Poor excuses: poetry and poverty mix

The long Republican tradition of demonizing poverty.

And Man, whose heav'n-erected face,

The smiles of love adorn,

Man's inhumanity to Man

Makes countless thousands mourn!

—Robert Burns, from "Man Was Made to Mourn" (1784)

We've never really been poor, although there was an extended time when we had no money, and had to borrow from Beneficial Finance. "Don't worry," they told me when I applied for a loan, "teachers are our best customers." It was 1960, I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, hoping to become a college teacher, and this was unnerving information.

Unlike the really poor, Jeanne and I came from middle-class families who, though not wealthy, would have loaned us money had we asked for it — a net below our balancing act. Jeanne's parents bought me a thick warm coat for Christmas; a few weeks later, the coat was stolen from the Graduate Library, probably too tempting for some threadbare graduate student (though I like to think it wasn't a literature major).

My mom flew up to stay with us for a few days when our children were born. To pay for the births, I'd teach a night course on Bankers' English, in which I had no interest, not to mention principle. I remember leading animated discussions of The Catcher in the Rye, with the plain red cover of Banking English firmly closed. Holden would have liked that. We went out so seldom in those days, we joked that we could qualify for those new "Meals on Wheels" programs for the housebound.

Much earlier, having developed an interest in the make-up of words, I'd already noted the similarity between POETRY and POVERTY. (When I saw DIAL soap, I would immediately see it backwards: LAID. And TUMS I read as SMUT: I knew I was an evil child, doomed to write for Creative Loafing.)

One reason we didn't worry much was that back then there were plenty of jobs. As soon as I got my M.A., I landed one teaching Freshman English — six days a week at 8 a.m.! — at Hamline University in St. Paul. A second reason was that we didn't know about the really poor. This is because America hides them. Katrina astonished us: Who are these people?

We hide them for religious and philosophical reasons. It wasn't just the blacks who were segregated. If God wasn't watching out for you, you must have done something wrong. (Survival of the fittest: here, fundamentalists and evolution come together.) And if you're poor, why don't you get another job? The people who spoke up for the poor — unionizers, left-wingers, Democrats — were denounced as Communists, a tactic still favored today. These radicals, like the Freedom Riders, paid for their sympathy with split heads and jail time, as leaders from Joseph McCarthy to Ronald Reagan portrayed them as unpatriotic.

The violence of those days is echoed in the "jokes" of today's Tea Partiers. The latest to come my way: ONLY 4 TICKETS LEFT comes on the screen. The "tickets" turn out to be for a Robbie Knievel (Evil Knievel's son) event in Glendale, Arizona, where "Robbie is going to try to jump over 1000 Obama supporters with a Caterpillar D-9 Bulldozer (photo attached). It should be a good time." Perhaps I'm getting too sensitive in my old age.

As long as I can remember, Republicans have fought the minimum wage (now $7.25 an hour, or about $14,000 a year). They claim that most minimum wage earners are teenagers (not true), and that this will hurt the small businessman and drive him out of work. Again, not true, never has been true, though there may be small twinges, as with any growth. Think of this: if it were up to the Republicans, we wouldn't have Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

We had hoped that the scandal of so many people living under the poverty line — over 40 million, a whole country within our country! — would have been helped by the election of Barack Obama and a Democratic majority. (For a heartbreaking view of what poverty feels like from the inside, go see Babs Reingold's exhibition, Hung Out in the Projects, at the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg.) But like the bankers of Wall Street — another triumphing minority — the Republicans have learned to game the system: vote as a block and Obama can't pass a thing, except a watered-down stimulus bill.

In a nutshell, the Republicans have wrecked the economy and stonewalled the recovery.

For this, the voters seem to be embracing them in a fit of anti-government pique. Maybe we need a young voice like the Scots poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) to rise up in anger and joy to clean out the trash poisoning the media, like Hercules cleaning the Augean stables, with a river of populist poetry.

The best laid schemes o' Mice and Men,

Gang aft agley,

And lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,

For promis'd joy!

From "To A Mouse" by Robert Burns (1785)

—Peter Meinke will be reading from his book Lines from Neuchâtel and Jeanne will be exhibiting her drawings at Studio 620, March 25th, in St. Petersburg.

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