Monday Sep. 7, 2015

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Late For Summer Weather

He has on
an old light grey Fedora
She a black beret

He a dirty sweater
She an old blue coat
that fits her tight

Grey flapping pants
Red skirt and
broken down black pumps

Fat Lost Ambling
nowhere through
the upper town they kick

their way through
heaps of
fallen maple leaves

still green-and
crisp as dollar bills
Nothing to do. Hot cha!

“Late For Summer Weather” by William Carlos Williams from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. © New Directions, 1991. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of Modernist poet Edith Sitwell (books by this author), born in Scarborough, England (1887). Her parents, Sir George and Lady Ida Sitwell, were baffled by their daughter. While Lady Ida was a beauty, Edith was not. She was extremely tall and thin, with a curved spine and a hooked nose. Her parents forced her to wear an iron brace on her back and a contraption on her nose in an attempt to make her more conventionally attractive. Edith was a bright and curious child, but her father decided that formal education made women less womanly, so he refused to let her go to school. When she was a teenager and it came time for her to make her debut in society, she engaged a man in a debate over his classical music preferences, and her parents were horrified and pulled her back out of social gatherings. She left her family on such bad terms that she didn't even attend her mother's funeral.

Instead, she made her own life as a Modernist poet and a notable public personality. She published many books of poems, including Rustic Elegies (1927), The Song of the Cold (1948), Gardeners and Astronomers (1953), and The Outcasts (1962). Her poetry has generally been overshadowed by her colorful personality. To accentuate her dramatic features, she wore enormous rings, turbans, and old-fashioned gowns. She befriended T.S. Eliot and Graham Greene, and later in her life, championed Dylan Thomas’ poetry. She considered Marilyn Monroe a soulmate, and the two women read poetry aloud together.

Sitwell's best-known work is Façade, a series of poems that she set to music — each poem was meant to be read in a specific rhythm. The composer William Walton wrote the music and conducted a live orchestra during the performance. All the audience could see was a curtain painted like a huge face, with a hole in the center for a mouth. Sitwell sat behind the hole, reciting her words through a megaphone. The first London performance of Façade went so badly that an old woman in the audience waited outside the curtain afterward to hit Sitwell with an umbrella; Noel Coward walked out; and Virginia Woolf didn't understand the poetry. Woolf wrote: "So I judged yesterday in the Aeolian Hall, listening, in a dazed way, to Edith Sitwell vociferating through the megaphone. [...] I should be describing Edith Sitwell's poems, but I kept saying to myself 'I don't really understand ... I don't really admire.'” When Sitwell performed Façade in New York more than 20 years later, it was extremely popular.

Sitwell said: "I am not an eccentric. It's just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel in a pool of catfish."

It's the birthday of writer Margaret Landon (books by this author), born in Somers, Wisconsin (1903). When she was 23, she and her husband signed up to be missionaries in Thailand, which was known as the Kingdom of Siam. For 10 years, Landon lived in Thailand, ran a school, and raised her three children. While she was living there, she came across a book by a woman named Anna Leonowens, a Welsh governess who had tutored the King of Siam's many wives and children during the 1860s. Landon was intrigued by her story, and she fictionalized it in a novel she titled Anna and the King of Siam (1944). Landon's book became a best-seller in 20 languages, selling more than a million copies. The story became even more famous when it was even more fictionalized into the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I (1956). Margaret Landon wrote one other novel, called Never Dies the Dream (1949), a fictionalized account of her own experiences in Thailand — but her own story was never as popular as Anna's.

Today is Labor Day. Most countries besides the United States celebrate Labor Day on May 1st, International Workers' Day—a date that was chosen in part to commemorate the Haymarket riot in Chicago on May 4, 1886.

We know that the first Labor Day celebration in this country occurred on September 5th, 1882, in New York City, and was organized by the Central Labor Union; but there is a debate over whose idea it was in the first place. Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, partly because it was a convenient way for President Grover Cleveland to appease an angry workforce after he violently broke up a strike.

In 1884, railroad workers in Pullman, Illinois went on strike. The town of Pullman was built for the sole purpose of housing people connected with the Pullman Palace Car Company, from the regular workers to Pullman himself. Everyone in the town worked for the railroad, which dictated their wages as well as their rent. In 1893, the nation went into an economic depression, and workers' wages were slashed, but they were still working 16-hour days and the company was still taking the same amount for rent out of their paychecks. So Pullman workers went on strike. Railroad workers across the nation who belonged to the American Railway Union joined the strike, refusing to switch trains with Pullman cars on them. Soon anyone who sympathized, union workers or not, joined in the cause, and riots broke out all over. Passengers and mail couldn't make it west of Chicago.

Grover Cleveland declared that the actions of the workers were criminal, and he sent 12,000 troops to control them. Soon the strike was over, the head of the American Railway Union was sent to prison, and all Pullman workers were required to sign a form saying that they would never strike again. The strike was officially declared over on August 3rd.

Unfortunately for Cleveland, the general public was not too happy with his hard-line stance. So he rushed a Labor Day bill through Congress, and six days after the strike ended, Labor Day was declared a national holiday on the first Monday of September.

These days, only 11.9% of American workers belong to a union, and among private sector workers that number is down to 6.9%. For most Americans, Labor Day has become a time to celebrate the end of summer with a last barbecue or camping trip.

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