The Friday Poem ‘The Question’ by Karla Kuskin

Before poetry was printed on the back of NYC Metro Cards, there was ‘Poetry in Motion’, a joint effort of the MTA and the Poetry Society of America. Between October, 1992 and August, 1997 commuters, families and tourists could sample poems, reading from the placards displayed in subway cars and buses.

Poetry in Motion® places poetry in the transit systems of cities throughout the country, helping to create a national readership for both emerging and established poets.”

The Friday Poem this week was one of those selected for the inaugural NYC program: ‘The Question’ by Karla Kuskin. In this holiday season, revisit career choice through the eyes of your younger self.

The Question

People always say to me
“What do you think you’d like to be
When you grow up?”
And I say, “Why,
I think I’d like to be the sky
Or be a plane or train or mouse
Or maybe a haunted house
Or something furry, rough and wild…
Or maybe I will stay a child.”

Karla Kuskin   ‘Poetry in Motion: 100 Poems From the Subways and Buses’ 1996

The Friday Poem ‘Superior’ by Deborah Garrison

Nineteen years after her first book of poetry was published, Deborah Garrison remains the voice of women@work. I’m waiting for her to find the words to capture this moment in the workplace, but until then, the Friday Poem is ‘Superior’.

Superior

She came to dread the way he would wander
into her office, his eyes flicking over the papers
on her desk as though it offended him
to have to interrupt tasks that were being done
for him, as though the details she was mistress of
would needlessly clutter his manager’s mind.
As he talked of the Big Picture, of who was soon
to die and who to win a prize, the pencil
she held poised a few inches above the text
she’d been correcting when he breezed in
was her only protest. Did it irk him –
the way she kept her shoulders slightly rounded
over the page, the way the graphite stub in her smudged
fingers accused him?

Probably not, as he warmed to his speech;
he was a thinker-aloud, couldn’t have a thought
unless he spoke it out before an obedient listener.
She saw the air thronged with his conceptual
offspring; if she didn’t keep her slack mouth shut
(now he paused, mid-phrase, touching the air
with an index figure just where he saw
his point appear), she might actually swallow
one of his soap bubbles, like a cartoon character
sucking her whole 2-D world
back down. He talked on.

She agreed, she agreed, she seconded his thesis,
and with each murmured yes her certainty mounted:
she would never be one of them – A Director, a Manager,
an Executive Thingy. She didn’t have the ambition.
She was simply a pencil, scratching, pausing,
picking her way down an obscure page.
She liked her fate.
But would she be left alone to enjoy it?
He hovered there – couldn’t bear to release her –
now about to turn and go – but no.
He was settling in her single chair and leaning near
to confide more fully in her.

Deborah Garrison
‘A Working Girl Can’t Win’ Random House, NY 1998

The Friday Poem ‘Thanksgiving’ by Linda McCarriston

This year poetry has regained its’ place in our culture. One poem, meant to be read as a whole, can express our peculiar moment in time with a single line. “Any deliberate leap into chaos, small or large, with an intent to make order, matters.” Written in 1984, the Friday poem is ‘Thanksgiving’ by Linda McCarriston.

Thanksgiving

Every year we call it down upon ourselves,
the chaos of the day before the occasion,
the morning before the meal. Outdoors,
the men cut wood, fueling appetite
in the gray air, as Nana, Arlene, Mary,
Robin—whatever women we amount to—
turn loose from their wrappers the raw,
unmade ingredients. A flour sack leaks,
potatoes wobble down counter tops
tracking dirt like kids, blue hubbard erupts
into shards and sticky pulp when it’s whacked
with the big knife, cranberries leap away
rather than be halved. And the bird, poor
blue thing—only we see it in its dead skin—
gives up for good the long, obscene neck, the gizzard,
the liver quivering in my hand, the heart.

So what? What of it? Besides the laughter,
I mean, or the steam that shades the windows
so that the youngest sons must come inside
to see how the smells look. Besides
the piled wood closing over the porch windows,
the pipes the men fill, the beers
they crack, waiting in front of the game.

Any deliberate leap into chaos, small or large,
with an intent to make order, matters. That’s what.
A whole day has passed between the first apple
cored for pie, and the last glass polished
and set down. This is a feast we know how to make,
a Day of Feast, a day of thanksgiving
for all we have and all we are and whatever
we’ve learned to do with it: Dear God, we thank you
for your gifts in this kitchen, the fire,
the food, the wine. That we are together here.
Bless the world that swirls outside these windows—
a room full of gifts seeming raw and disordered,
a great room in which the stoves are cold,
the food scattered, the children locked forever
outside dark windows. Dear God, grant
to the makers and keepers power to save it all.

from ‘Talking Soft Dutch’   Texas Tech Press   1984

Photo credit: ‘Freedom from Want’ Norman Rockwell for The Saturday Evening Post March 13,1943

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

endpoint

 

Photo credit: Charles LeClaire USA TODAY sport

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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