The Friday Poem – ‘How Would You Live Then?’ by Mary Oliver

Thinking about work is thinking about choice. What decisions have you made? What remains? What if? There are always possibilities. The only limit is your imagination.

This week, the Friday Poem from Mary Oliver.

How Would You Live Then?

What if a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks
     flew in circles around your head? What if
the mockingbird came into the house with you and
     became your advisor? What if
the bees filled your walls with honey and all
     you needed to do was ask them and they would fill
the bowl? What if the brook slid downhill just
     past your bedroom window so you could listen
to its slow prayers as you fell asleep? What if
     the stars began to shout their names, or to run
this way and that way above the clouds? What if
     you painted a picture of a tree, and the leaves
began to rustle, and a bird cheerfully sang
     from its painted branches? What if you suddenly saw
that the silver of water was brighter than the silver 
     of money? What if you finally saw
that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day
     and every day – who knows how, but they do it – were
more precious, more meaningful than gold?

Mary Oliver ‘Blue Iris: Poems and Essays’ Penguin Random House, 2006

The Friday Poem ‘Of History and Hope by Miller Williams

For the first ‘Friday Poem’ of 2019, I’ve gone back into the Workthoughts archives to reprise Miller Williams‘ poem ‘Of History and Hope’ delivered at the Inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton in 1997.

The Washington Post obituary for professor Williams, who died on New Years Day in 2015, included an excerpt of an interview with the Oxford American magazine. In the interview the poet shared the intent behind the words.

“…he wanted the poem to be a “consideration of how a look at a nation’s past might help determine where it could be led in the future.

“I knew that the poem would be listened to by a great many people, reprinted around the country, and discussed in a lot of classrooms, so I wanted it to be true, understandable, and agreeable…”

The words of the poet, recited from the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, 22 years ago, speak to us in this current place that is American, 2019.

“We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.”

Of History and Hope

We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.

But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row—
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.

Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become—
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.

All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit—it isn’t there yet—
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.

Miller Williams  ‘Some Jazz A While: Collected Poems’  1999



The Friday Poem ‘truth’ by Gwendolyn Brooks

It’s a popular talking point among pundits to observe we live in a ‘post-truth’ age: an era defined by the Oxford Dictionary as one “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Pulitzer prize winning poet, Gwendolyn Brooks described this place we now find ourselves in her poem ‘truth’.

“And if the sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?”

truth

And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?

Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—
What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?

Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Propitious haze?

Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.

The dark hangs heavily
Over the eyes.

Gwendolyn Brooks,  ‘Blacks’  Third World Press, 1987

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The Friday Poem ‘August’ by Helen Hunt Jackson

The Friday Poem this week is ‘August’ by Helen Hunt Jackson. The poem was published in the August 1876 issue of The Atlantic. Ms. Jackson was a poet, historian, author and childhood friend of Emily Dickinson. As an activist, she would go on champion the rights of Native Americans.”

In 1884 she published ‘Ramona’, a fictionalized account of the plight of Southern California’s dispossessed Mission Indians, inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’.

The Friday Poem – because we all “Hath need of pause and interval of peace.”

 August

Silence again. The glorious symphony
Hath need of pause and interval of peace.
Some subtle signal bids all sweet sounds cease,
Save hum of insects’ aimless industry.
Pathetic, summer seeks by blazonry
Of color to conceal her swift decrease.
Weak subterfuge! Each mocking day doth fleece
A blossom and lay bare her poverty.
Poor, middle-agèd summer! Vain this show!
Whole fields of golden-rod cannot offset
One meadow with a single violet;
And well the singing thrush and lily know,
Spite of all artifice which her regret
Can deck in splendid guise, their time to go!

H.H. 

Reprinted from The Atlantic, August 1876

 

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Image: William S. Jackson, Special Collections, Tutt Library, Colorado College

The Friday Poem ‘An Old Man’s Thought of School’ by Walt Whitman

It’s been a difficult time for those who go to work as teachers in America. Many are on strike, not just for a living wage, but for supplies and improvements to the physical spaces that foster learning. Many have faced threats and continue to teach in the aftermath of mass shootings.

Pundits are fond of quoting Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The Friday Poem this week is ‘An Old Man’s Thought of School’ by Walt Whitman reminds us that we have always struggled with the value of education in our society.

The poem was written three years after the New Jersey State Legislature passed ‘An Act to Make Free the Public Schools of the State’, providing free access to public schools “to all persons over five and under eighteen years of age.”

In 1874 poet  was recovering from a stroke at his brother’s home in Camden, N.J. At a public school dedication in early November he challenged his fellow citizens of the post-Civil War era:

“And you, America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?

To girlhood, boyhood look—the teacher and the school.”

An Old Man’s Thought of School

An old man’s thought of school,
An old man gathering youthful memories and blooms that youth itself cannot.

Now only do I know you.
O fair auroral skies – O morning dew upon the grass!

And these I see, these sparkling eyes,
These stores of mystic meaning, these young lives,
Building, equipping, like a fleet of ships, immortal ships!
Soon to sail out over the measureless seas,
On the Soul’s voyage.

Only a lot of boys and girls?
Only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes?
Only a public school?

Ah! more, infinitely more;
(As George Fox rais’d his warning cry, “Is it this pile of brick and mortar, these
dead floors, windows, rails, you call the church?
Why this is not the church at all—the church is living, ever living souls.”)

And you, America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?
This Union multiform, with all its dazzling hopes and terrible fears?
Look deeper, nearer, earlier far—provide ahead—counsel in time;
Not to your verdicts of election days—not to your voters look,
To girlhood, boyhood look—the teacher and the school.

Walt Whitman   New York Daily Graphic, November 3, 1874

“Recited personally by the author Saturday afternoon, October 31, at the inauguration of the fine new Cooper Public School, Camden, New Jersey.”

Photo: Cooper Public School, Camden, N.J. circa 1910

 

The Friday Poem ‘Theme for English B’ by Langston Hughes

The headlines of the past week included coverage of the school teachers’ strikes in Oklahoma and Kentucky, and the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Often these events seem remote, not touching our daily lives. But they do.

The Friday Poem this week is ‘Theme for English B’ by author and poet Langston Hughes.

At the time Dr. King emerged onto the national stage, Langston Hughes was more well known. Until 1960 the poet and civil rights activist maintained a close friendship, ending when rumors of Hughes being a communist sympathizer appeared to threaten the future of the civil rights movement.

Theme for English B

The instructor said,

     Go home and write
     a page tonight.
     And let that page come out of you—
     Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

Langston Hughes   ‘Collected Poems’   1994

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Image: Pastel Portrait Winold Reiss, National Portrait Gallery

 

The Friday Poem ‘After Work’ by John Maloney

It’s Friday and the poem selected to start off this weekend is ‘After Work’ by stonemason and poet John Maloney.

There’s a line of demarcation, even in the 24/7 workplace, where we cross over from the identity we carry @work to perhaps the more authentic persona of how we see ourselves. It’s that transition space in a car stuck in LA on the 405, hanging tight on the subway in NYC or driving a pickup on the backroads of Tennessee. “No one can take away the contentment of the first few miles.”

After Work

They’re heading home with their lights on, dust and wood glue,
yellow dome lights on their metallic long beds: 250s, 2500s—
as much overtime as you want, deadline, dotted line, dazed
through the last few hours, dried primer on their knuckles,
sawdust calf-high on their jeans, scraped boots, the rough
plumbing and electric in, way ahead of the game except for
the check, such a clutter of cans and iced-tea bottles, napkins,
coffee cups, paper plates on the front seat floor with cords
and saws, tired above the eyes, back of the beyond, thirsty.
There’s a parade of them through the two-lane highways,
proudest on their way home, the first turn out of the jobsite,
the first song with the belt off, pure breath of being alone
for now, for now the insight of a full and answerable man.
No one can take away the contentment of the first few miles
and they know they can’t describe it, the black and purple sky.

The Friday Poem ‘The Benefits of Ignorance’ by Hal Sirowitz

Sometimes the Friday Poem is the perfect exclamation point for our times. This week’s selection is ‘The Benefits of Ignorance’ by poet Hal Sirowitz.

“If you’re not getting the benefits that most people get from acting stupid…”

The Benefits of Ignorance

If ignorance is bliss, Father said,
shouldn’t you be looking blissful?
You should check to see if you have
the right kind of ignorance. If you’re
not getting the benefits that most people
get from acting stupid, then you should
go back to being what you always were –
being too smart for your own good.

Hal Sirowitz  ‘Father Said: Poems’ 2004

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The Friday Poem ‘For My Daughter in Reply to a Question’ by David Ignatow

I was looking for a poem to capture both the sorrow and optimism in the aftermath of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. There’s not a ‘perfect’ poem, but there are these words from poet David Ignatow, published 50 years ago.  Described as ”a poet of the community, of people who work for a living”, the Friday Poem this week is his, “For My Daughter in Reply to a Question’.

“We will not be forgotten and passed over
and buried under the births and deaths to come.”

For My Daughter in Reply to a Question

We’re not going to die,
we’ll find a way.
We’ll breathe deeply
and eat carefully.
We’ll think always on life.
There’ll be no fading for you or for me.
We’ll be the first
and we’ll not laugh at ourselves ever
and your children will be my grandchildren.
Nothing will have changed
except by addition.
There’ll never be another as you
and never another as I.
No one ever will confuse you
nor confuse me with another.
We will not be forgotten and passed over
and buried under the births and deaths to come.

David Ignatow   ‘Rescue the Dead’ 1968 & ‘Against the Evidence: Selected Poems 1934 – 1994’  1994

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Photo credit: Poetry Foundation

The Friday Poem ‘The Three Goals’ by David Budbill

We need poets to convert obfuscation into clarity: to communicate, not “confuse, bewilder or stupefy”. The Friday Poem this week, ‘The Three Goals’ by David Budbill does just that.

Author, poet, playwright and musician David Budbill “took a workman’s attitude toward art and despised pretension. Asked about the sources of his inspiration, he said: “It comes from out of nowhere, from my imagination, from the voices I hear, from somewhere. In short, I don’t know where it comes from, and I don’t care.”

The Three Goals

The first goal is to see the thing itself
in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly
for what it is.
No symbolism, please.

The second goal is to see each individual thing
as unified, as one, with all the other
ten thousand things.
In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.

The third goal is to grasp the first and the second goals,
to see the universal and the particular,
simultaneously.
Regarding this one, call me when you get it.

David Budbill   ‘Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse’   2012

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Photo credit: Peter Miller