A Book of Verse

An Anthology Compiled by American People

While I was in New York, 4 months ago, I came upon this book in the house library, titled The Desk Drawer Anthology, a collection of verse, compiled in 1937–40.

While casually going through the foreword, I found a compelling story of how the book was conceived and compiled.

It goes something like this, and I paraphrase:

Two friends, Theodore, a writer, and Aleck, a radio host, while holidaying by a lake in Vermont, were talking lazily to each other. The conversation turned to poetry, and one of them said: “Many people wrote one or more good verses that somehow escaped the accident of fame and were lost in the files of a local newspaper.”

Their conversation then turned to whether American people cared for poetry. Aleck, the radio host, said they did and, as proof, he said that among the personal effects of each soldier killed in the previous World War were almost invariably found tattered yellow clippings of verse.

From there, the conversation moved to the possibility of collecting such a verse that people may have saved in their scrapbooks and diaries and put it away in their desk drawers — and forgot about it.

Aleck said that if Theodore and his sister, Alice (also a writer), would agree to edit the anthology, he would use his radio show to issue an appeal to his audience to send in any such verse that they might have saved in their desk drawers.

All three agreed to go ahead with the project, and Aleck issued an appeal on his next radio show, asking his audience to send their replies directly to Theodore. As an incentive, he told his listeners that anyone whose submission was accepted would be given a free copy of the anthology. And if more than one person sent the same poem the person who sent it first would get the free copy.

Theodore describes what happened next:

“While Aleck was broadcasting the news to his audience, I was in Europe… When I returned, I literally had to dig my way into my office. The letters had arrived not by battalions but by armies. Responses had come from all over the country, from great cities, country villages, and lonely farms. All had furnished their quota. College professors, naval officers, lawyers, farmers, workingmen, and women of every walk of life had responded. Poetry seemed to have formed a common if unrecognized brotherhood among people of the most diverse lives and occupations.”

In all, more than 40,000 poems were submitted. Poor Theodore was snowed under.

Theodore and Alice got together and laid down some rules for a submission to be accepted, and decided to: Give preference to good verse written by little known Americans on American subjects. Next in order would be favorites from American poets of the last 100 years or so, and English poets of the same period

Also, they would exclude the classics of Shakespeare and Milton for they could be found in any anthology, but would include the less known verse by well-known modern poets.

The result was an anthology compiled virtually by American people. The editors named it The Desk Drawer Anthology.

Incidentally, the editors of the anthology, Theodore and his sister Alice, happened to be the children of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States.

Poetry comes to us, the readers, externally through books and words. And we enjoy it when those words echo our thoughts, emotions, and experiences.

Here are a few short poems from the Desk Drawer Anthology, among many, that I liked, some for their humor, others for their charm and poignancy.

1. A Desk Motto

In summer, Spring, and also Fall I do not like to work at all.

In Winter, as you may have guessed
My favorite indoor sport is rest.

Don Marquis

2. Humane Thought

Be kind to all dumb animals

And give small birds a crumb;

Be kind to human beings too.

They are sometimes pretty dumb.

Rebecca Mccann

3. King Solomon and King David

King Solomon and King David
Led merry, merry lives,

Had many, many lady friends

And many, many wives.

But when old age crept on them,

With many, many qualms,

King Solomon wrote the Proverbs

And King David wrote the Psalms.

Dr. James Ball Naylor
(Proverbs and Psalms are two popular books of the Old Testament known for preaching moral values)

4. A Prayer Found in Chester Cathedral

Give me a good digestion, Lord,

And also something to digest;

Give me a healthy body, Lord,

With sense to keep it at its best;

Give me a healthy mind, good Lord,

To keep the good and pure in sight,

Which seeing sin is not appalled

But finds a way to set it right;

Don’t let me worry overmuch

About the fussy thing called I.

Give me sense of humor, Lord,

Give me the grace to see a joke,

To get some happiness from life

And pass it on to other folk.


5. The Golf Links

The golf links like so near the mill

That almost every day

The laboring children can look out

And the see the men at play

Sarah N. Cleghorn

(The Child Labor Amendment was not ratified then)

6. Life is a Lovely Thing

Long, long ago, when it was spring,

I thought life was a lovely thing;

And now, with snow on dale and hill,

I think so still

Minnie Case Hopkins

7. Intolerance

Across the way my neighbor’s windows shine,

His rooftree shields him from the storms that frown;

He toiled and saved to build it, staunch and brown.

And though my neighbor’s house is not like mine,

I would not pull it down.

With patient care my neighbor, too, had built

A house of faith, wherein his soul might stay,

A haven from the winds that sweep life’s way.

It differed from my own — I felt no guilt –

I burned it yesterday!

Molly Anderson Haley

8. Age

Age is a quality of mind;

If you’ve left your dreams behind,

If Hope is cold,

If you no longer look ahead,

If your ambition’s fires are dead,

Then you are old.

But, — if from Life you take the best,

If in Life you keep the zest,

If Love you hold,

No matter how the years go by,

No matter how the birthdays fly,
You are not old.

Edward Tuck

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store