Saturday Mar. 7, 2015

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The Couple in the Park

A man walks alone in the park and beside him a woman walks, also alone.
How does one know? It is as though a line exists between them, like a line on
a playing field. And yet, in a photograph they might appear a married cou-
ple, weary of each other and of the many winters they have endured togeth-
er. At another time, they might be strangers about to meet by accident. She
drops her book; stooping to pick it up, she touches, by accident, his hand and
her heart springs open like a child’s music box. And out of the box comes
a little ballerina made of wood. I have created this, the man thinks; though
she can only whirl in place, still she is a dancer of some kind, not simply a
block of wood. This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees.

“The Couple in the Park” by Louise Glück from Faithful and Virtuous Night. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of one of the great Texas troubadours and a legend in songwriting circles, Townes Van Zandt, born in Fort Worth (1944). He was born into wealthy oil family, and they moved around quite a bit when he was a young kid — to Minnesota, Colorado, and Illinois — but he abandoned wealth for poetry and singing and living couch to couch. His focus was the words and the story. Though he never had a hit of his own, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took his song "Pancho and Lefty" all the way to No. 1 in 1983. Others recorded him too — Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, The Cowboy Junkies.

His friend Steve Earle famously said he was "the best songwriter in the whole world," adding, "I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." To which Van Zandt was said to have replied: "I've met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don't think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table."

Years later, Earle recanted. He said, "When somebody's as good as Townes Van Zandt was and more people don't know about it, it's Townes's fault. Part of him didn't consider himself worthy of anything." Van Zandt died in 1997, at age 53.

It's the birthday of novelist Robert Harris (books by this author), born in Nottingham, England (1957). In 1987, he was on vacation in Italy, lying on the beach, listening to the German tourists, when he suddenly imagined that he was living in a world where the Nazis had won. Of writing the first page of that first novel, Fatherland (1991), he said it felt "like having had a powerful car in the garage, and switching it on, and realizing that there was literally nothing you could not do."

Fatherland became an international best-seller, and he's since written many other best-selling books of historical fiction, including Enigma (1995), about British code breakers during World War II, Archangel (1998), about the search for a secret Stalin diary, and Pompeii, about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (2003). He's now on to a trilogy about the ancient Roman leader Cicero. The second installment, Conspiritata, came out last February (2010).

Harris, who was a BBC correspondent and newspaper columnist before he was a novelist, said, "It is perfectly legitimate to write novels which are essentially prose poems, but in the end, I think, a novel is like a car, and if you buy a car and grow flowers in it, you're forgetting that the car is designed to take you somewhere else."

On this day in 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that parody can be protected by the fair-use clause of the Copyright Act of 1976. The ruling came about when the rap group 2 Live Crew used elements from "Oh Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison in their song "Pretty Woman."

Orbison's song is about a man's desire for a pretty woman he sees walking down the street. The 2 Live Crew version uses the same guitar riffs and melody, but the relationship has advanced, or rather deteriorated, as she is now a hairy woman, a bald-headed woman, and a two-timing woman.

The music publishing company that owns Orbison's song sued Luther Campbell, the head of 2 Live Crew, for copyright violation, saying he used too much of the original work and gained commercially from it. Campbell argued that he had fair use and the Supreme Court agreed.

Bruce Rogow, the attorney who argued for Luther Campbell, said, "the case stands for the principle that there must be breathing room for artists to create new works." And Supreme Court Justice David Souter wrote, "Like less ostensibly humorous forms of criticism, [parody] can provide social benefit by shedding light on an earlier work and, in the process, creating a new one."

Today, rapper Luther Campbell is a columnist for the Miami New Times. He might run for mayor of Miami-Dade County.

On this date in 1857 it was wisely decided that a baseball game would be made up of nine innings instead of 21 "aces" or runs.

The National Association of Baseball Players decided this. They were a group of men in New York and Brooklyn baseball clubs playing under what was known as the "Knickerbocker Rules," and they had just gotten together formally for the first time in January.

They had agreed that baseball was "manly and healthful" and should be promoted that way to young men as, they told the paper, an "alternative to billiards … and other unmentionable night amusements." And they had done away with the practice of hitting the runner with a thrown ball to get him out, which caused fistfights.

But they knew that spectators were coming to baseball games, and under the Knickerbocker Rules a game could be over very quickly. So they changed the rules so as not to disappoint the sport's new fans, which might pay money to see them.

It's the anniversary of the first march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (1965), known as "Bloody Sunday." Six hundred civil rights activists left Selma to march the 54 miles to the state capitol, demonstrating for African-American voting rights. They got six blocks before state and local lawmen attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas.

ABC News interrupted a Nazi war crimes documentary to show footage of the violence. In the blink of a television set, national public opinion about civil rights shifted. Demonstrations broke out across the country.

Two weeks later, the March from Selma made it to Montgomery, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, federal court protection, and these words from President Lyndon Johnson: "There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights." When they got to Montgomery, they were 25,000 strong.

Robert Frost's poem (books by this author) "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" was published in The New Republic magazine (1923). He called it, "My best bid for remembrance." It certainly was, and one of the best known and loved poems in all of American literature.

Right before he wrote it, Frost stayed up all night working on a different poem called "New Hampshire." He'd never worked all night on a poem before, and he was feeling pretty good about that, and so he went outside to watch the sun rise. It was the middle of June and there was no snow in sight.

He suddenly got an idea there, and rushed back in and wrote "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," almost without lifting his pen from the page. He said of the experience, "It was as if I'd had a hallucination."

Frost said poetry could make you "remember what you didn't know you knew."

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