Tuesday Oct. 24, 2017

0:00/ 0:00

Sixteen Years Old, I Help Bring in the Hay on My Uncle John’s Farm with Two French-Canadian Workers

None of us expected the massing thunderheads
to swing open their doors so suddenly
that we would have to drop our rakes
and run across the field to a shelter
and stand there side by side under its tin roof
looking out through a shiny curtain of rain.

We had never spent any time together
except for the haying, raking it into piles
and pitchforking it up into an old truck,
but now there was nothing to do
but watch and listen to the downpour
and nothing to say either

after the cigarettes had been offered around
and lit one by one with the flame of a single match.

“Sixteen Years Old, I Help Bring in the Hay on My Uncle John’s Farm with Two French-Canadian Workers” by Billy Collins from The Rain in Portugal. © Random House, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the writer Sarah Josepha Hale (books by this author), born in Newport, New Hampshire (1788). She had no formal education, but her family encouraged her to read, especially her brother who went to Dartmouth. Her father opened up an unsuccessful tavern, and she was married in that tavern and had five children. Her husband died when she was 34 years old, and his Freemason group provided for her, first setting her up in a millinery business and then paying for the publication of her first book of poems, The Genius of Oblivion (1823).

It may come as no surprise that Sarah Josepha Hale was a vocal supporter of Thanksgiving, and along with a litany of other social causes and campaigns, the campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday was her dearest cause. She wrote letters to one president after another — Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and finally Abraham Lincoln, who did, in fact, listen to her. On October 3, 1863, he issued a proclamation, saying, "The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible." He proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday, celebrated that year on the last Thursday of November.

So we have Sarah Josepha Hale to thank for Thanksgiving, as well as for writing the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

It was on this date in 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act went into effect, which established the 40-hour work week and a minimum wage. It was the first effort by the federal government to regulate wages and hours for workers. The first minimum wage was 25 cents per hour, and was set to be increased to 40 cents within seven years.

It's the birthday of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, born in Delft, the Netherlands (1632). He perfected the microscope, and was the first person to observe bacteria. Leeuwenhoek was not a trained scientist; he studied to be a draper's assistant in Amsterdam. He became a draper and haberdasher, and eventually took an administrative job in the government. He devoted all of his spare time to his hobby, grinding glass lenses and making microscopes. Over his lifetime, he ground over 400 lenses, and he built many microscopes, using techniques that he kept secret. He used his own microscopes to become the first person to observe bacteria and protozoa, which he called "animalcules." He was also the first to see red blood cells. One of his most important contributions was his research on fleas. He was able to explain how insects breed, because he could, for the first time, see their tiny eggs. He argued against the popular theory of spontaneous generation, which said that the tiniest insects could be generated from thin air.

It's the birthday of playwright Moss Hart (books by this author), born in New York City (1904). In his lifetime, he was known as the prince of Broadway. He co-wrote plays such as You Can't Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner, and he directed the musicals My Fair Lady and Camelot. Over the course of his career he collaborated with George S. Kaufman, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Judy Garland, and Julie Andrews.

His father was a cigar maker who lost his business when the mechanical cigar roller was invented, but his eccentric Aunt Kate began taking him to the theater when he was seven years old. It later turned out that she suffered from mental illness and had a habit of setting fires in the theaters she visited. But all Hart knew was that his aunt was taking him to Broadway on a regular basis, even when he should have been in school. He always credited her for getting him hooked on the theater.

By the time he was a teenager, Broadway was at its height. There were 90 major theaters in New York City, putting on an average of 225 new plays or musicals every year. Plays and musicals were still more popular forms of entertainment than movies. Broadway was the most glamorous place in America, and Moss Hart wanted nothing more than to be a part of it. Unfortunately, he had to drop out of high school and take a job as a clothing folder at a garment factory to support his family. But he was so enterprising that he got his boss to let him write and produce a musical review to show off the factory's latest clothing line.

A few years later, Hart got a job as the entertainment director for a series of summer resorts along the Borscht Belt in the Catskills. He later said that keeping city folks sufficiently entertained when they are confronted with a few weeks of nature was the toughest job he ever had, but he learned a lot about drama from the experience.

He wanted more than anything to write a big important play, like his idol Eugene O'Neill, but producers kept turning him down, telling him that they wanted comedies. So Hart decided to give them what they wanted, and the result was his play Once in a Lifetime. The legendary playwright George S. Kaufman agreed to help rewrite the script. The two of them worked on it for months, showing rough versions to audiences and noting what made people laugh and what didn't. When it came out in 1930, the play was a big hit and Moss Hart became rich and famous almost overnight. He was just 25 years old.

Hart is best known for co-writing You Can't Take It With You (1936) with Kaufman. It's a play about the strange Sycamore family — whose home is full of snakes, playwriting, ballet dancing, Russian royalty, candy, and fireworks. It is still one of the most popular plays for amateur productions.

It's the birthday of poet Denise Levertov (books by this author), born in Ilford, England (1923). She decided to become a poet, but she didn't want to go to graduate school. Instead, she got her nurse's training and spent three years as a civilian nurse during the Blitz in London. She liked the work itself, but she didn't like the structure — she was just 19 years old, and she had been homeschooled her whole life. She said: "I didn't like the strain of taking even the one and only examination that I ever took in my life, and I didn't like the way in which one's personal life was regulated. I was always crawling in and out of windows to avoid curfews!" She wrote poems each night after her shift at the hospital, and published her first book, The Double Image (1946). She met and married an American poet, Mitchell Goodman, and after the war, they moved to the United States.

One of the poets she admired most was William Carlos Williams. In 1951, Levertov send Williams a fan letter; she was in her late 20s, and he was 68, recovering from his first stroke. After exchanging letters for a while, she took a bus up to his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey, to see him. Williams was a warm and receptive host, and after that, she would go to visit him a couple of times a year. She would arrive in time for lunch with Williams and his wife, Flossie, then spend a few hours reading him her poetry, sometimes reading his poetry aloud, and chatting about people they both knew. Williams became Levertov's mentor, and they exchanged letters until his death in 1962.

Levertov published more than 20 books of poetry, including With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959), The Freeing of the Dust (1975), Breathing in the Water (1984), and The Life Around Us (1997).

She said: "Strength of feeling, reverence for mystery, and clarity of intellect must be kept in balance with one another. Neither the passive nor the active must dominate, they must work in conjunction, as in a marriage."

And, "I'm not very good at praying, but what I experience when I'm writing a poem is close to prayer."

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