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June 8, 2012

Historical Echoes: When Fed Officials Wax Poetic

Amy Farber, New York Fed Research Library

When was the last time a speech by a Federal Reserve official contained a full-length poem? (Answer at end.) One Fed governor, Menc Stephen Szymczak, tacked on Arthur Hugh Clough’s 1849 poem “Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth” at the end of a twelve-page speech, “Recent Relations of the Federal Reserve System with Business and Industry,” which he gave before the Illinois Bankers Association in 1935.

Here is the poem, with Szymczak’s introduction:

Just when our most strenuous endeavors seem to be ending in flat failure, and our most elaborate and best laid plans seem to be going wrong, we are in no mood to notice the more certain, if less conspicuous results of all our efforts. But why search for words of my own? There’s a brief poem that says it all so much better, and it comes irresistibly to my mind these days—perhaps it is familiar to you:

Say not, the struggle nought availeth,
   The labor and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
   And as things have been, things remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
   It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e’en now the flyers,
   And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
   Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
   Comes, silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by Eastern windows only
   When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front, the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
   But Westward, look, the land is bright!

    One might wonder if that wasn’t a bit much to ask of his audience after twelve pages of oratory, but 1935 attention spans may have been more stalwart.

    While Szymczak ends his speech on a very serious note, he opens with a funny anecdote about a college football coach almost cutting him from the team, thinking he had played a practical joke by submitting a name that “looked like the alphabet thrown together without any vowels.”

    On the subject of poetry, former Dallas Fed President Bob McTeer did Szymczak one better by composing his own poetry (click on “Rhymes with No Reason”), and about monetary policy no less! He frequently inserted the poetry of others, as well as his own, into his speeches. National Public Radio posts two funny and informative interviews with McTeer—one from April 23, 2004, while he was still at the Fed, and one from November 23, 2004, just after he resigned from the Fed—that contain mini poetry readings. In the earlier interview, McTeer describes Greenspan’s reaction to his poetry: a raised eyebrow. Now that he works at the National Center for Policy Analysis, McTeer continues to write economic policy–related poetry. So, the answer to the opening question
is . . . as recently as 2004.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

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