Monthly Archives: January 2014

Jan 27, 2014 “Break, Break, Break”

Thanks to a timely gift from a friend, I got to read a great book on running this week, Born to Run. Some of you have heard of it. The final chapter had an inscription from Herb Elliott, an Australian world champ, olympic champ, and record-breaker in the mile. From 1957 to 1961, he was undefeated in the mile and 1500 meter races. But his quote, would you believe it, was about poetry and spiritual strength, not running. Apparently he had a kind of crazy coach, who put his charges through harsh running conditions, monitored their all-natural diets, and encouraged them to read the “great books.” Elliott had a particular fondness for Tennyson (1809-1892). “Poetry,” he said in a 1958 Sport Illustrated story, “can make you a better man by giving you an appreciation of beauty and an awareness of things around you. It seems today that you’ve got to be an intellectual to be able to get back to nature.”

I’m not sure what he meant. But anyway, here’s a Tennyson poem about the rough inspiration of nature. The title of this poem is sort of what I think about my knees when I go out to run on sub-30 degree days. -ed.
Break, break, break,
         On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
         The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman’s boy,
         That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
         That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
         To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,
         And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break
         At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
         Will never come back to me.

Jan 20, 2014 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Is it poetry? That’s for you to judge. In reading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for the first time in about 20 years, I was mostly struck by how orderly and plainspoken it is, as opposed to the soaring, incantatory rhetoric we often focus on when we talk about Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous speeches and writing. He saves the flowery stuff for the end, and sprinkles a couple biblical references throughout, without mounting an overarching metaphor. I also observed that the letter does not just come from within, as a meditation on being jailed for a just cause, but is a response to criticism from his fellow clergymen, who complained that King’s actions were “unwise and untimely.” I’ll just print 4 paragraphs here, but if you want to refresh your memory banks the entire speech is at:

Given my line of work I was most drawn to the argument in the 2nd paragraph printed here. What’s the biggest point for you?I hope everyone had a good holiday and enjoys a good week! -ed.
from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

April 16, 1963

Jan 13, 2014 “The Port Pilot”

Dear readers,

between holiday travel and once-every-2-decades weather systems… here we are after an unintended hiatus.
Last year at this time we were listening intently to Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem, “One Today.” Yesterday Mr. Blanco popped into my world again, via the NYTimes magazine, while I was riding a train. In a tiny blurb interview titled “How to Appreciate a Poem,” he said:
“Read it out loud. When you read a poem aloud, something amazing happens. It becomes a part of your physiology. Your body becomes actually involved in understanding and responding to it. You have more of a visceral reaction.”
After asking long-time reader John Bradshaw for his permission, I’ve also been meaning for several months to dedicate a reading on Monday’s Verse to his dad, Jack Bradshaw. A good handful of our readership had the pleasure to meet Jack Bradshaw, some of us many times. He died about a year ago after a long and happy life, and after a relatively brief bout with cancer. The Richard Blanco poem “The Port Pilot” seemed perfect to me, but I’ve never been able to find a properly formatted version online. This version I’m printing actually comes from a radio transcript, but I later heard the poem described as a prose-poem and as a “tumbling sentence,” so I don’t know if it is actually supposed to have line breaks, and I don’t know if the spellings are correct. But it’s just a transcript of a living thing, so heeding the advice of Mr. Blanco, let’s read it aloud together in honor of Jack Bradshaw, a humble and generous man. -ed.

Before I knew him as a butcher, coming home with blood stains on his cuffs that Mama could never wash out in the kitchen sink, before I learned he’d spent all day in the sky in loafers and a necktie counting other people’s money in a tower with a view he couldn’t afford, years before he started gambling with me on cockfights at Tio Budede’s farm every Saturday night, teaching me how to bet on death, long before he was diagnosed and staying alive became his full-time job, his agenda filled with appointments to kill whatever was killing him, a lifetime before I had to cradle him in and out of bed, he carried me on his shoulders over the jetty at the port.

Minutes after I’m called to the hospital, I remember that day, sitting together on a rock, watching the ships glide past us, when he told me that years before he was my father he was a port pilot in Havana, steering ships safely into harbor, then guiding them out to sea again, never to see them again, seconds before I hear his last breath, told to leave the room.