Gilbert: Olympic Verse

Feb 21, 2014

If you saw any of the Olympics, you’ll probably remember a snazzy commercial with striking visuals and voiceover by Robin Williams. It’s an audio excerpt from the movie “Dead Poets Society,” the story of a passionate, charismatic English teacher at a boys’ private school. When the film came out, I was at a private school teaching English, including the great American poet Walt Whitman.

It’s startling when a TV commercial viewed by millions talks about the power and importance of poetry, then goes on to quote from Whitman. So I’m thinkin’ this is good stuff!

Robin Williams gives us, with passionate enthusiasm, the first and last few lines of a Whitman poem, which ends with the words, “. . . the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse."

Then Williams repeats that line and adds, “What will your verse be?!”

Appropriately, the commercial is for an iPad, upon which one might write one’s verse, make one’s mark! We all want to add a verse to the great play of life, even if it isn’t winning an Olympic medal. On the web, there’s an enthusiastic article about the commercial entitled, “Apple’s Latest Ad Probably Going to Give You Chills” and the subtitle “Moving stuff.” It is indeed!

The problem is they cut four important lines that make the poem less upbeat and more realistic. Restore the deleted lines and it would’ve sounded like this:

     Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

     Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,

     [and these are the lines they cut:]

     Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more
             faithless?)

     Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,

     Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,

     Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,

     The question, O me! so sad, recurring—

     [Now back to Williams:]                         What good amid these, O me, O life?

          Answer.

     That you are here - that life exists and identity,

     That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

So much for the chills. Whitman knows that he too is one of the faithless, the foolish. And the poem’s positive conclusion is qualified - arrived at after wrestling with life’s challenges, frustrations, and disappointments, after struggles that give the positive but not euphoric conclusion power and hard-earned credibility.

Being an Olympic athlete is a hard-earned accomplishment. It takes perseverance; there are disappointments, doubts, and poor results – precisely the stuff that the deleted lines talk about.

If I were a poet, I’d think it’s pretty great to have millions of people hear my verse. But when words are cut like that, I’d have to wonder if it’s worth it, if it’s the same poem, the same message?