The Story Behind the Poem
One of Poetry’s many gifts is the sudden associative leap that opens the door to a forgotten room in your soul, one full of meaning and memory. I had not expected Adlai Stevenson to show up in my poem. There he was, my schoolgirl crush. You’ve lived a good long time if you remember Adlai Stevenson. He ran for president in 1952 and 1956. Could a man with a bald spot and a hole in his shoe run for President today?
What did he mean to me, age 9, age 13? When I saw his face, when I heard his voice, something settled down in my body. I felt safe. As the American born child of Jewish refugees from Hitler, feeling safe was not familiar. But Adlai Stevenson felt like kin. He stood for an America in which I could feel at home. Stevenson was my good American father -urbane, sophisticated, witty, eloquent and liberal. Unlike my own father, who was also urbane, sophisticated, witty, eloquent and liberal, I never heard Stevenson fly into a German rage because I’d played a wrong note on the piano. What I heard him say was:
There are men among us who use ‘patriotism’ as a club for attacking other Americans. What can we say for the self-styled patriot who thinks that a Negro, a Jew, a Catholic, or a Japanese-American is less American than he? That he betrays the deepest article of our faith, the belief in individual liberty and equality which has always been the heart and soul of the American idea.
(He said this in 1952, addressing the American Legion in Madison Square Garden.) All we have to do to make that statement current is add “Muslim” and “immigrant” to the list of groups that suffer prejudice.
Stevenson was ridiculed in his time for his indecisive aristocratic air. (Sound familiar, Barack?) He was labeled an egghead. Young as I was, I knew I was an egghead, that my family and friends were eggheads, that I would spend my life among eggheads. I loved it when Stevenson said: "Eggheads of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your yolks." Spoken like a poet! No wonder I adored him.
A supporter told him that he was sure to get the vote of “every thinking” person in the U.S., to which Stevenson replied, “Thank you, but I need a majority to win.”
Stevenson was a man of moral courage and wisdom. In accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party in 1952 he said:
“Our troubles are ahead of us. Some will call us appeasers; others will say we are the War Party. Some will say we are reactionary; others will say we stand for socialism. There will be...the inevitable cries of ‘Throw the rascals out,’ ‘It’s time for a change,’ and so on and so on.”
Obama could say those very words today.
So much has changed and so much remains the same. The kinship I felt as a girl, for Adlai Stevenson, was matched by no one until Barack Obama arrived on the national stage: urbane, sophisticated, witty, eloquent and liberal, though some would argue with that last adjective. Something settles down in my body when I hear our President speak. His intelligence, his vision, his ability to contain great complexity, makes him kin. I hope he is aware of Adlai Stevenson as an ancestor.
Of course, Stevenson lost two elections. He did not face the impossible task of transforming his vision into political reality. He wasn’t given the opportunity to disappoint and disillusion us. He was not tested as Barack Obama is being tested today. And the safety I felt in Stevenson’s aura did not last. The hateful vitriol of the House Un-American Activities Committee, it’s vicious attack on the livelihoods of eggheads, artists, intellectuals, people who were my kin, and the ugliness of those cross-burning racist murderers, the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk, took over center stage in the country, and in my haunted heart. And today there is a new brand of vitriol, hatred, nastiness in our politics.
But Barack, difficult as this time is for you, for all of us who admire and support you, I think these words from Stevenson’s 1952 acceptance speech are good advice from your remarkable forerunner:
Let’s talk sense to the American people. Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains...that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions, like resistance when you’re attacked, but a long, patient, costly struggle which alone can assure triumph over the great enemies of man -war, poverty and tyranny- and the assaults upon human dignity which are the most grievous consequences of each....
The people are wise, wiser than the Republicans think. And the Democratic Party is the people’s Party -not the labor Party, not the farmer’s Party, not the employer’s Party-it is the Party...of everyone.
And Barack, there is just one more quote I want you to hold in your heart, as you go around the country talking sense to the American people. Stevenson spoke of our fragile planet in a speech before the United Nations Economic and Social Council in Geneva, Switzerland in 1965, the year of his death. He said:
We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserve of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.
The poem that opened the door to Adlai Stevenson’s place in my heart is called “When I’m Gone.” Like so many of my poems it is an elegy. I am happy it has landed in a fine on line publication, Emprise Review, in which Tracy Youngblom has written an elegant essay on elegy. Any poet who aligns her work with that of Rilke and Celan, as she does, is kin to me. I hope you’ll read the essay and check out the poems in Emprise 21.