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Alaskan Range: Hokey Pokey

Greg Hill recalls one of America's most enduring poems.

It's April, home to National Library Month and the beginning of a new baseball season. I alluded to poet Marianne Moore in the last column because she was nearly as fanatical about baseball as she was about poetry. Moore's best-known baseball poem is "Baseball & Writing," in which she compares her craft to baseball: "Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting/ and baseball is like writing./ You can never tell with either/ how it will go/ or what you will do."

You can read the complete poem at http://poet.org but must dig deeper to unearth her other paeans to baseball and her beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. There's her 1959 "Hometown Piece for Messrs. Alston and Reese," for example that concludes, "Take off the goat-horns, Dodgers, that egret/ which two very fine base-stealers can offset./ You've got plenty: Jackie Robinson/ and Campy and big Newk, and Dodgerdom again/ watching everything you do. You won last year./ Come on." It helps if you know the players she mentions, but even so, Shakespeare has no worries.

April's also the Bard's birth and death month, and National Poetry Month. So it's the perfect time to consider one of America's most enduring poems. It's author was Robert Degen, who died in 2009 on his 104th birthday, but his creation, "The Hokey Pokey," seems timeless. Though the tune and lyrics are often credited to the Ram Trio, who popularized it in the late 1940s in Sun Valley, the "Hokey Pokey Dance" was copyrighted in 1944 by Degen, who maintained the Rams stole it. However, American and British servicemen sang a similar song, "The Hokey Cokey" written by someone else, even earlier in the war. And according to Degen's NY Times obituary, some Catholic clergy and the Oxford English Dictionary contend that "hokey pokey" is derived from "hocus pocus," and the song was written by Puritans in the 1700s to satirize the Catholic mass.

Degen's words figured into the winning entry in the 2003 Washington Post Style Invitational Contest, wherein readers could enter instructions to anything as long as it was composed in the manner of a famous person. Jeff Brechlin submitted "The Hokey-Poke" as written by Shakespeare. "O proud left foot, that ventures quick, within/ Then soon upon a backward journey./ Anon, once more the gesture, then begin:/ Command sinistral pedestal to writhe./ Commence thou then the fervid Hokey-Poke,/ A mad gyration, hips in wanton swirl./ To spin! A wilde release from heaven's yoke./ Blessed dervish! Surely canst go, girl./ The Hoke, the poke - - banish now thy doubt/ Verily, I say, 'tis what it's all about."

Speaking of Shakespeare, Julia Moore, whose 1876 collection of poems, "The Sweet Singer of Michigan," inspired one reviewer to say "if Shakespeare could he read it, he would glad that he was dead." Others called it "a mile post in the history of bad poetry," and "we know nothing like it in ancient or modern literature and on the whole we are not sorry." A critic recently noted "Her poetry had a childlike quality, in that children have an unhealthy appetite for tales of untimely death and natural disasters. During her lifetime, not an infant in her area could die without being immortalized in one of Mrs. Moore's odious odes; no disaster, natural or manmade, escaped unscathed. She was never taken seriously except by herself."

For example, her poem "Hiram Helser" begins: "His parents parted when he was small,/ And both are married again./ How sad it was for them to meet/ And view his last remains./ He was living with his father then,/ As many a friend can tell;/ 'Tis said his father's second wife /That she did not use him well."

The Flint Michigan Library sponsored the Julia Moore Poetry Parody Contest until budget cuts killed it. Libraries are being whacked all across the country, yet most Americans believe libraries are critically important, especially in times of economic hardship. Books are important, reading's important, and access to digital and print information is more vitally crucial than ever before. The realm of information is ever-burgeoning, and people need their library's help locating and navigating the knowledge affordably. And "That," as Mr. Degen put it, "is what it's all about."

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