Odd poem: ‘Life’ by Ronald Reagan, age 17

I wonder what it’s all about, and why
We suffer so, when little things go wrong?
We make our life a struggle,
When life should be a song.

Our troubles break and drench us,
Like spray on the cleaving prow
Of some trim Gloucester schooner
As it dips in a graceful bow.

Our troubles break and drench us
But like that cleaving prow,
The wind will fan and dry us
And we’ll watch some other bow.

But why does sorrow drench us
When our fellow passes on?
He’s just exchanged life’s dreary dirge
For an eternal life of song

What is the inborn human trait
That frowns on a life of song?
That makes us weep at the journey’s end,
When the journey was oft-times wrong?

Weep when we reach the door
That opens to let us in,
And brings to us eternal peace
As it closes again on sin.

Millions have gone before us,
And millions will come behind
So why do we curse and fight
At a fate wise and kind

We hang onto a jaded life
A life of sorrow and pain
A life that warps and breaks us,
And we try to run through it again.

Let’s face it, it’s doggerel–the meter comes and goes, sometimes three and sometimes four stresses in a line; the second and fourth lines in each stanza rhyme, but there is a lot of repetition. However, kudos to a 17-year-old to put together a strong, optimistic view of life, part faith-filled, part commonsense, a view that he retained throughout his life. Ronald Reagan (as illustrated in The Hypertexts) was a charming, witty, self-deprecating person.

On the other hand, he was largely responsible for the destruction of the American middle class, the increasing inequality of American society, and the beginning of the breakdown of public services by defunding – now impacting public education, environmental protection, etc. His foreign policy was riddled with lies and law-breaking. And on the personal level, he was not a good parent.

But he did try writing poetry as a teenager…

11 thoughts on “Odd poem: ‘Life’ by Ronald Reagan, age 17

  1. Michael Burch

    If we’re going to judge Ronald Reagan as a teenage poet, how about using this poem?

    The best part was that I was allowed to dream.
    Many the day I spent deep in a huge rocker
    in the mystic atmosphere
    of Aunt Emma’s living room
    with its horsehair-stuffed gargoyles of furniture,
    its shawls and antimacassars,
    globes of glass over birds and flowers,
    books and strange odors;
    many the day I remained hidden
    in a corner downstairs
    in Uncle Jim’s jewelry shop
    with its curious relics,
    faint lights from gold and silver and bronze,
    lulled by the erratic ticking of a dozen clocks.

    That’s pretty good for any age, I think. Like most presidents, Reagan left a mixed record. I am not a fan of his economics. He did pretty well in other areas, such as helping to bring down the Berlin Wall without firing a shot and keeping the US out of major wars. He pulled out of Lebanon and didn’t try to “liberate” Libya, for instance. I remember another poet, George Held, saying that when Reagan passed by he found himself “unaccountably waving.” Many of his political opponents liked RR as a person. Thomas Jefferson was not the best father to the children he raised as slaves, but he is still highly regarded as a president, generally.

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    1. Robin Helweg-Larsen Post author

      It’s a nice piece of writing, I agree. But simply breaking it apart like that doesn’t make it ‘poetry’, it just makes it well written prose that has been broken apart by phrase. 🙂
      I agree he was personally charming (and brave, witty, well-spoken), but the socioeconomic policies he initiated have led directly to Donald Trump.

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      1. Michael Burch

        I’ve been writing poetry seriously since age 13, and editing and publishing poetry for three decades, so I do have some experience. Yes, some free verse poems are prose hacked into looking like poetry with line breaks. But that is NOT true for this poem. The first staple of English poetry was not meter or rhyme, but alliteration. For example the [d] and [s] and [w] sounds in the first two lines:

        The be[s]t part [w]a[s] that I [w]as allo[w]e[d] to [d]ream.
        Many the [d]ay I [s]pent [d]eep in a huge rocker

        That is poetry in the oldest English tradition, alliterative verse. That is not flat prose. And the imagery is very poetic, along with the alliteration:

        in the [m]y[s]tic at[m]o[s]phere
        of Aunt E[mm]a’s living roo[m]
        with its [h]orse[h]air-stu[ff]ed [g]ar[g]oyles of [f]urniture,
        it[s] [s]hawl[s] and antimaca[ss]ar[s],
        [g]lobes of [g]la[ss] over bird[s] and flower[s],
        book[s] and [s]trange odor[s];

        That is NOT prose hacked into looking like poetry. That is damn impressive POETRY, especially for the age at which it was written. I have translated many Old English and Middle English poems in my day, and I like to think that I can tell the difference between alliterative verse and prose. There is a strong vein of alliteration running throughout this poem.

        I think RR’s metrical poems fall short of what I would call good poetry. However, I think the poem above is good poetry, and I give RR extra points for writing so well as a teenager.

        All that alliteration, employed so skillfully, cannot be accidental. Either RR did it on purpose, or he had such a good ear he was able to do it unconsciously. When I started writing poetry, pretty much everything I did was unconscious, but I had a good ear and wrote poems that would later be published by literary journals. Poets who have good ears don’t have to understand the technical details. I had an uncle who could play the piano by ear.

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      2. Robin Helweg-Larsen Post author

        My view of alliteration is that it *has* to be the opening of the first stressed syllable of a word. “Globes of glass” is fine, of course. “Horsehair”, “gargoyles”, those are useful words if you have others to put them with. But picking individual letters out of the middle of words is meaningless.
        As you know, older English alliterative verse typically has the two half-lines, with the first half having two stressed alliterative syllables and the second half having at least one.
        In a summer season, / when soft was the sun,
        I shaped me into shrouds / as I a sheep were,
        In habit as an hermit, / unholy of works,
        Went wide in this world / wonders to hear.

        Reagan has a good ear for language–flow, balance, resonance–but what you quoted is not an example of an alliterative poem.

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      3. Michael Burch

        So, Robin, you arbitrarily decide that only sounds at the “opening of the first stressed syllable” are “meaningful”?

        Then you are not relying on your ear. If you have an ear and LISTEN to it, it will tell you that ALL sounds matter. Sounds in the middle and endings of words are not “meaningless.” How can you even suggest such a thing? In poetry ALL sounds matter. It is possible to alliterate on initial stressed syllables, but there is no compelling reason to insist on such a limitation.

        Sounds in the middle and ending syllables are still HEARD. Less stressed syllables are still HEARD. Anything that is HEARD contributes to the music of words, or detracts. Every note in music has an impact. So does every syllable in poetry. Notes are pleasing or sour. Surely any poet with an ear can tell the difference between a pleasing sound and a sour note.

        If you listen to your ear, it will tell you that ALL sounds matter. There are different terms that can be used — alliteration, consonance, assonance, etc. — but it is our ears that tell us whether we are hearing flat prose or poetry, and my ear tells me that RR’s poem is not flat, dull prose.

        The fact that one group of poets chose to focus on one type of alliteration or consonance does not mean that other poets cannot do something different. There is no single rule for alliterative poetry. Poets can do whatever they are able to make work. Arbitrary rules are not necessary. Poets can put on straitjackets if they are masochists, but other poets can decline to don them.

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      4. Robin Helweg-Larsen Post author

        Mike, I agree with everything you say, with the exception of the phrase ‘arbitrarily decide’. I form my opinions on what is important after listening and reflecting. With poetry, I consider which snatches of verse or song have proved memorable to me (memorable in the sense of word-for-word recitable). I look at Langland’s ‘Fair Field Full of Folk’ and I see what I see. I quite agree there are always other forms and techniques to be created and tried, there are no restrictions on creativity. But some things are successful in that they are learnt, quoted, recited, anthologised, whereas other things may be enjoyable to read but do not prove *memorable*.
        And of course one size doesn’t fit all readers. But it seems that being memorisable is a good touchstone.

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      5. Michael Burch

        Robin, to me it seems very arbitrary to say that (call it what you will) alliteration/consonance is only “meaningful” when it occurs under X circumstances. That’s like saying feminine rhymes are not “meaningful” because the poet personally prefers masculine rhymes. Yes, masculine rhymes are generally more pronounced, but feminine rhymes are not “meaningless” and they can be heard and thus certainly do impact the musicality of poetry when they are employed. One of my favorite contemporary poets was a proponent of perfect rhymes, but wonderful poets like Wilfred Owen have written masterpieces that employ other techniques. They proved the “rules” are actually only options.

        I like the old saw that “the proof is in the pudding.” Any literary rule or theory can be disproved by the existence of masterpieces that violate the “rule” or principle in question. I believe that studying poets like Owen, Hopkins and Dylan Thomas will reveal that some of the more rigid theories of contemporary formalists hold no water. For instance, I have heard formalists parrot silly ideas like “no ideas but in things,” “show, don’t tell,” “fear abstractions,” etc. But one has only to read “Hamlet” or “Paradise Lost” or the direct statement poems of A. E. Housman to see that the would-be emperors are running around starkers.

        Every syllable in poetry is meaningful, as far as the musicality goes, because every syllable is heard. Even silence affects the meter: for instance, Dickinson’s dashes. I pay close attention to punctuation in my poems: do I want the short pause of a comma, the longer pause of a dash, etc.?

        Every syllable matters. Every pause matters. Even silence matters.

        Take this example:

        harm follow[ed] horr[or];
        aft[er] heartb[r]ea[k], war;
        fo[r] the king wa[s] kill[ed]
        and [h]i[s] crown broken

        This is wonderfully complex word music. There is a LOT of consonance going on in the less-stressed syllables: ed, r, k, s

        If you replaced the less-stressed words with ones with less alliteration/consonance/whatever, the music would be very different.

        Do only the heavy notes in a musical score count and have meaning? No, every note counts and has meaning. The lighter notes can be beautiful in the hands of a master. For instance, notice how “harm follow[ed]” connects with “kill[ed]” — the sounds connect and the meanings connect. The “r” sounds connect in both stressed and less-stressed syllables. This poet was not a one-trick pony.

        Do the sounds of the less-stressed syllables have no meaning? Yes, you sound very arbitrary to me. And that has seemingly led you to dismiss poetry as prose, which I consider unfortunate. I like you and hope you will reconsider.

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      6. Robin Helweg-Larsen Post author

        I’m a simple soul, Mike, and I see the obvious strengths in your example: harm, horror / heartbreak; king, killed / crown. The alliteration at the beginning of the stressed syllables. Other people see patterns and connections which are either too subtle for me, or are products of chance. Clearly the poet intended those h and k words for alliteration in the stressed syllables. As for the rest? Well, words are made up of all sorts of letters…

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      7. Michael Burch

        Robin, my main point is this: In music, every note matters and even the pauses and moments of silence matter. The same is true for poetry. To say that only certain stressed syllables are meaningful seems obviously incorrect because Shakespeare and other poets have employed feminine rhymes. Every syllable in a poem is heard, and thus every syllable is meaningful as far as the ideas being communicated, the word-music, and what Herbert Read called the property of “suggestion” — whatever it is that makes some poems mysteriously moving. I honestly can’t make any sense out of your argument. I think it would be correct to say that in English poetry the stressed syllables do most of the “lifting” but to say unstressed syllables are meaningless sounds like saying the lighter notes in a Mozart composition are meaningless. Most of us wouldn’t dare change a note. There is such a thing as only seeing what one wants to see. I think in formalist circles there is a tendency to defend ideas that really don’t make any sense. Whitman was a very musical poet in his best poems. He just created the music differently. We can hear the music with our ears, but sometimes our minds balk. The earth is not flat. Tomatoes are not poisonous. And yet some human beings have a hard time letting go of long-held beliefs, despite the evidence. I’m not saying that’s true for you, because I honestly don’t know, but it has been a big problem for contemporary formalism.

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  2. Michael Burch

    Robin, I think we agree more than we disagree, but in this case I must continue to believe that the world is round, not flat, and that ALL sounds matter and are meaningful in both music and poetry. I simply cannot believe in a flat earth or meaningless sounds. But I will sadly give up my efforts to convert you to reason, in the cause of peace and harmony. 😉

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