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Weekly Reader: Thank God for the poets…and libraries

April is National Poetry Month. “Many Americans, probably a vast majority of Americans, feel they can get along just fine without poetry” writes Margaret Renkl in a recent New York Times opinion piece entitled Thank God for the Poets. But we really need poets, just like we really need libraries. Our Weekly Reader will begin with a celebration of both.

As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.

Renkl’s take on American’s need for poetry continues:

But tragedy — a breakup, a cancer diagnosis, a sudden death — can change their minds about that, if only because the struggle to find words for something so huge and so devastating can be overwhelming. “Again and again, this constant forsaking,” Natasha Trethewey calls it in her poem “Myth.”

Renkl began her piece with a nod to the poet Amanda Gorman, who spoke at President Biden’s inauguration.

Ms. Gorman’s poem — addressed to “Americans, and the World” — was timeless in that way of the most necessary poems, but it was more than just timeless. After a year of losses both literal and figurative, she offered a salve that soothed, however briefly, our broken hearts and our broken age.

Poets have always given voice to our losses at times of national calamity. Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is an elegy for Abraham Lincoln. Langston Hughes’s “Mississippi — 1955” came in direct response to the murder of Emmett Till. Denise Levertov wrote one poem after another after another to protest the war in Vietnam. In 2002, Billy Collins delivered a memorial poem for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks before a special joint meeting of Congress.

But suffering isn’t the only time when we need poetry.

Thank God for our poets, here in the mildness of April and in the winter storms alike, who help us find the words our own tongues feel too swollen to speak. Thank God for the poets who teach our blinkered eyes to see these gifts the world has given us, and what we owe it in return.


Vartan Gregorian, who passed away on April 15th, was a scholar and a university leader, including an important time as president of Brown University where my son is an alumnus. Most importantly, however, Gregorian was a lover of libraries. Robert D. McFadden wrote about this aspect of his life in the New York Times obituary Vartan Gregorian, Savior of the New York Public Library, Dies at 87.

By 1981, when the feelers went out to Dr. Gregorian, the library — the main research edifice at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue and 83 branches in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island — was broke, a decaying Dickensian repository of 7.7 million books (the world’s sixth largest collection), many of them rare and valuable, gathering dust and crumbling on 88 linear miles of stacks.

The underpaid, overworked staff was demoralized. The beautiful Gottesman Exhibition Hall had been partitioned into cubicles for personnel and accounting. Tarnished chandeliers and lighting fixtures were missing bulbs. In the trustees’ board room, threadbare curtains fell apart at the touch. Outside, the imperious marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, and the portals they guarded, were dirt-streaked. Bryant Park in the back was infested with drug dealers and pimps and unsafe after dark.

Gregorian, coming out of academia, seemed to be an odd choice to bring the institution back to life.

To Dr. Gregorian, the challenge was irresistible. The library was, like him, a victim of insult and humiliation. The problem, as he saw it, was that the institution, headquartered in the magnificent Carrère and Hastings Beaux-Arts pile dedicated by President William Howard Taft in 1911, had come to be seen by New York City’s leaders, and even its citizens, as a dispensable frivolity.

And his vision for what the library should be carried the day.

“‘The New York Public Library is a New York and national treasure,’ he said. ‘The branch libraries have made lives and saved lives. The New York Public Library is not a luxury. It is an integral part of New York’s social fabric, its culture, its institutions, its media and its scholarly, artistic and ethnic communities. It deserves the city’s respect, appreciation and support. No, the library is not a cost center! It is an investment in the city’s past and future!’”


Two recent stories on race in America showed how some institutions are making change, even if ever-so-slowly, while a third demonstrates that others that need a reckoning have yet to take those steps.

The University of the South (known as Sewanee to most) has a long history as a bastion of white male privilege. But as Nick Anderson writes in the Washington Post, the school’s first Black vice chancellor and president is helping the school face that past in ‘We are not leaving’: Sewanee’s first Black leader helps propel a racial reckoning at university. Ian Shapira, also writing in the Washington Post, chronicles the changes in another Southern school in his article VMI selects Cedric Wins as first Black superintendent amid racism investigation. Both are worth a read to see what has driven this change and the barriers to progress.

However, not every institution is taking the need to change seriously. The Atlanta baseball team, in my estimation, has been in need of a moral center for a while, and Jesse Spector, writing in Deadspin, captures my feelings on the subject in Once again the Atlanta Baseball Team proves itself a shrieking fraud on caring about Black people.

You mean to say that a baseball franchise with a racially insensitive name, which does all it can to harm any argument that their name isn’t just insensitive, but outright racist, by encouraging its fans to do racist chants; which moved out of team’s urban core and into another county, in order to cater to its white fans, while positioning the ballpark better for driving than mass transit; which relegated a memorial patch for the greatest player in team history to a tiny number on the back of its caps, rather than a sleeve patch…

that team booted its response to Major League Baseball moving the All-Star Game out of Atlanta?!

Yep. That team.

When you move your team to the suburbs for the specific purpose of getting away from Black people, you don’t get to act like stripping a big event from your ballpark is going to hurt Black people. And the once-in-a-generation event can still return to Atlanta in a few years, just as the Super Bowl came back to Arizona once the state finally recognized Martin Luther King Day as a holiday.


Washington Post columnist Max Boot asks and then answers his own question in: Why is the GOP waging a culture war? Follow the money.

I’m no economic determinist, but if you want to understand how the right got the way it is, follow the money. The GOP highlights culture-war issues to shake down rank-and-file donors while cutting taxes to please wealthy donors. Republicans have won the presidential popular vote only once since 1988, but they can’t afford to broaden their appeal by embracing a more populist economic agenda or by toning down the divisive social messages because either move would jeopardize the flow of fundraising. The right-wing money machine has become the tail wagging the Republican elephant.


Finally, let me recommend three articles from recent stories in the news to wrap up this Weekly Reader. The covid-19 vaccines are an extraordinary success story. The media should tell it that way writes Leana S. Wen in The Washington Post.

An infection rate of 5,800 infections out of 77 million fully vaccinated people is less than 0.008 percent — a remarkably low rate. Compare this with 68,000 daily new infections in the United States — which, over a 30-day period, is nearly 100 times higher than the infection rate for those vaccinated. Put another way: A total of 5,800 infections among the inoculated is orders of magnitude better than 68,000 infections per day in the general population.

Next, Anand Giridharadas interviews ProPublica investigative reporter Alec MacGillis in The Ink on the power and tactics and cultural significance of Amazon in The one-click civilization.

And writing at the website FiveThirtyEight, Ryan P. Burge and Perry Bacon Jr. explore why It’s Not Just Young White Liberals Who Are Leaving Religion.


Enjoy your reading this week.

More to come…

DJB

Photo of New York Public Library Reading Room by Patrick Robert Doyle on Unsplash

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