This is a little story about an inspirational prose poem from the 1920s, a repeatedly unsuccessful US presidential contender from the 50s, a spoken-word recording released by Star Trek’s Mr. Spock in the 1960s, a Grammy-winning new-age anthem from the 70s, and a software company that taught my son to play chess.
In 1927, Harvard-educated lawyer, businessman (he worked in a family meatpacking company) and local politician Max Ehrmann wrote an inspirational short essay called “Desiderata.” It is often described as a “prose poem” and frequently reproduced as if it were written in blank verse.
It’s full of pithy, upbeat proverbs, very much in line with the inspirational self-help lessons Dale Carnegie was writing in his 1938 “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and the self-centered optimism that Tennessee Williams spoofs in Jim the “gentleman caller” from his 1948 play The Glass Menagerie.
Here are a few samples:
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Adlai Stevenson, a liberal Democrat who was soundly defeated by Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in US Presidentail elections in 1952 and 1956, and who lost the Democratic nomination to John F. Kennedy in 1960. Several sources cite a 1973 article in the TWA Ambassador as saying that a copy of “Desiderata” was found near Stevenson’s bed after his death in 1965.
In 1968, Leonard Nimoy (who played Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek) released an album, Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy. One of the tracks, called Spock Thoughts, was Nimoy reciting this poem to background music.
This same album also included the trippy “Ballad of Bilbo Biggins.”
In the 1971, radio personality and TV talk show host Les Crane released his own version, backed with a groovy chorus that sounds like it wandered in from a rehearsal of “Hair.” The recording peaked at #8 on the Billboard charts and went on to win Crane a Grammy for best spoken-word release.
In the 1980s, Les Crane moved from broadcasting to software; his company Software Toolworks produced the Mavis Beacon typing games, Chessmater games, Wing Commander, and by far my favorite educational prouduct, the Miracle Piano Teaching System. (I’ve still got my Miracle keyboard propped up in the basement, though about five years ago my brother gave us a much bigger, nicer keyboard.)