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April & Poetry & Financial Literacy

National Poetry Month logoApril is National Financial Literacy Month and it’s also National Poetry Month. We think it’s a bad idea to put them in the same month.

On one side we have the Academy of American Poets which began National Poetry Month in 1996 to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. On the other side,  we have US $10000 billthe US Senate which in 2003 passed Resolution 316, making April National Financial Literacy Month, and two years later the US House of Representatives passed a bill supporting the goals and ideals of Financial Literacy Month.

Because we have poetry and financial literacy occupying the same month, we’ve looked around for poems about money. There aren’t many. We’ve already posted “The Banks Are Made of Marble” by Pete Seeger and, anyway, we make a distinction between song lyrics and unadorned poems. After a critical search we think that “Money,” by Philip Larkin, is the best poem about money. Readers familiar with the rhythms and rhymes of conventional English verse may be unsettled by these unconventionally long lined couplets. We must add that Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985) was a distinguished British poet, a kind of unofficial Poet Laureate in England, and that the word screw in the poem is a Brit’s slang for salary or wages.

Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
‘Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.’

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life

—In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can’t put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
Won’t in the end buy you more than a shave.

I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

Summer is icumen in…rather late this year

Earth & Ecliptic by Andreas Cellarius

The astronomical diagram above was designed by Andreas Cellarius, the Dutch-German cartographer best known for his elaborately decorated maps of the heavens, the Harmonia Macrocosmica, which display the divine harmony of the macrocosm.  The engraving reproduced above shows the earth tilted in regard to the plane of the ecliptic — and that’s important, because if the earth were not tilted we wouldn’t have seasons.

The earth travels around the sun in a nice flat path, but the earth is tilted in regard to the plane of that path, so that at different times of the year the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun (summer), and at other times it’s tilted away (winter.) And twice a year the angle is such that the northern and southern parts get an equal amount of sunshine — the equinox, when night and day are essentially equal in length.  We’ve now gone through the vernal (spring) equinox.

John Milton, the heavy-weight Puritan poet of the 17th century,  says that when God created the Garden of Eden, the earth’s axis was not tilted, and the weather remained wonderfully temperate. But after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, everything got slanted awry and we wound up with our freezing winters and hot, hot summers. Milton’s Paradise Lost is too long to quote here, so instead we’ve chosen a very, very short lyric.

“Sumer Is Icumen In” is a poem in Middle English, actually the lyrics to a round, or rota, from about the middle of the 13th century. The little verses celebrate the arrival of spring.  The first stanza, below here,  mentions the loud song of the cukoo bird, the growing seeds, the blossoming meadows, the new growth of trees in the woods.

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing, cuccu;
Groweth sed
and bloweth med,
And springth the wode nu;
Sing, cuccu!

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calue cu;
Bulluc sterteth,
Bucke uerteth,

When we originally posted this we also posted Ezra Pound’s parody, “Winter is icumen in,” but we found it too depressing.It must have been posted by our evil twin brother. We’ll stick with spring.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree, the Poem

Maybe you’ve read  “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” the poem by William Butler Yeats that begins:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

William Butler Yeats may not be the grand exciting figure he was some decades ago, but his major poems  still retains their beauty and mystery. “Innisfree” is one of his earlier,  simpler verses. Marilyn Robertson is acquainted with”The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and has named her own poem “Innisfree.” Here it is:

When I can’t sleep, I often recite a poem I’ve memorized,
taking deep breaths between the lines, but not so much
that I ruin the meter. Last night it was Yeats.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree
But I soon realized it was a poor choice, because
the last ting I wanted to do was rise.

Then I began to wonder where Innisfree was, exactly,
and could you get there in a rowboat
with all the things you’d need for a long stay.

Gardening implements. String for the beans to climb.
The beehive, of course. A couple of warm sweaters—
who knows what the weather will be like?

I’m thinking it would be summer and, with any luck,
someone else will have built the cabin—
maybe Yeats himself—and left behind a basket

of wattles to use for kindling, plus a few poems
to read on the porch after supper as I watch
the linnets busily fluttering away the Irish light.

—Marilyn Robertson

When Mansions Go Bad

A month ago we posted a piece about houses and mansions, because houses are so much bigger than they used to be and mansions are so very much bigger than even your average big house. Being rich is all about square footage when we talk about housing. And here we have a poem by Marilyn Robertson about mansions and what happens when they lose all sense of propriety, go wild and break the law.

When Mansions Go Bad

Bad news for big houses this morning:

When mansions go bad, you’ve got to get tough.
They’ll start parking any which way on your street.
When you come home, they’ll be sprawling on
your front steps, smoking on your lawn.

A mansion can swallow a meadow in a single afternoon.
It can block a view, turn a clearing into a gym,
a lane into a bowling alley.

They’ve already hijacked a couple of houses over on Elm.
Just sat their big butts down and took over,
spreading conservatories, wine cellars, ballrooms
clear out to the neighbor’s fence.

Now mansions must keep to a modest 5,000 square feet.
But what mansion is going to stand for that?

They’re going to rebel.
They’re going to put their thousands of extra feet down wherever they damn please.

—Marilyn Robertson


That Time of Day

Marilyn Robertson feels pretty much the way we do when it comes to finding good reasons to do what we want for our aching muscles, our morale, our spiritual well being and — oh, yes — our sanity. And it’s pretty good therapy after listening to the news or reading the paper’s editorial page. Here’s a new poem from her new collection, Living With Light.

That Time of Day

Don’t you love that time of day when
you can shed those dirty clothes and head for the bath?

This feels so good, I always say,
easing down under the bubbles, knowing that

a clean person can no longer go out and do more
yardwork, move more rocks, trap more gophers.

A clean person may sit at the piano and play
an etude, may read an old book

on an old couch, may have some cashews
and a piece of gorgonzola.

Evening will come the the clean person
as it will to the dirty one, but the clean person

will be better able to enjoy it,
having had both the nuts and the cheese,

plus a little something in a minor key.

—Marilyn Robertson

Line horizontal halfpoint 460 X 10We hope to use a bubble-bath graphic is by Sasukexkaname, but thus far we’re unable to find Sasukexkaname’s e-mail address.

Beautiful Nature

Now, while the world of the Middle East is falling apart, while innocents are being undone by nerve gas or set afire by something very much like Napalm, yes, now we’re taking time out for a poem by Marilyn Robertson. Sometimes it seems that not thinking at all is best. Here’s her poem “Beautiful Nature” with its epigraph by Thomas Jefferson.

Beautiful Nature

The object of walking is to relax the mind.
You should therefore not permit yourself
even to think while you walk.

—Thomas Jefferson

It is Saturday morning.
A man, a boy, and a dog are out walking
in the woods. They stop to rest beside the trail.

The boy, dressed in camouflage, is chattering on
about AK47s and all the bad guys he killed
in a video game he played before breakfast.

But here we are in beautiful nature, says his father.
Can we talk about something else?
No, says the boy.

Two sighs drift into the ravine.
The boy is thinking,  Sheesh! Parents!
The father is thinking,  We are doomed.

The dog, waiting patiently for the walk to resume,
is following the advice of Thomas Jefferson
and thinking of nothing at at all.

content to watch a woodpecker pounding his beak
into a bay laurel, trying to find the nut
he left there last fall.

—Marilyn Robertson


A Lost World

Can you recall a roller coaster called the Big Dipper? No? It was a long time ago and if you’re over 40 you may have forgotten it. We tend to forget little things, but after a while all those little things add up to a whole world. Marilyn Robertson knows about forgetting. Her poem is called “A Lost World.”

What is lost today stays lost.
One story after another floats down
the murky corridors of mind,
all the way back to zero.
Then along comes the eraser.

Names, dates, who came with us
and who stayed home because they had chores
or their mothers said no — it’s a lost world.
It eats lunch with the dinosaurs.

You say: I can’t believe you don’t remember.
The four of us in the back seat of the convertible,
your father putting the top down…
the roller coaster…the handsome sailor.

I  concentrate on the scene.
It’s as flat as a raft on a dead sea.
the sailor tries to climb aboard, but after
fifty years his arms are not so strong.

He slips back into the current and drifts away,
along with the convertible
and all the rickety cars on the Big Dipper,
slowly chugging their way to the top.

—Marilyn Robertson

Ain’t We Got Fun?

Flappers in 1920sMaybe you’ve heard the old song, “Ain’t We Got Fun?”   (This is really a post about economics and we want to talk about the lyrics to “Ain’t We Got Fun?”  We promise to play the song at the end of this post, if that’s what you’re here for.  So stay with us, please.)

The lyrics were written by Raymond Egan and Gus Kahn back in 1921.  The words tell us about the newly married couple in the cottage next door who are pursued by bill collectors from the grocer, the butcher and the landlord. Despite their poverty, the couple sings these lines:

Ev’ry morning, ev’ry evening,
Ain’t we got fun?
Not much money, Oh, but honey,
Ain’t we got fun?

As the song goes on we hear its most famous lines:

There’s nothing surer,
The rich get rich
And the poor get children.
In the meantime, in between time,
Ain’t we got fun?

Or, as it says further along:

There’s  nothing surer,
The rich get rich
And the poor get laid off.

Of course, “There’s nothing surer,” leads us to the rhyming word “poorer,” for which the lyrics substitute “children” or “laid off.” But what’s unsung is what we already know: The rich get rich while the poor get poorer. That’s capitalism in a nutshell. You probably know that, too.

Foreign Affairs magazine recently published a lead article called “Capitalism and Inequality” by Jerry Muller. Muller believes that “Inequality is an inevitable product of capitalist activity, and expanding equality of opportunity only increases it — because some individuals and communities are simply better able than others to exploit the opportunities for development and advancement that capitalism affords.”

You might pause here to reread and relish Jerry Muller’s use of polysyllables — half a dozen five-syllable words in a single sentence. Anyone can say that capitalism produces inequality, but not many can say it like that. And saying it that way almost makes you forget what it means.

Maybe you’ve seen the 1987 movie Wall Street. (No, we’re not going to play you the movie.) It starred Michael Douglas in an Oscar-winning performance as Gordon Gekko, a corrupt Wall Street insider whose most famous line is “greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” What might be overlooked is Gekko’s declaring, at another point in the movie, that the upper one percent own 50 percent of the country’s wealth. That was back in 1987. But the rich keep getting richer and today the upper one percent own 80 percent of the country’s wealth. That’s what Jerry Muller’s polysyllables mean.

The subtitle of Muller’s Foreign Affairs article is “What the Right and the Left Get Wrong.” In his view, those on the right who want to weaken Social Security and other safety-net programs, need to know that “major government social welfare spending is a proper response to some inherently problematic features of capitalism.” And, of course, those on the left should learn that “to redistribute income from the top of the economy to the bottom” has serious drawbacks, that “preferential treatment to under performers, may be worse than the disease,” and “even continued innovation and revived economic growth will not eliminate or even significantly reduce socioeconomic inequality and insecurity.” All of which makes a fine 21-page defense of the status quo.

There’s great sense of even-handedness in the article. After all, the author points out that both left and right get it wrong when they try to change the way things are arranged just now. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and there’s nothing to be done about that except to keep a safety net out there to catch the poorer acrobats – about 40 percent of the population today – as they come crashing down. And nothing can be done about it because capitalism is a fact of nature, like the furnace of the sun or the rotation of galaxies. But capitalism isn’t part of the natural order of things.

Capitalism is a creation of humankind and it can be changed for the better. That may be obvious to you, but it’s not clear to most of the people in Congress. One of the inevitable features of capitalism is the emergence of monopolies. At least is used to be. Nowadays, we have laws against monopolistic behavior, and when a company is judged to be a monopoly it can be told to break itself up and sell away parts of itself. Anti-monopoly laws don’t injure capitalism, they improve it by helping to create competition and spur innovation.

There’s a legend that Henry Ford — a very rich auto maker, not a bomb-throwing radical — improved his worker’s wages so that they could afford to buy a Ford motor car. Of course, no one is compelled to follow Henry Ford’s  apocryphal  example. Indeed, it’s still possible to allow a capitalist economy to go freely on it’s inevitable path — the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the richest of the rich ascend to unimaginable wealth, the middle class descends to abject poverty and the entire society collapses along with the economy. Ain’t we got fun? No, not when that happens.

OK, we promised you a song, and you’ve been patient,  so here it is. Click the arrowhead in the middle and enjoy the old song:

Piccolo Mare

Marilyn Robertson, a singer and song writer living in California, writes poems, too, as readers of Critical Pages have come to know.  This one is called “Piccolo Mare” and is as simple and as complex or self-referential as a face in a mirror, or a sound and its echo.

The man whose bald head reflects the light
is writing a letter to his mother,
telling her he’s arrived in a town called Piccolo Mare.

He’s met a poet there, himself, at a sidewalk cafe,
taking pleasure in the coffee, the feel of the pen
in his hand, and the word evanescent
he has just written at the top of the page.

A bell rings in the church tower.
Its chimes float out to sea, then curve back
toward the hill houses,
easing under eaves, through open windows.

He thinks of the clock in his childhood home,
a grandfather clock, whose deep sound
carried him safely into each night
and out the other side.

He knew what that country looked like,
what he could expect.
Those things did not arrive.

He made a life anyway.
Now a new chapter begins.
He watches his hand to see what will happen next.

—Marilyn Robertson

Tapping The Sugar Maple

Maple tree bark and sap bucketBy now you’re plenty tired of winter and politics and economics, but it’s too early to go out to the garden to annihilate all that’s made, to a green thought in a green shade. But it is the right time to tap a sugar maple tree. Tapping a sugar maple, collecting the sap and simmering it down to rich, amber colored maple syrup — that’s just right for now. It means that winter is going, spring is coming.

First, find a sugar maple. Not just any old maple, but a maple with bark such as in the image we have here. That’s how you know it’s a sugar maple. Now, for equipment you you’ll need a 7/16” drill or auger to drill into the tree . Drill in about 2” or 3”. You need a 7/16” hole because of what comes next. Next comes a spile – a small tube or pipe-like object that fits nicely into the 7/16” hole.  And 7/16” has been the standard since before anyone around her can recall. Next take a hammer and tap — gently! —the spile into the hole. And, of course, you’ll need a bucket to catch the maple sap dripping from the spile. We use buckets with little removable roofs over them to keep out rain or snow, but you could use old plastic gallon jug, so long as you can hang it from the hook under the spile.

Nature does the rest. Tapping the sugar maple doesn’t do it any harm. You shouldn’t tap a tree that’s less than 10 inches in diameter (31.4159 inches in circumference.) If the tree is, say, 18 inches in diameter (56.5 inches in circumference) you can put another tap on the other side of the tree.

Here’s the shocker. The ratio of sap to syrup is 40 to 1. That is to say, you Maple sap boiling down to syrupneed to collect 40 quarts of sap to boil down to 1 quart of syrup. We didn’t want to tell you any earlier for fear it would dishearten you. The photo on the right shows  sap being boiled down to  syrup. It’s a process that requires attention. When it begins, it’s as clear as water, but as you boil it down it  slowly takes on a darker color. Then you pour in more sap, which lightens it a bit, then boil it down and so on. As you repeat that process it reduces to syrup. You’ve got to be careful toward the end. The syrup will be produced when you allow the temperature to rise about 7 degrees above the boiling point of water at your location. If you scorch it, there’s really no way to rescue it from the burnt taste it acquires. (more…)

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.