Poetry Wednesday: A Poem That Our Leaders Love

This is not really a poem although some people refer to it as a poem. It was supposedly the favorite of General Douglas MacArthur who had it hanging on the wall behind his desk when he was in charge of running post-war Japan.
It is more of an essay. I thought I would include it in the poetry section since these days where we find our country controlled by people in their seventies: Trump, 74; McConnell 78, Pelosi 80, Hoyer 81, and Biden, a spry 77.
MacArthur was relieved of his command when he was 71 years old.   When President Truman was asked why he fired him, he said, “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”
It is said many Japanese business men had been inspired by this essay/poem long before General MacArthur. It was written by Samuel Ullman. As you might have guessed he was in his seventies when he wrote it.
YOUTH
By Samuel Ullman
Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.
 
 
Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity
of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.
This often exists in a man of sixty more than a body of twenty. Nobody grows old merely by a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals.
 
 
Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.
Worry, fear, self-distrust bows the heart and turns the spirit back to dust.
 
 
Whether sixty or sixteen, there is in every human being’s heart the lure of wonder, the unfailing child-like appetite of what’s next, and the joy of the game of living.
In the center of your heart and my heart there is a wireless station; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power from men and from the Infinite, so long are you young. 
 
When the aerials are down, and your spirit is covered with snows of cynicism
and the ice of pessimism, then you are grown old, even at twenty,
but as long as your aerials are up, to catch the waves of optimism, there is hope you may die young at eighty.
 
 How explain MacArthur’s love of this essay/poem. I suppose all those septuagenarians and octogenarians, or soon to be octogenarians, would also love it. But really it is so much nonsense. As Truman would suggest it is nnot considered such by those who fit his description of MacArthur. You don’t die young at 80 no matter what aerials you put up or what you fill your heart with. Nor are you young at 80 because the plastic surgeon altered your aspect.
This may be a more appropriate poem when we think of age and youth.
“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
    “And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
    Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
    “I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
    Why, I do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “as I mentioned before,
    And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door—
    Pray, what is the reason of that?”

“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
    “I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment—one shilling the box—
    Allow me to sell you a couple.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak
    For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak—
    Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
    And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
    Has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
    That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose—
    What made you so awfully clever?”

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
    Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
    Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!”[

Or for a more concise version of youth and age we can turn to W. B. Yeats:

Much did I rage when young,
Being by the world oppressed,
But now with flattering tongue
It speeds the parting guest.

8 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: A Poem That Our Leaders Love

  1. The most elderly person I remained close to throughout my life was my aunt Irja pronounced eereea). I was visiting her one time and I took her to a piano recital being held at the nursing home hall. Now, Irja held to very high standard and beliefs right to the end. After five minutes this acerbic critic, age 102, dictated that “We must leave now. This performance is positively dreadful.”

    I admired the no-compromise attitude. She died two years later at 104, sharp as a tack and as immovable as ever.

  2. I sat down with Rob Shetterly and interviewed Russell Libby
    at his home in Maine a few weeks before he died of Cancer.

    “This book of Russell Libby’s poems was published almost exactly one year after he died at 56. It’s a collection he wrote over the last two years of his life and left unfinished in a folder on a shelf by his bed. His widow Mary Anne and their three daughters —Anna Grace, Margaret Jane, and Rosa May, for whom the farm was named — ordered them, corrected spelling, and fixed typos. When I painted a portrait of Russell for the Americans Who Tell the Truth project. I had not painted him because of his poetry, rather because of his determined advocacy for organic farming, his success at building the movement of renewed local agriculture, and his fierce opposition to the terrible ramifications of industrial farming and its contamination of land, water, and air. As Russell said, “If contamination is the price of modern society, modern society has failed us.”

    Although his poetry speaks nothing of political urgency to reform the way we treat nature and ourselves, I could have painted him for that, too. The voice of these poems is meditative, gentle and unpretentious. It comes from the person Russell was when his primary concern was stewardship of his own back yard and the land he could wander through on foot. It speaks with deceptive calm, free of artifice. I say “deceptive” because these poems are the work of a consummate artist. For the most part they are addressed to a future owner of Three Sisters Farm, an owner in the next generation or the next millennium. In Changing Weather, a poem that muses without alarm over the local effects of climate change, he says

    https://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/blog/what-you-should-know-by-russell-libby-a-review

    What You Should Know by Russell Libby, a review

  3. Good poems, Matt. Thanks. For those interested in poetic inspiration, I recommend these:

    Opportunity – by E.R Sill
    A Psalm of Life – by W.W. Longfellow
    Abou Ben Adhem – by J.H.L. Hunt
    It Couldn’t Be Done – by E.A. Guest
    If – by R. Kipling

    1. The Savin Hill Poetry Society decided years ago that Kipling was full baloney. Not even ST. Paul could live up to those dictates.

  4. Rob Shetterly says it best….

    https://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/blog/the-elusive-truths-of-democracy

    The Elusive Truths of Democracy
    Submitted by editor on 14 August 2020 – 04:18pm
    The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Antifascist, Antiracist Politics
    John Nichols
    Verso, 2020, 286pp

    Nothing could be timelier than John Nichols’ terrific new book, The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, which begins by examining what happened to the New Deal in the middle and late 1940’s as the crisis of the Depression was abating and World War II ending. The strongest advocate for the continuation of the policies of the New Deal – after FDR himself, his Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, and the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt – was FDR’s vice president in 1940, Henry Wallace. When the forces of wealth and power were licking their imperialist chops over how the U.S. could emerge from the war and profit as the commanding economic, military and cultural force in the world, Wallace was advocating for making the post-war period the Century of the Common Man, an era of world peace, an era of U.S. wealth and might working to establish international economic and gender equality. Wallace advocated for policies to end those inequities which create war. He saw the opportunity for America to finally inhabit its original truths and the Democratic Party to be the vehicle to make that happen. What Nichols documents is how successfully racist and corporate power inside the Democratic Party hijacked the progressive and popular vision of the New Deal – not just then but up to the present.

    A couple of years ago I read Jill Lepore’s new history of the United States, These Truths (W.W. Norton, 2018). It’s a fascinating and deeply troubling book. She looks at our history through the lens of the stated truths of the Declaration of Independence and how we failed then to enact them for everyone. She asks why, and then enumerates the many opportunities over 250 years to make good on their promise and how they were rebuffed or subverted. Lepore’s book tells a story similar to NIchols’: a grand democratic purpose undermined again and again.

    That subversion was directed by all the usual suspects – white supremacy, privilege, profit, power, racism, sexism, propaganda and the insistence that the right to exploit people and the environment is a fundamental, guaranteed apple-pie freedom. Freedom is what we are all about, right? Sadly, that opportunistically defined freedom morphs into a monster that gobbles up all our other values – equality, the common good, compassion, democracy – and, today, our very survival. That brand of freedom is the value of choice for vested interests. It’s a symptom of the mentality of those who refuse to wear masks today to deter the spread of COVID-19. This freedom is a euphemism for self-interest.

    Both Nichols and Lepore concentrate on the New Deal era of the 1930s and ‘40s when Franklin Roosevelt was elected president for 4 terms beginning in 1932. This was the era of the Great Depression. The economy collapsed. The Dust Bowl transformed proud, self-reliant western farmers into refugees; millions of people lost their jobs and savings. The 1920s had reveled in freewheeling consumption, speculation, wealth disparity, and violent racism. When the bubble burst, desperation and chaos infected the country. But as often happens in crisis, just as some visionary people saw the opportunity to reimagine the United States in the image of its original values, some others worked behind the scenes to make sure that didn’t happen.

    Much of that reimagining was focused on the rights and dignity of working people whose exploitation had created great wealth for capitalists but no safety net for workers. The New Deal worked to remedy that situation with the implicit understanding that democracy can’t function unless the economy treats everyone fairly and with dignity. The eight hour day, workplace safety regulations, the right to unionize, collective bargaining, social security, a minimum wage – all these New Deal programs were meant to level the playing field and save democracy from the oligarchs’ “freedom” to be oligarchs.

    Nichols follows Wallace as he stumped tirelessly, speaking to huge crowds all over the country. People loved his passion for basic democratic values. He fiercely railed against racism, sexism, engineered poverty, militarism and incipient fascism in the U.S. As the defeat of Germany, Japan and Italy neared, he could see symptoms of fascist mentality stirring in the racism and corporatism of the U.S. Wallace said: “Those who write the peace must think of the whole world. There can be no privileged peoples. We ourselves in the United States are no more a master race than the Nazis. And we cannot perpetuate economic warfare without planting the seeds of military warfare. We must use our power at the peace table to build an economic peace that is charitable and enduring.”

    Wallace’s prescience envisioned many of the issues we see exacerbated by the current resident of the White House. Wallace said, “Those who fan the fires of racial clashes for the purpose of making political capital here at home are taking the first step toward Nazism.”

    Nichols shows how powerful conservative forces within the Democratic Party which were never happy with the economic fairness of the New Deal acted during the Democratic presidential convention in 1944 to undermine the Party’s support for progressive policies and removed Wallace from the ticket. “Charitable and enduring economic peace” was not their goal.

    Exclusion of real progressiveness has haunted the Democratic Party ever since. As the “free speech” of big money became more strident and greedy, the Democratic Party has become subservient to the same money forces embraced by the Republicans. Nichols exposes this process at work in all the Democratic administrations and policies since 1948 – a steady erosion of support for unions, workers, peace making, poor people, racial equity, health care, and corporate regulation. Instead, the Party establishment has cozied up to the Big Banks, Wall Street and the war makers. Democrats like Geroge McGovern and Jesse Jackson courageously continued the rearguard struggle for progressive values but were overwhelmed.

    At the end of the book Nichols interviews contemporary Democratic progressives who, in the tradition of Henry Wallace, articulate what freedom is really supposed to mean and why that freedom has to be the soul of the Party. He visits Wallace’s birthplace in Iowa with Bernie Sanders. They discuss the legacy of the New Deal and Sanders says, “…if you’re making $9 an hour, if today you have no health care, if today you can’t afford a higher education, how free are you really? … What does that freedom mean? … Freedom means you have decent housing at a price you can afford. Freedom means that, when you turn on your water faucet, the water that comes out is not toxic but drinkable.”

    Nichols’ book is a passionate defense of the New Deal principles and the people who carry on its intent and legacy today. The New Deal, he says, is “…not some majestic memory, but … a touchstone.” It was the crucible when the U.S. came closest to adopting its founding values. Today’s general extolling of “moderate” Democrats continues the long retreat from real progressiveness and real democracy. The soul of the Democratic Party lives in those who struggle for justice, dignity, opportunity and generosity for all. Nichols’ book examines all the sleazy ways corporate Democrats have tried to extinguish the flame of progressivism. They can’t. That flame – the spirit of justice – still burns, refusing to be snuffed out

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