Poetry

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Labor Day Lament, 2011

by Lionel E. Deimel

 

With bosses making millions,

And millions unemployed,

Hapless workers, by the millions,

Have seen their dreams destroyed.

 

America the beautiful,

America the strong,

New order of the ages,

Where oh where did you go wrong?

 

We look for Christian charity,

For pity toward the poor;

We find instead indifference

And the rich demanding more.

 

Pollution from their smokestacks

The breath of infants robs;

They say that regulations

Will only kill our jobs.

 

America the beautiful,

America the strong,

New order of the ages,

Where oh where did you go wrong?

 

Our politicians ponder

How to fool the average Joe

Into thinking every problem

Can be solved by saying “no.”

 

For wrecking our prosperity,

No bankers went to jail;

They’d rather crush the middle class

Than let a big bank fail.

 

America the beautiful,

America the strong,

New order of the ages,

Where oh where did you go wrong?

 

Corporations are just people

In somewhat different guise,

So judges gave them license

To feed us all their lies.

 

The unions are retreating;

Their time, it’s said, is gone;

Amidst our countless troubles,

Tell me, which side are you on?

 

America the beautiful,

America the strong,

New order of the ages,

Where oh where did you go wrong?

 

1956 Labor Day stamp

 

It was after listening to songs by Woody Guthrie and to similar songs and singers that I got the idea of writing a poem for Labor Day. I began the poem the night before Labor Day 2011 and finished a draft the next day, September 5, 2011. I went to bed Sunday night with only the refrain—perhaps it was only the first two lines of the refrain—in hand. I posted the poem on my blog the same day. (See “A Labor Day Lament, where I make some additional comments on the origin of the poem.”)

Four days later, I posted a revised poem that was close to what I hope is the final version shown here. (See “A Labor Day Lament, Version 2,” comments on which were influential in developing the final division.) That second version—I actually went through some intermediate edits I did not bother to save—mostly benefitted from minor changes. It introduced the line “Where the hell did you go wrong?” as the last line of the refrain. I had mixed feelings about this change and, with some encouragement, I reverted to a version of the previous ending of the refrain.

I would like to see the poem set to music, but I fear the meter is irregular enough to make setting it to music a difficult task.

I should, of course, say something about the content of the poem. The poem is not about Labor Day, or even labor, in general. It is very much about the political climate in the United States today. The references are all to recent events and circumstances, which news junkies can quickly identify. There are two significant older references in the poem. “A new order of the ages” is a translation of the motto “Annuit cœptis” on the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States. The last line of the penultimate stanza is an allusion to the famous 1931 labor song by Florence Reece, “Which Side Are You On?” Because the poem is so time-specific, I decided to change the title from “A Labor Day Lament” to the present “Labor Day Lament, 2011.” I hope this is the last Labor Day lament I will have to write, but I am not optimistic.

I would like to dedicate this poem to Charles (Chuck) Little, late husband of my friend Jane, who helped me whip the poem into shape.

The version of the poem shown above was completed on September 15, 2011.

— LED, 9/15/2011

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