Since I agreed to write an article for Footnotes about last spring’s poetry gala, I have been struggling to find an inspiration for this piece. I did not want to write a review talking about food, music, the location, etc.—although everything was lovely and everyone seemed to enjoy the event. Frankly, during the entire planning phase last year, reactions to the gala ranged from apathy to (slight) ridicule. When the event came around at the end of April, moreover, everyone was looking back on a long academic year filled with teaching, researching, serving on committees, and, let’s face it, a number of difficult debates that didn’t exactly put us in the celebrating mood. So, even for a bunch of English professors and students, it seemed like a strange idea to gather and read ten poems out loud.
Yet, somehow something happened during the event—particularly during the readings—that elevated everyone’s spirit above the concerns that had been and still were (and still are…). Of course, we all know that great poetry and great literature in general have an effect on human beings, both as individuals and as communities, that separates the true and good from the mundane. But, in writing this review, I also didn’t want to say for the eleventh time (after the “ten top ten lists” we issued to the world at the beginning of the fall) how great we are, and how our work embodies the best our university and the academy have to offer. It is bad enough that our strange new world—oops, I meant to say, “changing world”—constantly requires us to exchange self-reflection for self-promotion. Humility might be an interesting albeit forgotten virtue.
Which, finally, brings me to the inspiration I told you I was looking for and already announced in the title: during my graduate course on utopian ideas and experiments in early American literature and culture this fall, we listened to the famous Shaker tune “Simple Gifts.” Written circa 1875 by Elder Joseph Brackett, “Simple Gifts” has become one of the most used (and abused) folk tunes in American culture, its reincarnations ranging from Aaron Copland’s glorious rendition in Appalachian Spring to effusions of patriotism during political campaigns. But, “Simple Gifts” is also a poem that talks not so much about where we are (or who we are) but “where we ought to be”—hence the connection to utopianism. Here are the lyrics (you can also download the tune at itunes):
....‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free;
....‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
....And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
....‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
....When true simplicity is gain’d,
....To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
....To turn, turn will be our delight,
....‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.
I don’t want to go into a potentially trivializing interpretation of the poem here, but rather suggest that during the readings of the poems at the gala, we received rare gifts that are more important to us than being recognized in a full-page ad in the AJC. These gifts might be difficult to define because of their spiritual nature. In any case, “Simple Gifts” clearly explains how we can find them. Unlike the ceaseless (and potentially futile) forward and backward movement encapsulated in the last lines of The Great Gatsby, the Shaker tune proposes that turning (spinning around an invisible center) allows us to reach a place of “love and delight.” What happened, at the poetry readings, I feel, was that we allowed ourselves, for a brief moment, to turn around such an invisible center and to find simplicity and freedom. I am not suggesting that we “bow and bend” to the powers that be, for the Shakers, after all, regularly came into conflict with authorities, secular and sacred. Oftentimes, simplicity and peacefulness cause the most trouble. But, in times of anxieties that are both external and home-made, we might remember that we only “come round right” if we stop “beating on against the current” and enjoy the center of what we do.
Maybe we should have a poetry gala every day (I’m just kidding…). Or, maybe we should turn more. My son, Samuel, loves spinning. In fact, he loves it so much that we once got a note from a teacher who worried there might be something wrong with him. I sometimes ask him what he is doing, and he answers, “I’m just spinning.” I think that’s what we were doing at the gala—just spinning. There doesn’t have to be another purpose, and we don’t have to explain what it means. It’s a simple gift.