Books & Culture, On Writing

Mr. Rogers’s $20 Million Dollar Poem

In 1969, the Senate was poised to slash funding for public television. It’s a story we see often in the arts. Arts organizations struggle to find funding and often face existential threat when their funding is cut. These organizations are at the mercy of government budgets, the whims of private donors, and the generosity of private individuals who support their mission. In response to the threats of budget cuts for public television in 1969, Senate hearings were held, and Mr. Rogers spoke before a senate subcommittee to request the full $20 million in funding for public television.

His adversary is Senator Pastore, the archetype of a politician: skeptical, impatient, and angry. What Mr. Rogers does next is remarkable.

As Mr. Rogers explains what the program is about, he tells Mr. Pastore that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood tries to help children cope with “the inner drama of childhood” which include themes like sibling rivalry and anger. Mr. Pastore is curious. He interrupts Mr. Rogers to ask him how long the program lasts, and says he wants to watch it.

Mr. Rogers uses his poetic and rhetorical gifts to show Mr. Pastore exactly what his show is about, and by extension, to show Mr. Pastore the real work being done on public television.

Art has the power to heal and the power to help improve our mental health. Mr. Rogers explains that his television show strives to “make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable.” Mr. Rogers continues to explain that by doing this work “we will have done a great service for mental health.”

Mr. Pastore is a man who is not in touch with his inner child, and it’s thrilling to watch Mr. Rogers tap into the child hidden within even the most curmudgeon of curmudgeons.

Mr. Rogers describes his puppet work. He describes commercial television’s propensity to glorify violence, and his desire to create a safe space where children can address their anger and frustrations in healthier ways.

Mr. Pastore says he has goosebumps, but this isn’t what gets Mr. Rogers the money.

Mr. Rogers gets the money by reciting a poem for Mr. Pastore. Sure, he calls it a song. But Rogers doesn’t sing. He recites.

The power of poetry, especially poetry spoken out loud, is its ability to tackle some of the most difficult subjects of human life from an indirect angle. Why say something indirect when you could say it directly? Emily Dickinson herself wrote, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant. Success in Circuit lies.” But why?

Some things are so unspeakable or difficult that they cannot be said outright. Some types of criticism cannot be uttered without distancing the speaker from the audience. Some types of anger expressed can damage relationships rather than heal them. Anger, so often expressed, especially in political settings, can be counterproductive in producing desired change.

And Mr. Rogers is angry. He’s angry that the government will take away money from public television, threating his show and the only space children have where they don’t have to watch cartoon characters hitting each other with sticks. Mr. Rogers is angry, angry at a society that values violence over mental health, violence over kindness and compassion. He’s angry at a culture that pours money into the inane and superficial, while leaving the depth of emotion unspoken and undervalued.

Unnamed Bird. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

His anger is an anger anyone who has worked in the arts feels regularly. It’s the anger of knowing the importance and the value of what you’re doing, and also knowing that it’s not valued by society. Poetry has value. I know this because when I was a little girl, I found poetry and it saved me. And not in a stupid way.

It gave me a place to put my anger, grief, sadness, and desperation. I truly believe I’d be dead or in need of deep support without it. I know that poetry saves the government money if only in saved mental health support I’d otherwise need, and the increased productivity I bring as a taxpaying and functioning citizen.

So yes. When I see poetry underfunded, or the arts underfunded in general, I get angry. I see deep foolishness in a government willing to spend billions on medical services, Medicaid, and prisons, but not willing to invest in preventative care through the arts. Because poetry and art is preventative care. It is.

But Mr. Rogers is a true poet (and wiser than me), understanding that he’ll need to address his own anger indirectly, and address Mr. Pastore’s callousness indirectly as well. Rogers has the wisdom to know that poetry offers the kindest vehicle for correction—for both himself and Mr. Pastore.

And so, Mr. Rogers speaks directly to the skeptical Senator’s inner child, and the moments that follow are truly some of the most moving moments in contemporary and modern poetic recitation.

The poem goes like this:

What do you do with the mad that you feel

When you feel so mad you could bite,

When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong

And nothing you do seems very right?
What do you do?

Do you punch a bag,

do you pound some clay or some dough

do you round up friends for a game of tag

or see how fast you go?

It’s great to be able to stop

when you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong

and be able to do something else instead

And think this song:

I can stop when I want to

can stop when I wish

can stop, stop, stop anytime

and what a good thing to feel like this

and know that the feeling is really mine

know that there’s something deep inside

that helps us become what we can

for a girl can be someday a lady

and a boy can be someday a man.

And Mr. Pastore, doesn’t say much. He’s clearly moved. He smiles, for once. “Looks like you’ve just earned yourself the $20 million dollars.”

This is the real power of poetry. If only we had more Mr. Rogers and more people like Mr. Pastore, willing to be moved.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University. She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed. When you buy an independently reviewed book through my Bookshop links above, you not only support local bookstores, but also this blog, a labor of love.