221b: Poetry and Politics

Poetry and Politics

In June 1956, Senator John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Harvard wherein he examined the newfound chasm between politicians and intellectuals. After discussing the various differences between the two vocations, he ended the speech, saying, "'Don't teach my boy poetry; he is going to stand for Parliament,' an English mother recently wrote the Provost of Harrow." Well, perhaps she was right – but if more politicians knew poetry and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live on this commencement day of 1956.

Mind as an Attic

You can impress people by knowing useless facts and memorizing dates and names of famous battles, but unless you plan to make a run on Jeopardy!, most of that information is useless. There is no point in bogging down your mind with facts you can look up with a quick Google search. Reading an article this week, I was reminded by this great Sherlock Holmes quote. In 1887, he said, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands.” The information you choose to put in your brain is much like commitments in life, with everything you add, something else has to go. Be cautious. Don’t pay attention to everything that shows you its checkout line.

You Win Every Battle You Don't Fight

Tom Hanks received an unsuspecting call from the FBI one day. On the other end, the feds were letting him know his name appeared on a list of potential targets to attack. After a Zoom call, there wasn’t much else to do, so Hanks went on with his life. Most people are surprised he didn't do anything else, but Hanks wasn't sure what else he could do. He explained his reasoning with a favorite wartime story from General MacArthur—how MacArthur, “aware of huge pockets of Japanese forces and arms on various Pacific islands, deliberately decided not to attack them.” Hanks says, “And so these Japanese soldiers essentially sat out the war doing nothing.” MacArthur just left them there. “And I thought, That’s friggin’ brilliant. You’re really smart in the battles you don’t fight.” You win every battle you don't fight. That’s why Haruki Murakami disdains literary prizes and doesn't join literary panels. He’s a writer, not a critic. “A writer’s greatest responsibility is to his readers,” he writes, “to keep providing them with the best work that he is capable of turning out…Developing the objectivity needed to approve of or reject others’ works in a responsible manner, however, sits entirely outside the boundaries of that battlefield.”

Time as a Judge

Time is the ultimate judge. With moviemaking, Tom Hanks explains, wherever the movie is at in twenty years is what counts, not what the critics say on opening day. “For me, it happened on a movie that I wrote and directed called "That Thing You Do!" he said. "I loved making that movie. I loved writing it, I loved being with it. I love all the people in it. When it came out, it was completely dismissed by the first wave of vox populi. It didn’t do great business. It hung around for a while, was viewed as being some sort of odd, kinda quasi-ripoff of nine other different movies and a nice little stroll down memory lane. Now the same exact publications that dismissed it in their initial review called it 'Tom Hanks’s cult classic, That Thing You Do!' So now it’s a cult classic. What was the difference between those two things? The answer is time." Time separates the wheat from the chaff, the good from the great. This is why I hesitate to read new books. Unless it’s by an author I love, I rarely read new books. Most of them won’t be around in five years. So why waste time on them now? Instead, I like to read old books and let time be my filter. If an old book is still in print, I know it’s going to be excellent.

A Perfect Day

Novelist Vladimir Nabokov describes his daily routine: "I awake around seven in winter... For a while, I lie in bed mentally revising and planning things. Around eight: shave, breakfast, enthroned meditation, and bath—in that order. Then I work till lunch in my study, taking time out for a short stroll with my wife along the lake... We lunch around one p.m., and I am back at my desk by half-past one and work steadily till half-past six. Then a stroll to a newsstand for the English papers, and dinner at seven. No work after dinner. And bed around nine. I read till half-past eleven..."

A daily routine is crucial because how we spend our days is how we live our lives. For what is life but a series of weeks, and what are weeks but a series of days? If you wish to live a good life, aim first to live a good day.


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