179. MAX EHRMANN: Desiderata
Desiderata (Latin for ‘things to be desired’) is a famous poem with a complicated history. Max Ehrmann (1872-1945), a lawyer and poet from Indiana, wrote the poem sometime in the 1920s and distributed it locally, although it never received any widespread attention. However in the 1950s, the Reverend of St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore printed the poem in a collection of devotional pieces for his congregation with a notation stating “Old St. Pauls Church, Baltimore A.C. 1692.” As the booklet got distributed more and more over the years, it led to people believing the poem originated with the church and was hundreds of years old, despite the modern style of writing. The wrong credit gained more credibility after the death of American politician Adlai Stevenson in 1965. A copy of Desiderata was found on his bedside table, putting the poem in the spotlight again, but of course it had the incorrect St. Paul’s attribution. It went on to be hugely popular in the late 60s and early 70s among the counter-culture generation. So if you see the poem around with the wrong credit, make sure to give props to Max Ehrmann.
I adapted Desiderata as a result of a contest my book publisher, Andrews McMeel, held at the recent Book Expo of America. Visitors were asked to vote for their favourite poem out of three choices, with the winner being adapted into a Zen Pencils comic. I submitted three of the most-requested poems I get sent to me: Desiderata, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep. I hadn’t got around to adapting any of them because I had put them in the “too hard” basket. The contest forced me to figure one of them out at least, and I’m glad I finally did. Thanks to everyone who voted and thanks to all of you who’ve sent me this poem.
Here’s the late, great Leonard Nimoy reciting Desiderata.