Poetry Friday: Christmas 2012 Edition

The talk in the air has been more apocalyptic than festive today—it still amuses me that people who could not find the Mayan civilization on a map or name one true fact about the Mayans (up to and including how to spell “Mayan”) are pretty sure that the Mayan calendar is of serious relevance to their lives—but it’s the last Friday before Christmas, a holiday I celebrate, at least, and one I always like to acknowledge with a poem.  There’s a lot of Christmas poetry out there, much of it soppingly sentimental, and while that has its time and place I suppose, I like to choose something more interesting or challenging.  With that in mind, I offer today a poem from 1925 (in Pulitzer terms, that’s reaching all the way back to So Big by Edna Ferber, for those of you who’ve been around the blog that long) that I read earlier this month and felt it gave me plenty to chew on.  It’s a short verse by the great Edwin Arlington Robinson, probably more famous for his depictions of the ennui and angst of modern life in such poems as “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy“, both of which I taught every year like clockwork, and both of which I really love.  This little poem, though, is new to me: this is “Karma”—

“Christmas was in the air and all was well
With him, but for a few confusing flaws
In divers of God’s images. Because
A friend of his would neither buy nor sell,
Was he to answer for the axe that fell?
He pondered; and the reason for it was,
Partly, a slowly freezing Santa Claus
Upon the corner, with his beard and bell.

Acknowledging an improvident surprise,
He magnified a fancy that he wished
The friend whom he had wrecked were here again.
Not sure of that, he found a compromise;
And from the fullness of his heart he fished
A dime for Jesus who had died for men.”

Robinson denies us, as is his custom, much comfort in the coziness of human relations, but what reaches me about this poem is how despite Robinson’s pessimism there is something bright shining deep down between the lines.  Here we have our unnamed protagonist—a man, perhaps much like us, pleased with himself and his life more or less, happy enough in the convivial air of Christmas and looking forward to the holiday.  Somewhere at the back of his mind he mulls over a friend whose business dealings are in some way intertwined with his, but he tries to detach himself from the affair.  I get the sense that he “doth protest too much” as he suggests internally that he can’t really be blamed for the consequences of his friend’s choices.  Robinson frames the line to make it clear to us that he’s more morally responsible than he wants to admit.  The man thinks of this as a flaw in God’s image (that is, humanity)—but is it a flaw in his friend?  In the cruel world that can bring someone down so low?  Or in himself?

Into this situation the image of Santa Claus is imposed, and he’s a little out of his element, isn’t he?  Santa is usually a jolly soul, associated with warm steam rising from a mug of something good, fresh-baked cookies, and the like.  But here all we get is that he’s “slowly freezing”, and yet somehow he gets the attention of our “hero”.  This executes the turn (that’s right folks, another sonnet—I love the various ways we get to see poets build little octets and sestets that fit together this neatly) and with it something rises in the man’s heart.  He envisions the sudden appearance of his friend, a man just brought down by “improvident surprise”, and the possibility of saving him from the wreck.  Is this sincere?  Or only a “fancy”, as Robinson somewhat glibly puts it?  Maybe I have more optimism than Robinson wants to allow, but I see something real at the heart of this sorry scene—like the poem’s central character, how often we wish in retrospect that some action of ours could have been different.  We tell ourselves later, after the event, the critical moment where our choice could have made a difference in someone’s life, that we really wish we could go back and help them.  We imagine the happy accident that crosses our path with theirs again, and in our minds we see ourselves doing the right thing this time—extending that mercy to the outcast, that charity to the friendless, that risked offer to the hand likely to turn us away out of pride or fear.  Like the poem’s figure, we maybe are only kidding ourselves, building an image of a better self in our head that will let us sleep at night.  Maybe.

I only know that even the almost comically weak sacrifice that closes the poem has the power to move me.  Yes, Robinson’s eye is probably more than half-scornful at that dime cast into the red pot—so cheap an offer to the absent friend we have ruined, so failing a gesture at the figure of Jesus implicit behind the “Saint” in the Saint Nicholas costume, the “Salvation” in the Salvation Army bell.  And yet, to quote another literary figure, “so shines a good deed in a weary world”, even the most trivial of good deeds in the face of a world we ourselves make more weary with our faults and our foibles.  There’s something tiny but hopeful in its possibility at the end of this poem, I think, because that man casting a thin dime away from himself is acknowledging something about himself and the world as he does—the notion that there are wounds we must give of ourselves to heal, that on some level we are obligated to each other and that, in Western society at least, we choose this time of year when the nights are longest and the winds are coldest to remember humanity.  Not just the warmth of those people we draw closest to us in love, either, but the shadows at the edges of our vision, the cold bodies who may not last this winter out if we do not help.  So the cheapness of that dime is galling, yes, pitiful in its inadequacy in the face of human need.  But it’s also where we all must start, especially those of us as hardened by the world and as shielded from pain by our cynicism as the figures in all of Robinson’s poetry.  So I offer the poem today as something to start our thinking about gratitude and giving, about how we see ourselves and who we really are, about what modernity has made of us modern folk and about what we must build in each other.  Apart from all the significance Christmas holds for the Christian on a religious level, I think its value and its worth for a society of people unconnected with the church is that its art does turn our heads to thoughts like this each December.  May they work on us, and may we work them out in our own lives, and the lives of others.

“How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children?”

Apologies for the distance between posts, including a missed Poetry Friday—computer chaos has reigned for a short time here, but I think it’s passing and I should be able to resume a more regular schedule in the near future.  In any case, we return now to the plight of the Joads, now adrift in the sea of human misery that is the migrant worker experience in California in the 1930s (and, I fear, resembles the migrant worker experience in California in the 2010s more than it should).  The quote I chose as the post’s title is a good capsule summary of Steinbeck’s argument, and it’s both convincing and utterly useless in this context.  Convincing, because it really does emphasize the reality of poverty and how it can inspire the most desperate kinds of action.  Too many of us comfortable middle-class First World types like to think of crime as a moral failure that other people have (and we do not).  Few, if any, of us have experienced the kind of real deprivation that motivates most people to transgress laws and boundaries—fewer of us would be in any position to lecture others about morality, if we had.  But I also said “utterly useless” because it’s clear that Tom Joad and his family cannot easily leverage that grim determination into doing anything about their plight.  All the cards are in the hands of the owners, and the workers can either go along or lose their (temporary ramshackle) homes, if not their lives.  The Grapes of Wrath can read like a dystopian science fiction novel.  It is one of our country’s lasting shames that this dystopia was all too real, and that we allowed it to persist.  (This shame is not limited to America and Americans, by any means, but given my national identity and the national identity of the Pulitzers, it’s where my gaze is traveling right now.)

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

Florence Thompson in an iconic photograph: I think I have always fixated so fully on her facial expression that I missed the ragged children flanking her, both turned away from the camera’s eye (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d rather not make this blog too political—I’m a fairly political person, but I’d like to keep as much of that as possible out of my comments here—but I think certain things about Steinbeck’s novel are inescapable.  The hellscape inhabited by the Joads is, in almost every respect, the way the world would operate if free market capitalism was given absolutely free reign to work its laissez faire magic.*  There is an oversupply of workers, and so (in the absence of minimum wage laws, workers’ unions, etc.) each person must take however little is offered.  It is to the employer’s advantage to solicit far too many prospective employees, which in migrant farm work means uprooting these people and having them spend time and money traveling to you, and then to offer the least money you can get away with, knowing that (in the absence of any social safety net) even a dime for a day’s work is probably more than these people can afford to pass up.  They’ll buy cheap flour with it, maybe, and mix it with rainwater into a paste that staves off hunger.  That’s what the lucky employees will do.  The unlucky, the thousands who came to you at your bidding but find themselves turned away, will eat nothing, or eat stones to fill their bellies, and try again the next day.  We talk a lot of smack in the public arena, on news shows and on Facebook feeds, about food stamps and welfare.  The reason Americans today don’t starve to death—the reason California’s highways are not littered with dying children tonight—is because we have things like food stamps and welfare programs.  I am personally sure those programs waste some percentage of their money on people less than fully deserving of the aid.  I consider it a small price to pay for the knowledge that, in my country, even poor children will eat dinner today.  I consider it a small price to pay for the ability to go to sleep at night, the ability to live with myself.

I don’t think there’s a way to read Grapes without contending with this message—it’s what Steinbeck wants us to hear, certainly.  I don’t think it has to be the end of the story, or that somehow Tom Joad’s fictional existence (and the many non-fictional people he represents) automatically implies that we ought to have the exact programs we do today.  But I do think it’s one of the most powerful arguments that can be made for the idea that there needs to be something in the world other than corporations playing by their own rules and private charities filling in the gaps.  You’ll notice a distinct lack of charitable support for the Joads in this book (at least thus far)—I don’t think that’s an accident, or that Steinbeck is obscuring from us the great willingness of the American charity organizations to aid Okie migrant workers in the 1930s.  It was an era where so few had money to help those in need.  And it was an era that exposed the divisions in our nation—the “redneck” Okies were not welcome in California.  Whatever local charities existed, surely many of them were run by the same sorts of well-heeled community types who drive the Joads off of vacant land and who threaten violence against anyone talking about uniting the workers.  There was charity in California for some people, I am certain, but not for the Joads…just as I know plenty of charitable people today who would gladly donate to the needs of the poor, but who are not particularly interested in funding charities that aid undocumented immigrants.  I’m not blaming people for deciding where to give their charitable donations—that is, and should be, entirely their business.  It’s for that very reason, though, that I’m acknowledging the truth that there needs to be something in the equation other than volunteer-funded charity to make sure Ruthie and Winfield don’t starve.

This is not entirely altruism, either.  What will that fearless man do whose family goes hungry every night?  What will that fearless mother do when she cannot face another morning without bread for her children?  As Steinbeck shows us, it breaks some people—they lose their minds, their will, their sense of purpose.  They abandon their commitments.  But what kind of violence can it give birth to, there in the hungry shadows on the outskirts of “civilization”?  Businesspeople attacked FDR and his “radical” policies of the New Deal, but I wonder if they should not have been thanking him from the bottom of their hearts for saving their livelihoods and their lives.  Poverty under the thumb of a wealthy few has been a recipe for revolution in more than one country, and I don’t see any reason it couldn’t have taken the United States.  There are a lot of competing interests at work in the world Steinbeck is narrating, but I think it’s clear that almost every kind of motivation (morals, ethics, self-preservation) should be coming down on the side of the wealthy taking more care in structuring a society in which Tom and the other Joads can find a fair day’s work and a fair day’s wage.

I am cruising along now, perhaps 2/3 of the way through the novel, which is far enough that I’d rather not give away too many plot details (as you can already see above).  I’m sure I’ll comment on an event or two between now and the review, but mostly I aim to follow this story to its end and then give this the most honest review I can.  Thus far, the brilliant success I detected early on has hardly faded at all—this is still the best of the Pulitzers, and we’ll see if it can hold its course the last stretch of the journey.

*I should emphasize, I don’t think many people actually advocate the kind of totally unfettered free market approach I’m describing here.  But I think many times we do talk as though “the free market” is this holy, wonderful thing.  I think it’s always worth reminding ourselves that the market needs to be balanced by other concerns, and that this balancing act is complicated for everyone involved—market economics has also created great opportunity and quality of life for a very wide range of Americans, after all!  My interest is in getting rid of the equation of “market-based reform” and “good”, and replacing it with a complicated, nuanced way of thinking and talking about economics and human happiness.  But that’s a topic for a very different kind of blog.  To put it in a more literary setting, I guess what I’m saying is that I wish members of Congress spent more time reading The Grapes of Wrath, and less time reading Atlas Shrugged.  And now I’ll stop before I get myself in worse trouble.


Poetry Friday: President’s Day Edition

Today, for the three day weekend, I offer two works of poetry.  One is a short poem about Abraham Lincoln by Vachel Lindsay.  The other is a longer poem by Abraham Lincoln that he gave as his 2nd Inaugural Address, in March of 1865, a few weeks before he died.  He didn’t call it a poem, of course.  Maybe you won’t either.  But if you don’t think it’s poetry, I’d like to hear why.  For me, it does all that poetry does, and can do.

First, Vachel Lindsay’s “Lincoln”:

Would I might rouse the Lincoln in you all,
That which is gendered in the wilderness
From lonely prairies and God’s tenderness.
Imperial soul, star of a weedy stream,
Born where the ghosts of buffaloes still dream,
Whose spirit hoof-beats storm above his grave,
Above that breast of earth and prairie-fire—
Fire that freed the slave.

I chose this today largely because it opens with just what I would say to you, to any of you, to all Americans. Would that we could raise the Lincolns in ourselves this year, not because he was a saint or a demi-god or a man who could do no wrong, but because more than maybe any other American before or since, Lincoln perceived who we were and who we could be, and lit the pathway there. Lincoln, as Lindsay interprets him, is about frontier and fire, about optimism and energy. Lincoln, despite his many faults, managed to tell America more about itself than it had ever known—he saw in the founders’ documents a call to a nobler destiny than they had forged. And he said it to us in the simplest possible language, so that even when his words have grown tired with overquotation and overapplication they still claw their way through to us and shake us awake to ourselves. In the passage below, I hope that happens for you. Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address:


At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

I think it will take a whole post to say why I think this is perhaps the best speech he ever gave (better than the more famous Gettysburg Address), and why it may be the best speech ever given, especially if I consider how much he gets done in how few words (what you see above is the entirety of his remarks). So I will try to write that post on Monday, on Presidents’ Day, and I hope that between now and then a few of you will offer your reflections here in the comments.

“My life doesn’t count, except as something for Dirk to use. I’m done with anything else.”

Oh, Selina.  There’s a particular brand of martyrdom that she seems to specialize in—the pointless, wallow-in-self-pity, abdicate-responsibility-for-happiness kind.  Selina’s hardly unique….I’m sure we’ve all encountered people who see the world in this way.  I can’t deny it’s gotten her and Dirk through some rough times.  But if she’s going to help her son, she can’t just reject her own happiness at every turn.

While they’re poor and starving, several people offer to help them, but Selina has too much “dignity”.  Is she right that it’s undiginified?  Furthermore, when you and your child need food, does it make any sense to turn down offers of help because you don’t accept “charity”?  There’s a remarkable amount of pride here—her desire to do nothing but help her son herself is the sort of thing that leads to trouble, both in a larger sense of where she’ll get food, and on a deep internal level.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I find that kind of self-rejecting pity a really dangerous thing.

In fact, I’d say she sets her son up for failure.  By the time he reaches eighteen, she’s so cared for his every whim that he doesn’t seem fully independent.  He could have been Georgie Minafer, but thank goodness Ferber pulls him back from that abyss.  He’s just insensitive to the middle-aged woman  student he befriends (and casts aside) at college.  He doesn’t believe in himself enough to stand up to peer pressure. I worry that this latter half of the book will show a real turn for the negative—an exploration of how mild riches and comfort can spoil a young man.

There’s more to say, but it’s late.  I’ll just note that there’s a lot of interesting stuff about college ca. 1910, as we follow Dirk through those bright years on campus, and that he’s headed back East to what I can only assume is the conflict that will set the last stages of the plot in motion.

At the risk of overcrowding an already crowded sidebar…

…I’ve added a couple of things.  First of all, I’m not sure what a normal # of visitors / # of comments ratio is, but I feel like a lot of folks aren’t even really aware of the comments–the text for the link to the comments page is small but I don’t know enough about the page layout to alter that.  So I’ve added a “recent comments” section to the sidebar, hoping to encourage folks to engage in a little more conversation…although I certainly recognize that forgotten ’20s fiction isn’t exactly barn-burning stuff, I’d love it if we interacted a bit more.

And my social conscience was awakened a bit when I realized there was something built into WordPress that would allow blog visitors to support charities.  You can see it at the bottom of the sidebar.  Basically, if you follow the link, you’re asked to do silly things (click on little boxes, send someone an e-card, etc.) which basically just expose you to advertising for Colgate toothpaste, etc.  You get credit for doing this, and more credit if you post what you did on Facebook or Twitter.  And those “credits” go to support education for impoverished young women in Africa.  I chose the charity (from the list of charities that WordPress works with) because I wanted something as closely aligned with literacy as possible.  I hope you’ll give it a try–it’s an experiment, but I figure at the worst (if it proves so weird and clunky that none of us click that link regularly), we’ll have provided a small contribution to a good cause.

And in general, if the blog seems weirdly designed, let me know.  I don’t know how much I’m going to tinker with it, but I’ll probably keep experimenting with it a bit.  I’m conscious of not wanting a sidebar that goes on forever, but I also want to provide links to the sorts of things that are useful.  If you feel strongly, tell me (a comment here is easy, or on really any page) and I’ll certainly consider your ideas seriously.

Thanks for your patience as I settle into a comfortable blog layout and routine.  A So Big post should appear soon (tomorrow, if all goes well).