Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Tuesday Poem: "This Life" by Grace Paley

My friend tells me
a man in my house jumped off the roof
the roof is the eighth floor of this building
the roof door was locked      how did he manage?
his girlfriend had said      goodbye I'm leaving
he was 22
his mother and father were hurrying
at that very moment
from upstate to help him move out of Brooklyn
they had heard about the girl

the people who usually look up
and call      jump jump      did not see him
the life savers who creep around the back staircases
and reach the roof's edge just in time
never got their chance      he meant it      he wanted
only one person to know

did he imagine that she would grieve
all her young life away      tell everyone
this boy I kind of lived with last year
he died on account of me

my friend was not interested      he said      you're always
inventing stuff      what I want to know      how could he throw
his life away      how do these guys do it
just like that      and here I am fighting this
ferocious insane vindictive virus day and
night      day and night      and for what?      for only
one thing      this life      this life

     by Grace Paley

Grace Paley, who died in 2007, was an American short story writer, poet, teacher, and political activist. For more about her life and work, see here:


I was really captivated by this poem. Although the subject is tragic, she approaches it in a very matter-of-fact manner which somehow plays off all the imaginative alleyways she explores. Her use of spaces within lines is intriguing.

The plainness of the language she uses belies the fact that the poem is packed with meaning. I love those lines: "the life savers who creep around the back staircases/and reach the roof's edge just in time/never got their chance" which seems to poke fun at the implausibility of some of the scenes we might see on television or in films.

And then the self-absorbed single focus of her friend who has no time for her imagination throws the whole poem into stark relief.

Friday, 22 November 2013

50th Anniversary of Kennedy's Assassination: "The Gift Outright" by Robert Frost

The land was ours before we were the land's.She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become. 

By Robert Frost

John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, 50 years ago today. 

John F. Kennedy was the first president to have a poet read at his inauguration, a tradition which continues to this day.  And he invited Robert Frost, one of the giants of American literature. 

Robert Frost responded to JFK's invitation:

"If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration. I may not be equal to it but I can accept it for my cause — the arts, poetry — now for the first time taken into the affairs of statesmen. … I am glad the invitation pleases your family. It will please my family to the fourth generation and my family of friends and, were they living, it would have pleased inordinately the kind of Grover Cleveland Democrats I had for parents."

Frost composed a poem for the inauguration only two days before, but he encountered difficulties reading on the day. The poem he'd written for Kennedy was long and he hadn't memorised it. Frost was unable to read the poem because it was a snowy day and he experienced sun-strike coming off the snow.  

So, instead Frost recited "The Gift Outright", the poem reproduced above. Actually, Kennedy had earlier requested "The Gift Outright", a poem Frost knew by heart. He even went so far as to change the last line to "such as she will become" (again, in line with a request from Kennedy).

Much had lead up to Kennedy's assassination, the Vietnam War, protests, civil unrest, but, although Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated in office, it seems to me that that day America lost some of its innocence and youthful enthusiasm which it has never since regained.

I might add that Native Americans would, no doubt, feel uneasy about the frontier jingoism of Frost's poem. Certainly a counter view was posted on the Tuesday Poem hub recently:

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Blog Action Day - A late Posting on Human Rights

I was meant to be part of an international Blog Action Day on October 16, but I was away in Western Australia and wi-fi access to the Internet was difficult. So here is my belated post:

There is always a theme and this year the theme was Human Rights.

I thought about this and I thought I'd write about Human Rights in our present society and Human Rights for our grandchildren and future generations.

Firstly, let us look at our present society. Each year, surveys and scientific research are published which show that the income inequality is growing. Jesus said, "The poor are always with us.", but perhaps even he did not envisage a world where vast amounts of wealth were concentrated in the hands of only a relative few. His camels would be queueing up to go through the eye of the needle!

Recently, I read a Guardian article which expressed the view that oligarchy in Russia was societally unhealthy as the super-rich ran the country through political patronage. Putin and his cronies grow wealthy by essentially raping the natural wealth of their vast country while the majority of Russians still struggle with low incomes and lack of access to basic products and services.

When Tony Blair was in the early days of his Prime Ministership, he spoke of a much-vaunted "Third Way", some miraculous form of governance which would walk the line between Socialism and Capitalism and deliver a good life for all citizens of the planet. This idea soon was soon quietly forgotten and Blair went on to pander to the wealthy as usual even though he was a Labour Prime Minister. "New Labour" became synonymous with faux Conservatism dressed up to look like the working class weren't getting screwed even they knew damn well they were!

And in the good old superpower, USA, Republicans and Democrats aren't really right and left wing parties, more like extreme right and moderately right respectively. American politicians rarely do anything which doesn't have big corporation capitalist approval. Guns and War and Political Adventurism are the American way and being compassionate to people too poor for medical care is UnAmerican!

When I was a child growing up in the 1960s in small-town New Zealand, perhaps I was blind to social conditions, but I don't think I was. Modern statistics also verify my memories that New Zealand was more equal and egalitarian prior to the great New Right experiments of the 1980s. The gap between New Zealand's rich and poor has widened substantially from 1980 onwards according to many books and articles by esteemed social scientists and others.

My father worked his way up from a lowly teller in the Bank of New South Wales (which emerged from mergers as Westpac in modern times) eventually to bank manager, with his career only interrupted by 6 years of World War 2 when he flew in the RAF, mainly in the Middle East. In order to get promotion, we moved from town to town in rural New Zealand every 2-3 years so my childhood was peripatetic.

Everyone equated working in a bank with being rich, but we were only middle-class at best. When my Dad retired in 1974, I discovered, quite by accident, that he was only on a modest salary. As a 17-year-old Trainee Laboratory Assistant, I started on a higher yearly salary than my Dad finished his career on.

But we lived often in houses in small rural towns with populations anywhere between 3,000-10,000 people and the Bank actually provided the house at a modest rent so my parents did not have the outgoings of a mortgage for a long period in their lives.

My brothers and I went to ordinary State schools and mixed with lots of children, both Maori and Pakeha (there wasn't much multiculturalism then just a weak form of biculturalism). We played at other people's places and that was an indicator of whether they were better off than you or not. By my recollections, it was usually the families of accountants and lawyers who were the richest in the towns, but even then not obscenely rich, more a little bit rich.

I'm not saying we lived in a Golden Age prior to the 1980s, but I don't think New Zealand as a society contained the extremes of wealth and poverty that it does now. I know, also, that we cannot go backwards or remain cocooned in isolation from the rest of the world, but the 1980s also brought with it the concept of Globalisation. Like everything, Globalisation has its pros and cons. One of the downsides, I feel, has been the entry of multinational corporations into our economy with their purpose being to exploit New Zealander's wallets and maximise their returns to their shareholders. Although many will pretend to care about New Zealand society in their PR, in truth they have no stake in our society and their "pretend caring" is just another exercise in massaging the money from our wallets.

The Americans would do well to pay more attention to their founding forefathers' lofty goals for every citizen: "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". For every citizen of this planet to have real Human Rights, these goals are underpinned by a decent income, access to good education, having the basics such as clean water, wholesome food, decent shelter and the ability to enjoy leisure time.

Call me a Socialist, an unreconstructed Marxist or whatever, but until some of the obscene wealth held by a few can be spread more fairly amongst the many, Human Rights remain just a pallid phrase for a great majority of Earth's citizens.

This is a long post to digest so I will address my other concern: Human Rights for our grandchildren and future generations, in another post.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Tuesday Poem: "Cranky Old Man" by Anonymous

What do you see nurses? . . .. . .What do you see?
What are you thinking .. . when you're looking at me?
A cranky old man, . . . . . .not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . . . . . . .. with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food .. . ... . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . .'I do wish you'd try!'
Who seems not to notice . . .the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . .. . . A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not . . . ... lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . .The long day to fill?
Is that what you're thinking?. .Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse .you're not looking at me.
I'll tell you who I am . . . . .. As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, .. . . . as I eat at your will.
I'm a small child of Ten . .with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters .. . . .. . who love one another
A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he'll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . .. . . . . My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons .. .have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . to see I don't mourn.
At Fifty, once more, .. ...Babies play 'round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future ... . . . . I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing .. . . young of their own.
And I think of the years . . . And the love that I've known.
I'm now an old man . . . . . . .. and nature is cruel.
It's jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigour, depart.
There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass . A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . . . . .. . I remember the pain.
And I'm loving and living . . . . . . . life over again.
I think of the years, all too few . . .. gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people .. . . . .. . . open and see.
Not a cranky old man .
Look closer . . . . see .. .. . .. .... . ME!!

This might not be considered great poetry, the stuff of legend, but it has a poignancy that made me want to post it. In our Western societies, I often feel that we don't value age and the wisdom of experience. Many other cultures such as Asian cultures, for example, hold their old people in high esteem, but ours are often brushed off as a nuisance, of no great use to society and, indeed, often viewed as a burden.

When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value. Later, when the nurses were going through his meager possessions, They found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital.

One nurse took her copy to Melbourne. The old man's sole bequest to posterity has since appeared in the Christmas editions of magazines around the country and appearing in mags for Mental Health. A slide presentation has also been made based on his simple, but eloquent, poem.

And this old man, with nothing left to give to the world, is now the author of this 'anonymous' poem winging across the Internet.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Original children's poems displayed in our library

National Poetry Day is but a distant memory now, but I thought I would share a few of the original poems that appeared on the children's display in our local library:

"Cats, cats, they sleep on mats 
Fish, fish, they stitch 
Cows, cows, they moo and poo 
But birds are the loudest nerds."

By Kole 

"Teacher, teacher, don't be mean 
Give me back my bubble gum 
Teacher, teacher, don't be mean 
Give me a coin for the coffee machine 
Teacher, teacher, I think he has lost his underwear" 

By Anonymous 

"Llama, llama, shopping drama 
Llama, llama, shopping drama 
Llama llama woke up in the shower." 
By Lydia 

And brief but highly original and thought-provoking:

"My sister Sammi is very nice 
So please don't call her a piece of rice." 
By Anonymous (in very cute little kid writing)


You can't beat children for an original take on the world!