[F]or more than two hundred years, we have... placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress....I've already said that "put your shoulder to the wheel" is an old cliché. If you clicked on my link in my "10 things I might have live-blogged, if I'd blogged the State of the Union Address last night," you saw that it went to The Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing "Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel," the lyrics of which form a poem:
Put your shoulder to the wheel; push along,I made fun of Obama's use of the dainty "placed" instead of the usual "put." I don't see that wheel moving if you're just going to place your shoulder on it. Seems more like you're just leaning on the wheel for support. As Walt Whitman said — singing about himself:
Do your duty with a heart full of song,
We all have work; let no one shirk.
Put your shoulder to the wheel.
I loaf and invite my soul,But enough with the grass — the choom. Quit loafing and leaning, and put your shoulder to the wheel. You've got to push the wheel, as the Mormon choristers knew. I'll say no more about the "collective" in Obama's "collective shoulder," and the "progress" in his "wheel of progress." That's discussed in the last paragraph of the old "10 things" post.
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
I want to talk about the poetry. Obama reveals in his autobiography that he used to keep "a journal of daily reflections and very bad poetry." And we've had a chance to read some of his poetry. Here's "Pop," within which he lets himself get called "a green young man/Who fails to consider the/Flim and flam of the world." And now, last night, we had Obama flim-flamming the whole world.
If I credit Obama as a wordsmith, I've got to hear the resonance in the stock phrase "shoulder to the wheel," which — to my ear, and I'd think to any reader of American poetry — evokes Ginsberg's line. This is especially so since the poem is called "America." It begins:
America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.This is a great poem, so refreshing after the SOTU, which could use some lines like, skipping ahead, (and, remember, this is addressed to America):
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.
I'm sick of your insane demands.And, more edgily:
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid and I'm not sorry.More bloggily:
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time Magazine?Ginsberg ends with what is, after all, Obama's obsession, jobs:
I'm obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
I'd better get right down to the job.According to Wikipedia, the original draft of the poem ended pessimistically, "Dark America! toward whom I close my eyes for prophecy, / and bend my speaking heart! / Betrayed! Betrayed!" Like the writer of a State of the Union Address, Ginsberg decided instead to end on a sunnily positive note: America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
Was that kind of nutty? Ginsberg tells us he's psychopathic in the previous line, so maybe we're supposed to think that you've got to be crazy to join this collective project, America, and start pushing. But I'm not crazy, and I'm not paranoid enough to think that Obama is winking at America/"America" and mocking the conventional speech-ending optimism by talking about 200 years of putting our shoulder to the wheel.
And yet... Is Obama laughing at us?