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“In Search of “Desiderata”

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“In Search of “Desiderata”
The tangled story behind a most popular poem.
by Daniel Nester

“You remember “Desiderata.” Maybe you heard its sweet strains on the radio. Or you recall key phrases – “you are a child of the universe” or “be gentle with yourself.” Chances are you have an aunt who hung a plaque of the poem set in calligraphy, its first words, “Go placidly,” standing out in decorated capitals. Or maybe we’re just talking about my aunt.

One of the most popular – dare I say best-selling? – poems of the 20th century, “Desiderata” is unabashed in its New Agey wisdom. “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence,” it begins. In the current age of portentous manifestos, “Desiderata” serves as a template for making grand statements we can all up-vote.

The poem’s origin story seemed murky from the start. Some held that it was written during the late 17th century by an anonymous Baltimore cleric. Others have regarded it as a kind of folk wisdom, an authorless credo that popped up at some point around the Summer of Love. But it was created in the American heartland in 1927 by an Indiana-born poet-lawyer, the son of German immigrants. Its author, Max Ehrmann, was never part of the poetry establishment.

What fascinates me is how “Desiderata” became a meme before the word was coined, how it went viral the analog way, transmitted through the culture by way of churchmen and statesmen, hippies and Hollywood actors, and one dedicated widow. Loosely translated from Latin as “things desired,” “Desiderata” is still sought out, imprinted on shower curtains, made into picture books for dog lovers, quoted on Twitter. Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp’s character in Pirates of the Caribbean, has the entire text of the poem tattooed on his back.

How popular is “Desiderata” today? Just ask the Internet. In his new book, David Orr claims Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is “the most widely read and recalled American poem of the past century.” He cites results from the now-defunct Google Insights to compare scaled rankings of searches, in which the Frost poem comes out on top over T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Orr and others might be surprised to find that, using Google Trends, the current tool that gauges interest in search terms since 2004, “Desiderata” edges out “The Road Not Taken” (49 to 43 in weighted scores) and leaves other poems in the dust. That’s just math.

All this shouldn’t be such a surprise. For nearly 90 years, Ehrmann’s “Desiderata” has gone placidly amid all the noise and haste, finding peace in silence, telling us to strive to be happy.”
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