Sunday Jan. 10, 2016

0:00/ 0:00

Bredon Hill

In summertime on Bredon
     The bells they sound so clear;
Round both the shires they ring them
     In steeples far and near,
     A happy noise to hear.

Here of a Sunday morning
     My love and I would lie,
And see the coloured counties,
     And hear the larks so high
     About us in the sky.

The bells would ring to call her
     In valleys miles away;
‘Come all to church, good people;
     Good people come and pray.’
     But here my love would stay.

And I would turn and answer
     Among the springing thyme,
‘Oh, peal upon our wedding,
     And we will hear the chime,
     And come to church on time.’

But when the snows at Christmas
     On Bredon top were strown,
My love rose up so early
     And stole out unbeknown
     And went to church alone.

They tolled the one bell only,
     Groom there was none to see,
The mourners followed after,
     And so to church went she;
     And would not wait for me.

The bells they sound on Bredon,
     And still the steeples hum,
‘Come all to church, good people’—
     Oh, noisy bells be dumb;
     I hear you, I will come.

“Bredon Hill” by A.E. Housman from Collected Poems. © Wordsworth Editions, Ltd, 1999. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the American poet known as “the Whitman of the industrial heartland” — that’s Philip Levine (books by this author), born on this day in Detroit, Michigan (1928), the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father died when he was five, and his mother struggled to make ends meet, working as an office manager. At 14, Levine went to work in a soap factory, starting an adolescence of blue-collar labor. He hefted drinks at a bottling plant, worked the punch press for Chevrolet, and manned a jackhammer at Detroit Transmission. His experiences became fodder for his later poetry, which explored poverty and lower-class life. Levine worked in factories and at odd jobs until he was in his late 20s, when he took a teaching position at Fresno State College, where he stayed for 30 years.

Levine said: “It was at an early age, while I was working in factories and also trying to write, I said to myself, ‘Nobody is writing the poetry of the world here; it doesn’t exist!’ And it didn’t. You couldn’t find it. I took a vow that I was going to do it, and goddamn it, it didn’t matter how long it was going to take. I was going to write the poetry of these people because they weren’t going to do it. And it was very funny, when my fellow workers would say, you know, ‘What do you do?’ And I would say, ‘I write poetry.’ Nobody laughed at me.”

He was enamored of Stephen Crane, T.S. Eliot, and Dylan Thomas, but his style veered toward the plain and the everyday. He was ill-prepared for college life at Wayne State University. He said: “I didn’t even know what a bachelor’s was. I thought it was a small apartment and I already had one of those.” Levine was turned down for a fellowship at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but he showed up anyway, and poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman took a shine to him and let him sit in on classes as an unregistered student.

His first collection, On the Edge (1963), received good reviews, but it was his second book, Not This Pig (1968) — featuring the poem “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives,” which is told from a pig’s point of view and touches on everything from war to capitalism — that electrified readers. He followed that with They Feed They Lion (1972) and The Names of the Lost (1976), which drew comparisons between the cities of Catalan and Detroit. He won the National Book Award for his collection Ashes: Poems New and Old (1980).

Levine was named Poet Laureate of the United States (2011-2012) and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1996) for his collection The Simple Truth (1995).Though honored by the prize, and his continued success in teaching, Levine never stopped writing about working-class people. He said, "Who the hell wants to read about the life of a professor? Do you? I don’t."

In the title poem he wrote: “Some things / you know all your life. They are so simple and true / they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme.” He died in 2015.

Levine’s advice to young writers was: “Don’t strain to get a voice right away because you don’t know what it is your story is going to be. I would tell them to read the best poetry, write everything that occurs to you, see where it goes. The voice that will suit you will arrive without you really even knowing it. That’s what happened to me.”

It’s the birthday of best-selling historian Stephen Ambrose (books by this author), born in Lovington, Illinois (1936). Ambrose’s father was a Navy doctor during World War II, and the family followed him from post to post around the country until he was shipped overseas. The war ended, Ambrose’s father came home and took up a private practice in Wisconsin, and Ambrose decided he’d take over when he grew up.

Trying to get the necessary pre-med credits in physics and chemistry, he was annoyed when his state university requirements compelled him to take an American history class the second semester of his sophomore year. It was called “Representative Americans” and was based on biographies of individuals throughout the country’s history; the first class focused on George Washington. The professor said that the students would be completing their own biography of an unknown Wisconsinite, which they would have to use primary research from the state historical society to write. The result, the professor promised, would add to the sum of the world’s knowledge.

“And that just hit me like a sledgehammer,” Ambrose later said in an interview with the Academy of Achievement. “It had never before occurred to me that I could add to the sum of the world’s knowledge.” When the first class was over, Ambrose went to the registrar’s office and changed his major from pre-med to history, much to his father’s dismay. His history professor’s particular interest was in the Civil War, so it became Ambrose’s, too — he even smoked a big pipe to emulate his professor. And later that semester when he finished his 10-page biography of a Civil War-era one-term Wisconsin congressman named Charles Billinghurst, Ambrose marveled that he was now the world’s leading expert on Charles Billinghurst. “Now what I soon learned was, the reason for that was that nobody else cared about Charles A. Billinghurst,” Ambrose laughed. But his next epiphany was what transformed him from a historian to a world-class storyteller: “But I can make ’em care if I tell the story right.”

That was the idea, although his first two books had such relatively obscure subjects that Ambrose didn’t have much of an audience to try to win over. His doctoral thesis was about Emory Upton, a 19th-century military tactician and Civil War general. And shortly after beginning his career as a history professor, Ambrose published a biography of President Lincoln’s chief of staff. His next book, though, chronicled someone more well-known: the former president Dwight Eisenhower. Ambrose’s authorized, two-volume biography established his career as both a historian and a best-selling writer; his name quickly became synonymous with historical nonfiction that millions of people actually wanted to read, including biographies of Richard Nixon, a book about the Lewis & Clark expedition, Undaunted Courage (1996), and multiple books on WWII like Citizen Soldiers (1997) and Band of Brothers (1992).

He had abandoned his father’s career path, but not his influence; Ambrose’s abiding patriotism and interest in the military, he said, led directly back to his childhood fascination with the soldiers returning home from the Second World War. “I am an unabashed triumphalist,” Ambrose wrote years later. “I believe this is the best and greatest country that ever was.” Nearly half of his 23 books focused on some aspect of the war; he served as a historical adviser for the film Saving Private Ryan, and as Tom Brokaw’s inspiration for his book on the topic, The Greatest Generation (1998).

It wasn’t until the end of Ambrose’s career, just months before his death in 2002, that charges of plagiarism and inaccuracies in his books surfaced. Several journalists scoured Ambrose’s books and documentation, finding excerpts in a handful of books that were taken directly from other sources — Ambrose had footnoted them, but not surrounded the passages with quotation marks. “I tell stories,” Ambrose said in his defense. “I don’t discuss my documents. I discuss the story. It almost gets to the point where, how much is the reader going to take? I am not writing a Ph.D. dissertation. I wish I had put the quotation marks in, but I didn’t. I am not out there stealing other people’s writings.”

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