Inspirational poems and songs are pieces that reaffirm our core values and beliefs. This is not a great age for belief of any sort, so inspirational works are often equated with religious ones. However, even an agnostic like me can find inspirational poems and songs.
In my case, the situation is complicated by a temperament that requires that a piece has to have artistic merit as well as reaffirm in order to move me. I don’t expect inspirational works to necessarily demonstrate the same talent as poems or songs that I value as art, but, because many works that try to inspire wind up being insipid, they leave me massively unmoved. When I’m looking for inspiration, a Hallmark greeting card just won’t cut it. Still, over the years, I have found a few that satisfied me on both accounts.
For instance, earlier this year, I decided to write an email that might be hostilely received. As I psyched myself up to press the Send button, my mind flitted to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Looking Glass.” The poem is perhaps sexist in its assumption that aging is a distress to all women, but what I remember best is its insistence that sometimes you have to face up to what makes you afraid, even if the result is unpleasant.
The poem concerns Elizabeth I in late middle-age, stealing herself to look in the mirror:
Backwards and forwards and sideways did she pass
Making up her mind to face the cruel looking glass.
She is haunted, if only in her mind, by Mary Tudor and Robert Dudley, and, in the end she tells herself:
Backwards and forwards and sideways though I’ve been,
Yet I am Harry’s daughter, and I am England’s queen!
Then she draws herself up in front of the mirror, and sees what she must have known all along: That she is aging, and no longer beautiful. I always like to think that I’m the sort of person to face up to unpleasant truths, so the poem is apt to come back to me whenever I’m dealing with something whose results I may not like.
Another inspirational piece for me is Stan Roger’s “The Mary Ellen Carter.” The song is about a group of sailors – fisherman, most likely – whose ship goes down. They decide to salvage the ship, despite being mocked. The chorus apparently kept at least one man alive while trying to survive a shipwreck. It certainly kept me going in the worst period of my life:
Rise again! Rise again!
Let her name not be lost to the knowledge of men,
All those who loved her best and were with her till the end,
Will make the “Mary Ellen Carter” rise again.
The song is sung when all the work is done, and the sailors plan to raise the ship tomorrow:
And the drunken lying rats
That left her to a sorry grave,
They won’t be laughing in another day.
There, Rogers leaves them to deliver the moral – the only moral, incidentally, that I have been able to tolerate:
And you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow,
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go,
Turn to and put forth all your strength of hand and heart and brain,
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!
Rise again! Rise again!
Though your heart it be broken, or life about to end,
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the “Mary Ellen Carter” rise again!
Endurance, success being the best revenge, never giving in – yeah, I can get behind all of that.
More recently, OysterBand, another of my favorite musical groups, came up with a song that has always seemed a deliberate echo of “The Mary Ellen Carter.” Advising listeners to “lift your head up /gonna rise above,” they launch into the chorus:
And we’ll rise where shadows fall,
And we’ll fly where money crawls,
Looking out for a higher love,
Not gonna fall, gonna rise above.
And we’ll fly where shadows fall,
Till the pain can’t touch you at all,
Crazy things you were thinking of,
Rise above, rise above!
The independence and determination of this song also speaks to me.
Technically speaking, these aren’t the best works by any of these artists. Yet we all need some reinforcement of our core values from time to time, if only to get up on Monday morning. For better or worse, these are the works that keep me moving most often, although from time to time others join the play list: A stray line or two from Shakespeare, a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, and a satire by Robert Graves among them. I’m sure they all speak volumes about the kind of person I am.