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 ‘Voyage to the Moon’ by Archibald MacLeish

On July 20, 1969 NASA landed two U.S. astronauts on the surface of the moon. The following day, under the headline “Men Land On Moon” there were two bylines on the front page of The New York Times: science reporter, John Noble Wilford and poet, Archibald MacLeish.

Reporter Stephen Farrell recently covered their ‘story behind the story’ in ‘You Might Call It A Moonstruck Career’.

“In July 1969, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration won that Cold War contest by landing the Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Col. Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. on the lunar surface, while Michael Collins remained in orbit above. Marking that achievement, Mr. Wilford’s name was at the top of the front page of the Times edition of July 21, 1969 beneath the banner headline: “Men Walk on Moon.” You could buy a copy for 10 cents.

The front page’s only other byline was that of Archibald MacLeish, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner who contributed an accompanying poem, “Voyage to the Moon.”

Twenty years after the landing, former NY Times Editor, A.M. Rosenthal recounted his decision to include poetry on page one.

“We decided what the front page of The Times would need when the men landed was a poem.

What the poet wrote would count most, but we also wanted to say to our readers, look, this paper does not know how to express how it feels this day and perhaps you don’t either, so here is a fellow, a poet, who will try for all of us.

We called one poet who just did not think much of moons or us, and then decided to reach higher for somebody with more zest in his soul – for Archibald MacLeish, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes. He turned in his poem on time and entitled it ”Voyage to the Moon.”

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In commemoration of the moon landing, and a time when those who worked as poets were celebrated and gave voice to “one of the biggest stories of the century”, today’s Friday Poem –

VOYAGE TO THE MOON

Presence among us,
wanderer in the skies,

dazzle of silver in our leaves and on our
waters silver,

O

silver evasion in our farthest thought–
“the visiting moon” . . . “the glimpses of the moon” . . .

and we have touched you!

From the first of time,
before the first of time, before the
first men tasted time, we thought of you.
You were a wonder to us, unattainable,
a longing past the reach of longing,
a light beyond our light, our lives–perhaps
a meaning to us…

Now

our hands have touched you in your depth of night.

Three days and three nights we journeyed,
steered by farthest stars, climbed outward,
crossed the invisible tide-rip where the floating dust
falls one way or the other in the void between,
followed that other dawn, encountered
cold, faced death–unfathomable emptiness . . .

Then, the fourth day evening, we descended,
made fast, set foot at dawn upon your beaches,
sifted between our fingers your cold sand.

We stand here in the dusk, the cold, the silence . . .

and here, as at the first of time, we lift our heads.
Over us, more beautiful than the moon, a
moon, a wonder to us, unattainable,
a longing past the reach of longing,
a light beyond our light, our lives–perhaps
a meaning to us . . .

O, a meaning!

over us on these silent beaches the bright earth,

presence among us.

Archibald MacLeish for The New York Times, July 21, 1969

Photo credits: NASA plaque “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”, The New York Times

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 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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The Friday Poem: ‘Today’ by Billy Collins

Spring arrived earlier this week. Time to take a break from your week@work and venture out beyond the confines of your work space. Cited by the Guardian as one of the ten best about spring, The Friday Poem is ‘Today’ by former Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins.

“There is a delightful playfulness here – a sense of being, in spring, a mini-God within the kingdom of one’s own front room.”

Today
If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

Billy Collins  Poetry Magazine, April 2000

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The Friday Poem ‘Happiness’ by Raymond Carver

Imagine a week@work when the barrage of beltway news is silenced. A workday morning that arrives, not with cable news, but a cup of coffee; taking in the view from the window as the neighborhood comes to life.

This was the scene imagined by the short story writer and poet, Raymond Carver.

The Friday Poem is ‘Happiness’.

Happiness

So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

Raymond Carver  Poetry Magazine February, 1985

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The Friday Poem ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’

It’s Oscar weekend and the Friday Poem selection comes from the soundtrack of this year’s Best Picture Nominee, ‘La La Land’. ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ is nominated for Best Original Song.

‘La La Land’ is a career story. ‘Audition’ is it’s anthem; a universal argument to pursue your dream, no matter how foolish it may seem.

In January, Elizabeth Flock interviewed composer Justin Hurwitz about “what it takes to compose an Oscar nominated song.”

“Hurwitz said he began composing “Audition,” back in 2011, after Chazelle had finished the screenplay for “La La Land.” But the musical stalled for years, as it struggled to get studio funding for a genre considered nearly extinct.

As Hurwitz composed what would become the final version of “Audition,” he thought carefully about the shape of the scene, which begins with Mia telling the casting agents about her aunt, and then transitions to a tribute to all dreamers. The second stanza of the song begins: “She smiled / Leapt, without looking / And She tumbled into the Seine!” while the third starts very differently: “Here’s to the ones / who dream / Foolish, as they may seem.”

“It switches from ‘she’ to ‘we,’ and I thought that was a brilliant and beautiful switch in the lyrics,” said Hurwitz, which he wanted reflected in the larger shape of the song.”

Audition (The Fools Who Dream)

My aunt used to live in Paris.
I remember, she used to come home and tell us these stories about being abroad and I remember she told us that she jumped into the river once, barefoot.

She smiled…

Leapt, without looking
And tumbled into the Seine
The water was freezing
She spent a month sneezing
But said she would do it again

Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make

She captured a feeling
Sky with no ceiling
The sunset inside a frame

She lived in her liquor
And died with a flicker
I’ll always remember the flame

Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make

She told me:
“A bit of madness is key
To give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us?
And that’s why they need us”

So bring on the rebels
The ripples from pebbles
The painters, and poets, and plays

And here’s to the fools who dream
Crazy as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make

I trace it all back to then
Her, and the snow, and the Seine
Smiling through it
She said she’d do it again

Composer Justin Hurwitz, Lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

The Friday Poem ‘Mourning What We Thought We Were’ by Frank Bidart

I’ve been making a list of things I’ve done since the Women’s March to oppose, not resist.

I’ve discovered only two degrees of separation connect me to a Syrian refugee family newly arrived in Dallas, Texas.

I’ve found it difficult to write, to reflect, on ideas away from the breaking news of the minute.

In the gap, poet Frank Bidart has captured this moment in our history. “We were born into an amazing experiment. At least we thought we were.”

The Friday Poem this week, from three time Pulitzer poetry finalist, and Bakersfield native Bidart, was published last month in The New Yorker.

Mourning What We Thought We Were

We were born into an amazing experiment.

At least we thought we were. We knew there was no
escaping human nature: my grandmother

taught me that: my own pitiless nature
taught me that: but we exist inside an order, I

thought, of which history
is the mere shadow—

*

Every serious work of art about America has the same
theme: America

is a great Idea: the reality leaves something to be desired.

Bakersfield. Marian Anderson, the first great black classical
contralto, whom the Daughters of the American Revolution

would not allow to sing in an unsegregated

Constitution Hall, who then was asked by Eleanor
Roosevelt to sing at the Lincoln Memorial before thousands

was refused a room at the Padre Hotel, Bakersfield.

My mother’s disgust
as she told me this. It confirmed her judgment about

what she never could escape, where she lived out her life.

My grandmother’s fury when, at the age of seven or
eight, I had eaten at the home of a black friend.

The forced camps at the end of The Grapes of Wrath
were outside

Bakersfield. When I was a kid, Okie

was still a common
term of casual derision and contempt.

*

So it was up to us, born
in Bakersfield, to carve a new history

of which history is the mere shadow—

*

To further the history of the spirit is our work:

therefore thank you, Lord
Whose Bounty Proceeds by Paradox,

for showing us we have failed to change.

*

Dark night, December 1st 2016.

White supremacists, once again in
America, are acceptable, respectable. America!

Bakersfield was first swamp, then
desert. We are sons of the desert
who cultivate the top half-inch of soil.

 

Frank Bidart from The New Yorker, January 23, 2017

The Friday Poem ‘The New Colossus’ by Emma Lazarus

Most immigrants to the U.S. arrive by plane, bypassing the Statue of Liberty standing in New York harbor. Perhaps this detour has created a bit of amnesia regarding fundamental American values.

For the Friday poem this week, we travel back in time to 1883, when Emma Lazarus was asked to write a poem as part of fundraising effort to construct the pedestal for the statue.

Washington Post journalist Katie Mettler revisited Ms. Lazarus’ story on Wednesday, citing renewed interest in the sonnet in the aftermath of the executive order banning  U.S. entry to all Syrian refugees and citizens of seven Muslim countries

“What the poet didn’t know at the time — as a woman whose work as a “poetess” had been at times the subject of condescension — was that it would be her words, lyrical and poignant, that decades later came to define the American vision of liberty.

More than a century later, in 2017, the words are rallying people against a controversial president and his policies and attitudes toward immigrants.”

It’s time for these words to be posted at every point of entry to the U.S. to remind all of our core values.

The New Colossus 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus   ‘Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems and Other Writings’ (2002)

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The Friday Poem ‘To The Indifferent Women’ by Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman

On the eve of the ‘Women’s March’, the Friday Poem reprises ‘To The Indifferent Women’ by Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman. I originally posted the poem in July after the first woman in U.S. history accepted her party’s nomination for president.

Sometimes things don’t work out as planned.

Tomorrow, in Washington D.C. and cities around the country, women will join together in a nation that could not ratify an equal rights amendment, or elect the first woman president, and remind those elected that women’s rights are human rights.

“In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.”

There is something going on here, as there was in 1911 when Ms. Perkins was writing for the cause of women’s rights.

One of the more stunning stories, in advance of the D.C. march, appears in today’s NY Times and profiles an unlikely activist contingent – ‘From Wall Street to National Mall: Women Overcome Fears to Attend March’.

“They are professionals in trading, public relations, marketing, deal-making, investing and the law. They keep punishing schedules, fear losing business by offending their clients and often feel that in an industry still overwhelmingly populated by men, the less attention drawn to their sex, the better.

But the inauguration of Mr. Trump has prompted a striking number of Wall Street women to overcome their worries about demonstrating in public.”

For those who will march and be questioned why, and for those still without weekend plans – a beautiful question from 1911.

“Do you believe the sorrow of the world
Does not concern you in your little homes?”

To The Indifferent Women

A Sestina

You who are happy in a thousand homes,
Or overworked therein, to a dumb peace;
Whose souls are wholly centered in the life
Of that small group you personally love;
Who told you that you need not know or care
About the sin and sorrow of the world?

Do you believe the sorrow of the world
Does not concern you in your little homes? —
That you are licensed to avoid the care
And toil for human progress, human peace,
And the enlargement of our power of love
Until it covers every field of life?

The one first duty of all human life
Is to promote the progress of the world
In righteousness, in wisdom, truth and love;
And you ignore it, hidden in your homes,
Content to keep them in uncertain peace,
Content to leave all else without your care.

Yet you are mothers! And a mother’s care
Is the first step toward friendly human life.
Life where all nations in untroubled peace
Unite to raise the standard of the world
And make the happiness we seek in homes
Spread everywhere in strong and fruitful love.

You are content to keep that mighty love
In its first steps forever; the crude care
Of animals for mate and young and homes,
Instead of pouring it abroad in life,
Its mighty current feeding all the world
Till every human child can grow in peace.

You cannot keep your small domestic peace
Your little pool of undeveloped love,
While the neglected, starved, unmothered world
Struggles and fights for lack of mother’s care,
And its tempestuous, bitter, broken life
Beats in upon you in your selfish homes.

We all may have our homes in joy and peace
When woman’s life, in its rich power of love
Is joined with man’s to care for all the world.

Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman ‘Suffrage Songs and Voices’ 1911

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Photo credit: Screen shot from Women’s March LA website