Politics and Poetry

I’m not like some who memorize great reams of poetry and can always find an appropriate quote.  I like to pick up a book of poems and look though it until something catches my attention.  Then, I’ll read it over and over for several days.  Or, I have a friend who often posts poetry on her Facebook page which I read.  And it makes me happy that The Writer’s Almanac is back.

So the other night I was thumbing through Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times and this short poem by Ginger Andrews caught my eye.

Lying around all day

with some strange new deep blue

weekend funk, I’m not really asleep

when my sister calls

to say she’s just hung up

from talking with Aunt Bertha

who is 89 and ill but managing

to take care of Uncle Frank

who is completely bed ridden.

Aunt Bert says

it’s snowing there in Arkansas,

on Catfish Lane, and she hasn’t been

able to walk out to their mailbox.

She’s been suffering

from a bad case of the mulleygrubs.

The cure for the mulleygrubs,

She tells my sister,

is to get up and bake a cake.

If that doesn’t do it, put on a red dress.


I had to look up mulleygrubs.  Turns out it also means the blues or sulks; a despondent, sullen or ill-tempered mood. (Merriam-Webster)

I think a lot of us are looking at the current political scene and suffering from the mulleygrubs.  So it is worth finding a red dress – or shirt – or baking a cake.  Maybe Aunt Bertha is right.

The Maya Angelou stamp quote

The U. S. Post Office has just issued a stamp commemorating Maya Angelou.  It is a very nice stamp with her picture and a quote.  The only problem is that the quote is not from her.  Josh Hicks wrote about the problem in his column in the Washington Post yesterday.

The U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday released a new Maya Angelou stamp featuring a quote from a different author’s book, propagating a popular misconception about the original source of the line.

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song,” the stamp reads.

Angelou, the late African-American author who wrote the famous 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” used the same line in media interviews, and President Obama attributed it to her during the 2013 presentation of the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal.

But the sentence never appeared in Angelou’s autobiography. The words came from Joan Walsh Anglund’s collection of poems, “A Cup of Sun,” published two years before the release of Angelou’s autobiography. (One difference: The pronoun “it” from the stamp quote appears as “he” in the poem).

A Maya Angelou stamp that was issued Tuesday features a quote attributed to her. But children’s book author named Joan Walsh Anglund says she wrote it first.

A Maya Angelou stamp that was issued Tuesday features a quote attributed to her. But children’s book author named Joan Walsh Anglund says she wrote it first.

Hicks goes on to compare the Angelou mistake with another:  The inscription on the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The release of the stamp comes less than four years after another fumbled attempt to honor an historic African-American figure. Controversy erupted in 2011 over an abbreviated quote on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorialthat critics thought would make the civil-rights leader appear immodest.

One of the inscriptions on the memorial read: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” But King actually said, “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

I was one of those who thought the editing completely missed Dr. King’s point.  But I think the Angelou stamp quote is different.  Lonnae O’Neal interviewed Joan Walsh Anglund about the use of the quote.

Joan Walsh Anglund also was hearing about the Angelou stamp for the first time Monday night. “I haven’t read all of her things, and I love her things, of course,” she said of the poet and cultural icon. “But I think it easily happens sometimes that people hear something, and it’s kind of going into your subconscious and you don’t realize it,” she said.

“It’s an interesting connection, and interesting it would happen and already be printed and on her stamp,” Anglund said. “I love her and all she’s done, and I also love my own private thinking that also comes to the public because it comes from what I’ve been thinking and how I’ve been feeling.

“I don’t know about the stamp and I hope that it’s successful,” she added.

We can wonder if Angelou even remembered where she first heard the words that have come to be associated with her but the real lesson here is that we have to work harder at using words.  We need to be careful about how we edit other people’s words lest we change their meaning.  And we can all wonder at the human mind and how we associate certain phrases with specific people – so much so that even the person may come to believe it is theirs.

(Thanks to my friend Gary Bailey for bringing the story to my attention.)

Photograph:  USPS

Remembering Maxine Kumin

When I read that Maxine Kumin had died, I went to the bookcase where we keep a lot of our poetry and found my copy of  Our Groundtime Here Will Be Brief .  Here is one of my favorites.  (Text from Page 71)


It’s frail, this spring snow, it’s pot cheese
packing down underfoot. It flies out of the trees
at sunrise like a flock of migrant birds.
It slips in clumps off the barn roof,
wingless angels dropped by parachute.
Inside, I hear the horses knocking
aimlessly in their warm brown lockup,
testing the four known sides of the box
as the soul must, confined under the breastbone.
Horses blowing their noses, coming awake,
shaking the sawdust bedding out of their coats.
They do not know what has fallen
out of the sky, colder than apple bloom,
since last night’s hay and oats.
They do not know how satisfactory
they look, set loose in the April sun,
nor what handsprings are turned under
my ribs with winter gone.

late snow

Maxine Kumin was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and once served as the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress or Poet Laureate as the position is now know.  The New York Times obituary recounts her struggles after an accident left her with a severe spinal injury,

One of her most talked-about works of nonfiction was her memoir, “Inside the Halo and Beyond” (2000), a book born of swift, deep adversity.

An accomplished horsewoman, Ms. Kumin was training for a carriage-driving show in 1998 when her horse was spooked by a passing truck. She was thrown from the carriage, which weighed 350 pounds; the horse then pulled the carriage over her. She suffered serious internal injuries, 11 broken ribs and a broken neck.

A doctor told her afterward that 95 percent of patients with her injuries die; of those who survive, 95 percent remain quadriplegic.

Ms. Kumin spent months encased in a cervical-traction halo.

“Imagine a bird cage big enough for a large squawking parrot,” she wrote. “Imagine a human head inside the cage fastened by four titanium pins that dig into the skull. The pins are as sharp as ice picks.”

She was sustained, she later said, by her family (her daughter Judith typed the spoken words that became the memoir); by her beloved Boston Red Sox; and by the reams of poems she harbored within her. After a grueling rehabilitation, Ms. Kumin regained most of her mobility and even rode horses again, though she lived with chronic pain to the end of her life.

The New York Times also discusses her belief in the sound of poetry.

The stylistic hallmarks of her poetry include carefully calibrated rhythms; frequent, often witty use of rhyme, near-rhyme and assonance (also called vowel rhyme); and clean, unadorned diction.

Ms. Kumin was such an evangelist for the sound of poetry that she exhorted her students — she taught at Tufts, New England College, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and elsewhere — to memorize 30 to 40 lines of it a week.

“The other reason, as I tell their often stunned faces, is to give them an internal library to draw on when they are taken political prisoner,” she told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans in 2000. “For many, this is an unthinkable concept; they simply do not believe in anything fervently enough to go to jail for it.”

Ms. Kumin was herself a great memorizer, and in her work one can hear the faint, benevolent echoes of the poets she drank in as a child: Gerard Manley Hopkins, A. E. Housman, Marianne Moore and others.

That’s a challenge – 30 to 40 lines of poetry a week!  Good mental exercise for those of us with aging memories.  I’ll start with “Late Snow” and maybe I will know it by April.

Photograph:  Christian Science Monitor

Calvin Trillin Toasts Obama

NPR has started a series in which poets write an inaugural poem.  Here is Calvin Trillin’s:

Anticipating The Inauguration Of Barack Obama

Inauguration is the day
The nation’s hopes go on display —
When through one man we all convey
Our dream that things will go our way.
His résumé we can’t gainsay.
In politics, it’s clear, his play
Is worthy of the N. B. A.
He proved that in the recent fray,
Though he had help from Tina Fey.
And now this solemn matinee
Awards his country’s top bouquet.

First, Pastor Warren’s going to pray
For everyone who isn’t gay.
Obama then will stand and say,
“I take this oath that I’ll obey
The statutes of the U. S. A.”
In his address, he might portray
The dragons he intends to slay:
How Wall Street’s sky will turn from gray
To blue as blues are chased away,
How workers will collect good pay
For turning out a Chevrolet,
How in Iraq we’ll end our stay
With shortest possible delay,
How pay-to-play will be passé
So K Street suits will not hold sway.
Yes, how we’ll triumph, come what may:
And rise up like a good soufflé
‘Til life’s just like a caberet.

Obamacans will shout hooray
And toast their man with Chardonnay,
As commentators all make hay
Comparing him to JFK.
The Beltway types, those still blasé,
Might think that soon, with some dismay,
We’ll wonder if his feet are clay.
But that’s all for another day