Sunday, October 21, 2012

Message from a Homeless Poet

Message from a Homeless Poet

She was wearing red and yellow argyle socks, but I remember little else about her – not even her name – except that she looked like the street person she was – unkempt, dressed in an assortment of used clothing and ill-fitting shoes. Most of us would consider her nobody. Yet I will never forget her.

The season was fall, probably late 70’s. We were working that night at a soup kitchen in the basement of a church in a seedy section of Boston. I had been asked to bring my banjo and sing some folk songs as part of the entertainment that would follow supper. After a few acts that had been arranged in advance to get things going, anyone who wished to perform for the crowd was invited to take the stage. Well into the program, the woman of the argyle socks presented herself to recite a poem she had written. I later learned that she wrote poetry regularly on an old typewriter she was given the use of at this church. Her poem was brilliant and I would give much to have a copy. I cannot begin to do it justice, but I will give you what I remember.

The gist of the poem was about people in a boat. A large number of poor, homeless, hungry men, women, and children occupied one end of the boat; rich, comfortable, well dressed people were in the other end. Due to the larger number of poor, their end of the boat rode low and was shipping water. The poor bailed as fast as they could, while they called for help from those in the other end. But the rich, who were high and dry, fat and happy,  replied with a refrain that ran throughout the poem, “Why should we help? Our end of the boat’s not sinking.” Some verses described the struggles of the poor and their pleas for help, and the voice of the rich kept repeating at the end of every verse, “Our end of the boat’s not sinking.” Other verses described the lives of the rich. “Why should we worry? Our end of the boat’s not sinking.” The poem told of the gap in the middle of the boat that separated the two groups; the poor couldn’t get across the gap, and the rich chose not to cross it. “Our end of the boat’s not sinking.”

“Our end of the boat’s not sinking.” The refrain still beats in my heart, as cogent in today’s world as it was in the past. It is to our peril that we continue to believe, “Everything’s OK. Our end of the boat’s not sinking.” But Ah, my friends, and Oh, my foes… we are in this boat together.