Saturday Apr. 22, 2017

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A Prayer in Spring

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.

“A Prayer in Spring” by Robert Frost from Collected Poems, Prose & Plays. © The Library of America, 1995. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Earth Day. It was first observed in 1970, but its roots go back to the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s (books by this author) landmark book exposing the effects of pesticides and other chemical pollution on the environment. Troubled by the lack of attention pollution was receiving on the national stage, Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson began going on speaking tours, trying to educate people and politicians about environmental issues, and while the public was concerned, the politicians didn’t pay much attention.

During the late 1960s, Senator Nelson had the idea to harness the energy and methods of the student protests against the Vietnam War to organize a grassroots conservation movement. At a press conference in 1969, he announced plans for a nationwide demonstration, to take place the following spring. It was a gamble that paid off, and the public’s response was enthusiastic. Gladwin Hill wrote in The New York Times, “Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam.” Twenty million people nationwide participated in the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, and the government finally took notice, forming the Environmental Protection Agency and passing the Clean Air, the Clean Water, and the Endangered Species Acts.

According to the Earth Day Network, Earth Day is celebrated by a billion people, making it the world’s largest secular holiday.

It’s the birthday of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (books by this author), born in Königsberg, Prussia in 1724. His father was a saddle maker. He studied theology, physics, mathematics, and philosophy at university, and worked for a time as a private tutor; he made very little money, but it gave him plenty of time for his own work. He lectured at the University of Königsberg for 15 years until he was eventually given a tenured position as professor of logic and metaphysics in 1770. Though he enjoyed hearing travel stories, he never ventured more than 50 miles from his hometown, believing that travel was not necessary to solve the problems of philosophy.

In his most influential work, The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), he argued against Empiricism, which held that the mind was a blank slate to be filled with observations of the physical world, and Rationalism, which held that it was possible to experience the world objectively without the interference of the mind; instead, he synthesized the two schools of thought, added that the conscious mind must process and organize our perceptions, and made a distinction between the natural world as we observe it and the natural world as it really is. He viewed morality as something that arises from human reason, and maintained that an action’s morality is determined not by the outcome of the action, but by the motive behind it. He is also famous for his single moral obligation, the “Categorical Imperative”: namely, that we should judge our actions by whether or not we would want everyone else to act the same way.

He wrote, “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe [...] the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

It’s the birthday of poet Louise Glück (books by this author), born in New York City (1943). Her father was a Hungarian immigrant who helped invent the X-Acto knife. Even as a young girl, she wanted to be a poet. She had a tough adolescence — she didn’t fit in with her peers, and she struggled with anorexia. Her parents took her out of high school and put her into psychoanalysis. At first, she was afraid to go because she was worried that the doctor would “cure” her to such a degree that she would lose her creative drive. Instead, she said that psychoanalysis was “one of the great experiences of my life. It helps me to live and it taught me to think.”

She dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College after just six weeks. She said: “It wasn’t a confident dismissal of a ritual I didn’t need or had bohemian contempt for. I was, at eighteen, too advanced in neurosis to manage life outside my bedroom.” Instead, over the next few years, she took classes at Columbia’s School of General Studies, studying with the poets Léonie Adams and Stanley Kunitz.

She published her first book, Firstborn (1968). The critics loved it, and it won the Academy of American Poets Prize. The critical acclaim earned her job offers to teach at various institutions, but Glück was convinced that to be a real poet she shouldn’t teach — that it would compromise her creative drive. Instead she worked as a secretary, but even so, she struggled with writer’s block for years.

She agreed to attend a colloquium in Vermont, because one of her heroes, John Berryman, was going to be there and she wanted to meet him. As soon as she arrived, she fell in love with Vermont. Her hosts at Goddard College casually encouraged her to teach there, and to their surprise, she agreed. There wasn’t actually a job available, but the college moved things around and less than a week before classes started, she was offered a job and moved to Vermont. She said: “Teaching released me. It was one of the most dramatic transformative experiences of my life and entirely positive.” Writing poetry became easier than it had ever been before.

After a while, she had another period of writer’s block. For two years, she spent a lot of time gardening, obsessively reading flower catalogs and listening to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but not writing at all. One day, she was walking around her garden when she had the thought that she could write a poem narrated by a flower. She did, and a couple of days later she wrote another, and eventually those poems became a book: The Wild Iris (1992). It won the Pulitzer Prize.

In 2003, she was named poet laureate. She said: “To my surprise I didn’t hesitate, even though I can’t say I was unambivalently delighted. I have very little taste for public forums [... but] I thought my life needed to be disturbed and surprised.”

Her collected poems were published in 2012, as Poems: 1962–2012. She said: “The thing that surprised me was how big the book was, because for most of my life, I’ve felt I wasn’t writing. Hitting my head against a wall, raging and raving to my friends because my mind is blank. Or dead. But the book was so large. It was a quite marvelous feeling — that my current sense of failure might not be so reliable.”

Her other books include Ararat (1990), Meadowlands (1997), Averno (2006), and most recently, Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014).

She said: “Writing is a kind of revenge against circumstance too: bad luck, loss, pain. If you make something out of it, then you’ve no longer been bested by these events.”

Today is the birthday of legendary jazz bassist, bandleader, and composer Charles Mingus, sometimes known as “The Angry Man of Jazz,” born in Nogales, Arizona, in 1922. Raised in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, his earliest musical influences were the gospel choirs he heard in church, and Duke Ellington on the radio. He was classically trained on the double bass, but found his home in jazz, and in the 1940s toured with Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton.

In the early 1950s, he settled in New York and worked with Billy Taylor, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell. He also performed with Charlie Parker, who radically transformed Mingus’s perceptions of jazz. He began to focus more heavily on composition in the middle of the decade, and borrowed elements from bebop, rhythm and blues, classical, and gospel music to create a style that strongly resisted a label. In his 40-year career, he recorded more than 60 albums, including Wonderland (1959) and Tijuana Moods (1962).

He was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in the mid-1970s, and though the disease affected his ability to play the bass, he still composed by humming into a tape recorder. He died in 1979, and his ashes were scattered in the Ganges River. After his death, an archivist discovered a complex and remarkably difficult composition, numbering more than 4,000 measures, called “Epitaph.” A portion of the jazz symphony had been performed by Mingus and a 31-piece band in 1962, but the musicians weren’t up to such a challenging composition, and Mingus put the full two-and-a-half-hour score in the closet, never to revisit it in his lifetime. The entire 500-page score was organized and assembled, and in 1989 it had its premiere at Alice Tully Hall in New York City, 10 years after Mingus’s death.

He wrote: “Let my children have music! Let them hear live music. Not noise. My children! You do what you want with your own!”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®