Many years ago a fellow member of a church I then attended gave me a small piece of paper. As he handed it to me, he said, “I’ve always tried to live this poem.” On the paper was printed “A Better Way” below which were twelve lines of rhymed poetry. At the bottom of the page was printed Edgay [sic] A. Guest. While I did not like the poetry in and of itself, I did like the message by Edgar A. Guest. I tucked the small rectangular piece of paper in my Bible and read it or referred to it often. Recently I even used all twelve lines of A Better Way in an essay. Until yesterday.
Yesterday our pastor used a poem in his weekly message to the congregation. He shared how he had read the poem in the 7th grade and was influenced by it. The poem he referenced was Live Your Creed by Langston Hughes. My wife noticed the similarities between Guest’s and Hughes’ poem, and she asked me about them. Oh, what I discovered about the poets and me.
Edgar Guest was born in Birmingham, England in 1881, and his family moved to Detroit, Michigan when he was ten. When his father lost his job, young Edgar worked odd jobs after school and in 1895 was hired as a copy boy for the Detroit Free Press, where he would work for almost sixty-five years. When he was seventeen his father died, and he began working full time for the paper. He slowly worked his way up and his first poem appeared in the paper in 1898, and by 1904 his weekly column, “Chaff” was published. Eventually his verses became the “Breakfast Table Chat” which was syndicated to over 300 United States newspapers.
Guest broadcast a weekly NBC radio program from 1931 to 1942, and in 1951 his show “A guest in Your Home” appeared on NBC television. He published over twenty volumes of poetry and has been called “the poet of the people.” Concerning his poems, he said, “I take simple everyday things that happen to me and I figure it happens to a lot of other people and I make simple rhymes out of them.” Edgar Guest died on August 5, 1959.
Now, I was more familiar with Langston Hughes and his poems. I had even taught some of them and admire his work. However, after much looking on the Internet and reading the listed poems in the PDF of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, I can find no poem titled Live Your Creed composed by Hughes. I did find many praises to the poem for its inspiration written by ordinary folks like me, but no references from serious scholars.
The two poems are too similar: The Sermons We See begins: “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day”, and Live Your Creed, as quoted by several admirers, begins: “I’d rather see a sermon than to hear one any day.” One word (in bold) difference. I found that Guest wrote his poem in 1926 and that the poem I had carried all these years was just the first two stanzas of Guest’s four stanza poem and “A Better Way” was not the title. The original poem had been all hacked, and I had blindly accepted the fake. Now I know better, but I still have not found out all I want to know about the poem alluded to Hughes. I now stand corrected and better informed about Guest and will continue reading and searching more about Hughes.