Looking for a poem about work, for my visit to a New York high school, I came across “Let America Be America Again,” by Langston Hughes. It is as contemporary as the current flap over Rudolph Giuliani’s comments about President Obama.
The President, a graceful writer, has often talked about his love for America, as it is, as it could be. Giuliani, particularly disappointingly for a New Yorker, deliberately overlooks the President’s body of work.
Langston Hughes, writing in a time of lynching and outright segregation, begins his poem this way:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Hughes then touches on the aspirations in this country:
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
But near the end, Hughes raises what sounds to me like a prayer of hope:
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
The high-school class I visited had mature young people from other lands -- young women in head scarves, several young men from Asia, a young woman from Mexico about to begin an internship, a young woman from Ecuador who in two years has learned to speak English almost perfectly.
It’s Black History Month. I wanted them to share the hope I feel when I listen to President Obama, the hope I feel when I listen to Langston Hughes.
On Tuesday, Feb. 24 at 9 PM, Terrance McKnight will host a show about the pianist Hazel Scott on WQXR-FM.
And as a bonus, here is “I’ve Known Rivers,” a jazz version of Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” performed by Gary Bartz:
I always accepted William Blake’s observation, “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction” – until I listened to Michael Jordan one night.
Jordan had just made some amazing aerial maneuver for a dunk in heavy traffic. I cannot remember if it was in the Garden or Chicago, but I was there.
Afterward, a reporter asked Jordan how he had invented the move while in mid-air. Jordan normally sneered at “you guys” but this time he doubled up on his derision.
“I’ve made that move a thousand times in the gym,” he said, patronizingly.
Ever since then – 15 or 20 years – I have been vastly more respectful of repetition, performed by tigers of wrath, working on their moves 100 or 200 times per day in the gym or rehearsal room before they perform in the arena.
The value of reps was brought home recently while I was simultaneously reading two books that turned out to have the same message. Practice makes.
By sheer accident, I was reading Tim Howard’s “The Keeper,” skillfully co-written by Ali Benjamin, and Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code,” which I missed in 2009.
As it happens, I know both people – Howard as one of the nicest athletes, Coyle as a colleague at the Tour de France who has done epic work exposing cheating in cycling.
Howard recalls how he was taken in – for free – by Tim Mulqueen, Coach Mulch, a goalkeeper mentor in New Jersey: “He hammered ten in a row, so fast it was hard to get back on my feet between them. The moment I saved one, another was already whizzing past me.
“'Recover faster,’ he barked. ‘You can do better than that.’”
Coach Mulch also trained Howard to throw the ball rather than punt it, even in the closing desperate minutes. That way you have control. Fast forward to the 91st minute against Algeria in South Africa in 2010, when Howard started a full-field attack that kept the USA in the World Cup. The pass dated to New Jersey, two decades earlier.
Howard could have sulked when Manchester United brought in Edwin van de Sar. Instead, Howard studied how van de Sar threw his long body to the ground, cradling the ball. Tim Howard imitated the man who had taken his job.
The Howard book arrived over the transom from HarperCollins and the Coyle book was recommended by two disparate friends, a classical musician and a second-career keeper coach, who live 9,000 miles apart. Neither knew that Daniel Coyle is a friend of mine.
The cellist and coach were both impressed by Coyle’s scientific description of how the human system learns the lessons of repetition, through a material called myelin.
“(1) Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of nerve fibers. (2) Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy. (3) The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.”
All the rest is practice. Gym rats. Musicians improvising with purpose. Teachers imposing order. Coyle has a great segment on a charter school (KIPP) in Houston. Students doing their reps, like Tim Howard diving for a save, over and over again, building up his myelin.
These are poems about a priest abusing a boy, a number of boys.
Norbert Krapf, recently the poet laureate of Indiana, held it inside for half a century, before a spiritual advisor suggested he deal with it. He then did what an artist does. He created something else, something different.
Think of it as a stage. (This is my conceit, not the author’s.) On the stage is a boy, still reeling from what happened so long ago, and an older man, who has been living a productive life, despite what happened. With his back to the audience, mute and distant for a long and heavy time, is the priest himself.
And then there is Mr. Blues.
"Okay, you got some mean and nasty stuff in your past.
"I admit you got some mean and nasty stuff in your past.
"My mama used to say, 'Son, let go of that bitter sass.!'"
-- Mr. Blues Sings Yes
Mr. Blues is the friend we all want to ride shotgun on the journey of our lives. He is the third part of the Freudian trinity, who sees clearly, speaks the truth, does not let things rest. (Krapf told me he did not create Mr. Blues but rather Mr. Blues just began speaking one day.)
Mr. Blues prods the boy and the man to reconcile, to look again at what went down in rural southern Indiana, when the home-town priest asked altar boys to stay over at the rectory on the night before Sunday Mass, and also took them hunting, was a pillar of the community, and over the years he violated some but not others. Many people knew, but not everybody. The boy and the man are still working that out, five decades later. Why couldn’t they tell anybody? (One boy told his father, who beat him up, but not the priest.)
Krapf used to teach at C.W. Post College on Long Island. I first heard about him in 2003, from three Navajo women from the Southwest who had been recruited to play volleyball, and who raved about Krapf for initiating them into poetry as part of the fine education they were receiving at Post.
Krapf moved home to Indianapolis after that. We still have never met, although I wrote a column about him and the frontier between Bears fans and Colts fans in northern Indiana, before Super Bowl XLI in 2007. Krapf sings blues and jazz around Indiana, and loves to reminisce about the hills and farms of southern Indiana, just north of the Ohio River, a region I learned to love in my days in Louisville.
Now Krapf has written poems about a different corner of his childhood. The man wonders what he could have done to heal some of the pain of the boy, and Mr. Blues hectors them to meet in the middle, to get it out. The reality is as current as Pope Francis meeting with six victims of priest abuse in early July. By now, we all know what happened, in so many places.
Late in the book, there is a rustling on the hypothetical stage. It takes a long time for the priest to speak, but ultimately he does, beginning with a terse warning to the boy. Let us say he is not contrite.
(Krapf notes in the preface that his therapist urged him to include the priest in these poems. Good instinct. It works in the context, and I suspect it worked for Krapf, also.)
I am not qualified to critique poetry, Krapf’s use of three-line stanzas, blues cadence, repetition with slight variation, slang, familiarity, child-like observations of the living past. I only know that I read Catholic Boy Blues in two huge chunks, wondering how it would turn out.
I was reminded of the aside that Nina Simone hurls at the audience in her epic song, “Mississippi Goddam:” “This is a show tune/ But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet.” Never was, to my knowledge. But the aside lives.
Most of us think we have read and heard everything we need to know about priest abuse, but up to now we had not heard Norbert Krapf take it on.
* * *
Catholic Boy Blues. By Norbert Krapf. Introduction by Matthew Fox. 2014. Greystone Publishing LLC. Nashville, Tennessee. www.greystonepublishing.com.
On July 15, it was announced that Krapf has been selected as the regional winner of the 2014 Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award. He and a colleague plan to hold workshops about writing about difficult relationships.
For more information: http://www.krapfpoetry.com/
Every name has a story, and our daughter Corinna tells hers in a lovely May Day essay today.
She tells the story on the day when she witnessed her friend Jacky Nkubito become an American citizen in DC.
The name happened as Corinna tells it. I was taking a course on the Cavalier Poets with Dr. Ruth Stauffer at Hofstra College in the spring of 1960, the last semester of my very good liberal arts education. I loved the urgency of Andrew Marvell:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
It’s possible I might even have used those words, or at least felt the sentiment, in that beautiful flowering spring.
I also loved the poem Corinna’s Going a-Maying by Robert Herrick, which our daughter describes so nicely.
So how did we name our two other children? Marianne and I agree that her mom, still with us at 93, loved the name Laura. Also, Marianne and I both knew the David Raksin song “Laura,” from the noir movie of the same name, from 1944.
Laura is the face in the misty light
Footsteps that you hear down the hall
The laugh that floats on a summer night
That you can never quite recall.
One version is by Frank Sinatra -- long before his ring-a-ding-ding stage, I hasten to add. It's a little lush, but a time piece.
I was sold as soon as the name Laura was proposed for our oldest daughter.
And she’s not the only Laura named for the song. In the comments portion of the youtube Sinatra version, LauraLaVitaEBella says her grandfather gave her the name. Bravo, Nonno.
How did we arrive at David for our third child?
Marianne notes that I wanted to name him Dylan. It would have been perfect. She counter-proposed David – for the Michelangelo statue in Florence.
Many years later, I came to understand King David through the Leonard Cohen song, written in 1984, now one of the great touchstones of contemporary life.
Personally, I am partial to the k.d. lang version on her glorious Canadian tribute, Hymns of the 49th Parallel.
So I say, Hallelujah for music and poetry and art. Hallelujah for May Day. And Hallelujah for Citizen Jacky in DC today.
The name jumped out of a random paragraph about the horror. A world-renowned poet was caught in the madness in an upscale mall in Nairobi.
I heard about Kofi Awoonor in 1976 when I was covering Long Island for the Times. His friends at the State University at Stony Brook were publicizing his arrest in his homeland of Ghana. He said he had driven a friend in political trouble across the border because that’s what friends do. He had been at Stony Brook before going home, and had many admirers in the States, including two Pulitzer Prize winners, Louis Simpson and Bernard Malamud.
Of everything I did on that story, I most remember calling the Ghanaian embassy in Washington, D.C., browbeating some telephone-answerer, saying, “Doesn’t your country know it has imprisoned an important artist, a man the world knows?” Reporters know how to make ourselves obnoxious in cases like this, and I’d like to think I did.
Ghana came to its senses in 10 months and released him for time served and assured him that he remained a citizen in good standing. He had dropped from 165 pounds to 135 pounds but said he caught up with his reading in prison. He also got a collection of poems out of his little sabbatical, called The House by the Sea, after the prison where he lived.
In January of 1978 he returned to Stony Brook to see his friends, and drink wine, and recite poetry. One he read was dedicated to his daughter Amewsika, whose name means, The Human Being Is More Precious Than Gold.
Tomorrow my love
You will turn eleven
I had promised a party;
But worry not, I won’t be there.
Your mother will give you a party;
Tell me if she doesn’t.
Where am I? Well, very near you.
But there are iron bars on my door.
A man stands there with a gun.
He brings me food and water
Now and then
And I dream that soon
You and I and all of us
Will be free!
Kofi Awoonor lived and wrote and taught from Ghana, and served as a diplomat, for the rest of his life, which ended this week while traveling to Kenya for a literary festival, as a prominent voice of Africa, of humanity. Other men with guns appeared at the mall and slaughtered innocents.
I went to a bookshelf – I knew just where it was – and found his book, The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara, which I had read as I prepared to write the two stories while he was imprisoned. At the reception in Stony Brook, he had inscribed the book for me, the only time we met.
I want to add that I am grateful to Ghana for giving him back his life, his voice. I have since come to meet Ghanaian soccer fans in Germany and Brooklyn and South Africa, the nicest people. They mingled with Americans at the World Cup in 2010, some carrying flags of both nations. I think of Ghana as Kofi Awoonor’s homeland, and grieve along with the nation.
The article from the Sahara Reporters:
Just say it out loud, the mantra that gets some of us through the winter.
Pitchers and catchers, pitchers and catchers.
The good time is upon us.
The batteries are reporting in Arizona and Florida.
The New York Times has a touching recollection of the first dippy spring of the Mets, when Casey Stengel tried to convince people he was managing a contender.
Robert Lipsyte, who was there in St. Petersburg that first spring, describes what it was like. My first team – Newsday – also caught the sweet goofiness of the Mets, telling people it was really all right to enjoy whatever was coming next from this motley bunch.
Pitchers and catchers. The Amazing Mets, Casey called them. Too old, too young, too marginal. But what a good time.
In the spirit of pitchers and catchers and rejuvenation and springtime, I am sharing a poem that popped over my transom the other day, from Brian Doyle, not the guy who batted .438 for the Yankees in the 1978 World Series or a bunch of other Brian Doyles, but a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. He sent it to me; I send it to you, with his permission.
Poem to Celebrate the Day that Pitchers
and Catchers Report to Training Camp
One time years ago when I was a geeky goofy gawky teenager
I stood on the baseball mound and waited as our coach ambled
Out to give me advice or take me out, I couldn’t tell just which
From his face. Even though I had walked a couple of guys and
Another kid had hit a ball so hard it bounced through the fence
Before the outfielders could react, the coach didn’t seem angry.
Coaches on other teams got mad and threw things and shouted,
But not our coach, that I remember. When our coach arrived at
The mound I held out the ball, as we had been taught, and tried
To stay calm, but he said no no, stay in, you’re doing just great,
I just came out to talk a little. Boy, did that kid crush that curve
Or what? I haven’t seen a ball hit that hard in years. You notice
The sound the bat made? Kind of a basso whunk? Authoritative,
I would call that sound. Inarguable. Instantly identifiable, right?
I don’t think we spend sufficient time appreciating the sonorous
Aspects of the game, you know what I mean? The small musics,
You might say. Like how the fungo bat has a high note. Sounds
Sort of happy and relaxed, a before-the-game sound. And cleats
On concrete, that sounds cool. Clatter, that’s the word. So, what
Are you going to throw this next kid? I’d just stay with the heat;
Now, I know you say you have no control, and while that’s true,
You may actually suddenly achieve control – it’s not impossible.
And remember that every wild pitch causes trepidation and awe,
Which are not conducive to hitting. Hey, look a blue heron! See,
Right there, by the right field line! Wow. Okay, kid, go get them.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.