Wednesday Sep. 17, 2014

We Shall Be Released

Every afternoon that autumn
walking across campus
past the conservatory
I heard the soprano
her voice rising
making its way up the scale
straining to claim each note
weeks of work
of days
growing shorter
storms slamming the campus
the semester staggering
to an end
everyone exhausted
heading out and going home
the campus nearly deserted
but the soprano
still working the scales
when I passed under the trees
the liquidambars on fire
the clouds like great cities
sailing out to sea
and didn’t I ascend
with her
my own weariness
and sorrows
dropping away
didn’t we rise together
her voice straining
at the top of its range
almost reaching
almost claiming
that high
final note

"We Shall Be Released" by Joseph Stroud, from Of This World. © Copper Canyon Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

It's the birthday of Hank Williams, born in Mount Olive, Alabama (1923). He was a radio star and a successful recording artist, but he kept playing roadhouses — big smoky places where people came to drink beer and dance. He died in Oak Hill, West Virginia, on his way to a New Year's concert in Canton, Ohio. A blizzard had grounded all the airplanes in Nashville, and so he paid an 18-year-old kid to drive him in his new baby-blue Cadillac all the way to the venue.

When the driver stopped at a gas station and the singer was found dead in the backseat. He was only 29 years old.

It's the birthday of Ken Kesey (books by this author), born in La Junta, Colorado (1935). He grew up in Oregon — swimming, fishing, and riding the rapids on the Willamette River with his brother, Chuck. He was a wrestler and a boxer and was voted "most likely to succeed" in his high school graduating class. Kesey went to Stanford University, where he studied creative writing. At the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park, he earned $75 a day as a subject in experiments on the effects of LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs. He stayed on as a night attendant in the mental ward, the basis for his first and most famous novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962). Pauline Kael wrote (about Kesey's book), "The novel preceded the university turmoil, Vietnam, drugs, the counterculture ... it contained the essence of the whole period of revolutionary politics going psychedelic ..."

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was made into a film in 1975 and won five Oscars the following year. Kesey wrote two other novels, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) andSailor Song, which was not published until 1992. He died in November 2001.

It's the birthday of poet William Carlos Williams (books by this author), born in Rutherford, New Jersey (1883). His father was a businessman, born in England, and his mother was Puerto Rican. His mother spoke and read to him in Spanish. He went off to school in Switzerland and France and learned French. But then he came back, went to medical school, and settled in Rutherford, where he was born, and lived there more or less for the rest of his life with his wife, Flossie. He practiced medicine full time and wrote his poems during breaks, on scraps of paper, without time to revise. He was often asked how he had the time and energy to pursue two professions, but he loved them both, and he couldn't imagine writing without medicine. In his Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (1951), he said: "I have never felt that medicine interfered with me but rather that it was my very food and drink, the very thing which made it possible for me to write. Was I not interested in man? There the thing was, right in front of me. I could touch it, smell it. It was myself, naked, just as it was, without a lie telling itself to me in its own terms."

Williams is best known for his shorter poems like "The Red Wheelbarrow" (1962):

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

It was on this day in 1787 that the United States Constitution was signed by delegates at the final meeting of the Constitutional Convention. The war with Britain had officially ended back in 1783, but the new American government was in shambles. More than 10 years earlier, the Second Continental Congress had created the Articles of Confederation to outline the rights of the federal government. But after British rule, the Americans were hesitant to put power in the hands of a central authority, so the United States had no president or other main leader, just a president of Congress. To make things worse, the Second Continental Congress had tasked each of the 13 colonies with creating their own systems of government, and the colonies did such a good job that the states' governments ended up far more powerful than the central government.

By 1787, not a single state was paying all of its federal taxes, and the government had no way to penalize them. Pirates were attacking American ships, and the government didn't have money to pay them off. Troops were deserting, and the weak national military was no help to states that needed it. Congress technically had the authority to wage war, regulate currency, and conduct foreign policy, but in reality it had none of these powers because it had no way to force the states to supply money or troops. The leaders of the revolution were worried. James Madison said, "If some very strong props are not applied, the present system will tumble to the ground." So he and other leaders organized the Constitutional Convention as a way to force the states to create a unified central government.

In May of 1787, 55 delegates arrived in Philadelphia, where they spent the next four months attempting to rewrite the Articles of Confederation. It was a hot summer in Philadelphia, and the bugs were terrible — flies and mosquitoes bit through the delegates' silk stockings. The average age of the delegates was just 42 years old, but overall they were politically experienced and highly educated. The delegates included George Washington, who was immediately elected president and rarely spoke throughout the four months of proceedings; Alexander Hamilton, who skipped out on most of the Convention but afterward emerged as the principal author of the Federalist Papers,famous essays arguing why the Constitution should be ratified; Governor Morris, a charming and witty man with a peg leg and a habit of sleeping with other peoples' wives, who gave 173 speeches during the course of the Convention and wrote the famous preamble to the Constitution; 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin, who had to be carried around Philadelphia in a sedan chair because he could no longer walk; and James Madison, who showed up every single day, took detailed notes on all the proceedings, and argued tirelessly for a strong central government.

Madison was a small man, 5'6" and weighing 120 pounds, described by one observer as "no bigger than a half piece of soap," but he became known as "the Father of the Constitution." A Georgia delegate wrote of Madison: "Every person seems to acknowledge his greatness. Mr. Madison always comes forward the best informed man of any point in debate."

The resulting document was not just a revision of the Articles of Confederation, but also its own creation: the Constitution of the United States. The delegates argued about various issues for months, eventually coming to an agreement on the essential purposes of government, a system of checks and balances, the division of federal and state governments, rules for interstate trade, and representation according to population.

At the very end of his notes on the final day of the Constitutional Convention, Madison wrote: "Whilst the last members were signing it, Franklin, looking towards the President's Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have, said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun."

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