The Friday Poem ‘Consolation’ by Wislawa Szymborska

The Friday Poem this week is ‘Consolation’ from Nobel Prize winning poet Wislawa Symborska.

In November, novelist Annie Proulx was recognized with National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Her acceptance speech offered hope, “the happy ending still beckons”, and quoted Symborska’s words as proof.

“…somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending. We still believe that we can save ourselves and our damaged earth — an indescribably difficult task as we discover that the web of life is far more mysteriously complex than we thought and subtly entangled with factors we cannot even recognize. But we keep on trying, because there’s nothing else to do.

The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on. The poet Wisława Szymborska caught the writer’s dilemma of choosing between hard realities and the longing for the happy ending. She called it “Consolation.”

Consolation

Darwin.
They say he read novels to relax,
But only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If anything like that turned up,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.

True or not,
I’m ready to believe it.

Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’d had enough of dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggles to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction
with its diminutions.

Hence the indispensable
silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurrying to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly
in the last.

Wislawa Szymborska

Translated by Clare Cavanagh

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

The Friday Poem ‘Why I Wake Early’ by Mary Oliver

The first Friday Poem of 2018 is for the early risers, the folks who ‘seize the day’ as first light tints the sky in pastels. Poet Mary Oliver shares ‘Why I Wake Up Early’.

“Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.”

Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light–
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Mary Oliver   ‘Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver’ Penguin Press, 2017

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The Friday Poem ‘A Copywriter’s Christmas’ by Margaret Fishback

One of my favorite novels of the year was ‘Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk’ by Kathleen Rooney. The title character was “inspired by the life and work of the poet and ad woman Margaret Fishback, herself the real highest paid female advertising copywriter in the world during the 1930s, thanks to her brilliant work for R.H. Macy’s.”

Macy’s holiday windows have become one of the traditions of Christmas in New York. The Friday Poem this week is ‘A Copywriter’s Christmas’ by Margaret Fishback. The photo above captures the 1933 window display, ‘Around the World At Christmas Time’. The country was in the middle of the Great Depression and FDR was in his first year as president.

A Copywriter’s Christmas

The Twenty-fifth is imminent
And every known expedient
Designed for making Christmas pay
Is getting swiftly under way.
Observe the people swarming to
And fro, somnambulating through
The stores in search of ties and shirts
And gloves to give until it hurts.

They’re eyeing gifts in Saks’ and Hearn’s
And Macy’s, not to mention Stern’s,
While earnest copywriters are
Hitching their copy to the star
Of Bethlehem quite shamelessly,
For they are duty bound to see
That Peace On Earth Good Will To Men
Gets adequate results again.

Margaret Fishback   ‘Out of My Head’ 1933

There was another Margaret at Macy’s in 1933, my great-aunt, Margaret Murray. Her 50 years of service is recognized on a plaque inside the 34th St. Memorial Entrance.

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Photo credit: Macy’s Christmas display, ‘Around the World at Christmas Time’ 1933 Image courtesy of Landy R. Hales papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

 

 

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 ‘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 ‘Black’ Friday Poem – ‘Why I Have A Crush On You, UPS Man’ by Alice N. Persons

It’s the perfect poem for ‘Black’ Friday or ‘Cyber’ Monday. Soon the big brown box trucks will be delivering all sorts of packages for the holidays. This one, from poet Alice N. Persons, is for all those who work at UPS (including the drivers of those tandem trucks on Interstate 40 who terrify me twice a year on my cross country journeys).

Why I Have A Crush On You, UPS Man

you bring me all the things I order
are never in a bad mood
always have a jaunty wave as you drive away
look good in your brown shorts
we have an ideal uncomplicated relationship
you’re like a cute boyfriend with great legs
who always brings the perfect present
(why, it’s just what I’ve always wanted!)
and then is considerate enough to go away
oh, UPS Man, let’s hop in your clean brown truck and elope !
ditch your job, I’ll ditch mine
let’s hit the road for Brownsville
and tempt each other
with all the luscious brown foods —
roast beef, dark chocolate,
brownies, Guinness, homemade pumpernickel, molasses cookies
I’ll make you my mama’s bourbon pecan pie
we’ll give all the packages to kind looking strangers
live in a cozy wood cabin
with a brown dog or two
and a black and brown tabby
I’m serious, UPS Man. Let’s do it.
Where do I sign?

Alice N. Persons  ‘Don’t Be A Stranger’, Sheltering Pines Press 2007

The Friday Poem ‘The Familiar Has Taken Leave’

Why are we always surprised when national events veer from a predicted trajectory? Maybe we’ve been spending too much time with analytics and not enough time with the poets.

Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic last week about the role of poetry in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “Campaign in poetry; govern in prose,” the old adage goes. This moment, though, has in many ways flipped that idea: The 2016 presidential campaign was decidedly lacking in poetry. Yet in its aftermath, as Americans consider the contours of their new government, they are, often, turning to poems…”

She interviewed Don Share, the editor of Poetry magazine to discover why poetry was having a ‘moment’.

“Well, it’s always been speaking to people—and it’s always been speaking to people about the kinds of things they’re taking about now, because one of the things poetry is really good at is anticipating things that need discussion. Poets are kind of like—it’s a bad metaphor, but—canaries in a coal mine. They have a sense for things that are in the air. Partly because that’s what they do—they think about things that are going on—but partly because they take their own personal experience and see how that fits in with what they see in the world. A lot of people might think that poetry is very abstract, or that it has to do with having your head in the clouds, but poets, actually, walk on the earth. They’re grounded, feet-first, pointing forward. They’re moving around and paying attention at every moment.”

Perhaps next time, we should survey the poets, not the pollsters.

Until then, the events of the past 11 days brought me to a poem selected by Matthew Zapruder for the August 16, 2016 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

The poem, written by broadcaster, documentary filmmaker and poet, Richard O. Moore was part of a “sequence of sonnets about the consequences of losing his sight in old age”.

At its core, the poem is about change…and how we respond.

The Familiar Has Taken Leave

Responding to a world turned outside in
Requires a fresh agility of will
And a surreal mode of thought, both distant
When the world was visible and real.
The only carry-over is the sound:
The hollow clatter of the commonplace,
Ancestral voices, sepulchral complaints
From many sources now invisible.

This is the most dispassionate I can be.
The familiar has taken leave with all I know
And what is left is mostly echo fading,
Never to return. What takes shape then
Is virtual and is a world apart
Assembled half by memory, half by art.

Richard O. Moore (1920-2015) from ‘Particulars of Place’ April, 2015

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The Friday Poem ‘The Land of Counterpane’ by Robert Louis Stevenson

There has been quite a bit of ‘health@work’ news this week as one of the major candidates for U.S. President took a couple of sick days away from her campaign.

In the spirit of taking a respite to heal, enter the imagination of writer and poet Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Land of Counterpane

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

Robert Louis Stevenson  from ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ 1913

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