glows from his upheld glove,

and the man in front of me
in the grandstand, drinking banana
daiquiris from a thermos,
continuing through a whole dinner
to the aromatic cigar even as our team
is shut out, nearly hitless, he is
not like the farmer that Auden speaks
of in Breughel’s Icarus,
or the four inevitable woman-hating
drunkards, yelling, hugging
each other and moving up and down
continuously for more beer

and the young wife trying to understand
what a full count could be
to please her husband happy in
his old dreams, or the little boy
in the Yankees cap already nodding
off to sleep against his father,
program and popcorn memories
sliding into the future,
and the old woman from Lincoln, Maine,
screaming at the Yankee slugger
with wounded knees to break his leg

this is not a microcosm,
not even a slice of life

and the terrible slumps,
when the greatest hitter mysteriously
goes hitless for weeks, or
the pitcher’s stuff is all junk
who threw like a magician all last month,
or the days when our guys look
like Sennett cops, slipping, bumping
each other, then suddenly, the play
that wasn’t humanly possible, the Kid
we know isn’t ready for the big leagues,
leaps into the air to catch a ball
that should have gone downtown,
and coming off the field is hugged
and bottom-slapped by the sudden
sorcerers, the winning team

the question of what makes a man
slump when his form, his eye,
his power aren’t to blame, this isn’t
like the bad luck that hounds us,
and his frustration in the games
not like our deep rage
for disappointing ourselves

the ball park is an artifact,
manicured, safe, “scene in an Easter egg”,
and the order of the ball game,
the firm structure with the mystery
of accidents always contained,
not the wild field we wander in,
where I’m trying to recite the rules,
to repeat the statistics of the game,
and the wind keeps carrying my words away

Gail Mazur  ‘Zeppo’s First Wife: New and Selected Poems’ 1978

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