Wednesday Jan. 20, 2016

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Reading History a Year at a Time

Lord Byron died the very year
that sperm were proved,
beyond all doubt, to be
essential to fertilization.
No more virgin births. That year
Beethoven’s Choral Symphony
astounded the air. He was guided
gently to face the audience
that rose in an ovation
he couldn’t hear. Tears
were everywhere. Who remembers
J.L. Prevost or J.B. Dumas
or knows how they unraveled
the mystery of sperm? That same year
workers finished the Erie Canal
and Simon Bolivar was proclaimed
Emperor of Peru. The canal workers
didn’t know or care about Peru
nor did they hear the “Ode to Joy.”
My great-great grandmother was born
that year, to later travel the length
of the canal. Three hundred million
sperm swim up the birth canal.
A few thousand reach the oviduct.
The ovum chooses one (on rare
occasions more). Then, as usual,
life went on. Joseph Aspdin developed
Portland Cement while the U.S.
House elected John Quincy Adams when
the voters couldn’t make up their minds.

“Reading History a Year at a Time” by Joan McIntosh from Greatest Hits. © Pudding House Publications, 2001. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Every four years on this day, we celebrate Inauguration Day; the last Inauguration Day was in 2013, and the next will be a year from today. Inauguration Day was originally held on March 4th because the entire process from voting to inauguration took so long — news was carried by horseback, and travel was often delayed due to bad roads during the icy winter months. Technology sped up the process, so in 1933 the 20th Amendment changed the first day of the president’s and vice president’s terms to January 20th. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the final president inaugurated on March 4th, and the first president inaugurated on January 20th.

The first inauguration, of George Washington, was held in New York City in 1789. It took Washington seven days to travel from Virginia to New York. The morning he left, he wrote in his journal: “About 10 o’clock I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity, and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express.” A local judge administered the oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall, and Washington proceeded to the Senate chamber to give a short speech. Four years later, Washington was inaugurated again, and delivered a speech that was just 135 words long — still the shortest inaugural address in the nation’s history.

The longest inaugural address was delivered by William Henry Harrison: 8,445 words. Harrison’s speech took two hours, and he delivered it without a coat or hat on a very cold and wet day. When he died of pneumonia a month later, many blamed it on his long inaugural address.

Lincoln’s second inauguration, in 1865, started out badly. Vice president Andrew Johnson woke up that morning hung over and ill with typhoid fever. He drank three tumblers of whiskey in quick succession and gave an incomprehensible, drunken speech that finally ended when the outgoing vice president forcibly tugged on Johnson’s coattails. Lincoln was horrified, as were his fellow politicians. Happily for Lincoln, the remainder of the inauguration was a success. The Union was winning the Civil War, and people celebrated in the streets while Lincoln was sworn in. Tens of thousands crowded onto the Capitol lawn to hear his speech, and the moment he began speaking, the sun burst through the clouds for the first time all day. The whole speech took just six or seven minutes, and is considered one of his finest. It ended: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said: “This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

In 1961, John F Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

In 1969, Richard Nixon said: “We have endured a long night of the American spirit. But as our eyes catch the dimness of the first rays of dawn, let us not curse the remaining dark. Let us gather the light.”

In 1981, Ronald Reagan said: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

In January of 1993, Bill Clinton said: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

Today we celebrate the birthday of musician Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, born on or near this day in Mooringsport, Louisiana (1889). Lead Belly sang the blues and played the 12-string guitar, harmonica, violin, piano, and accordion. From the time he was a teenager, he played and sang gospel, blues, cowboy songs, prison work songs, old chants and pop. He traveled around the South, working in the fields and playing his music on the streets of Shreveport and Dallas.

In 1917, Lead Belly was arrested for murder in Texas and sentenced to a 20-year prison term. He was a model inmate, working hard and frequently entertaining the prisoners, guards, and other guests with his music. When the governor of Texas visited, Lead Belly performed a song he had written for the occasion, comparing his own situation with that of Paul and Silas in the Bible, who were imprisoned and set free when an earthquake broke their chains. The governor returned several times to hear Lead Belly perform, and eventually issued him an outgoing pardon — despite the fact that the governor had run on a platform of issuing no pardons to criminals.

In 1930, Lead Belly was sent to Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana for attempted murder of a white man. Three years later, a former college professor named John Lomax and his son Alan showed up at Angola to record folk songs. They arrived in an old pickup truck with an unwieldy recording device they had borrowed from the Library of Congress. They recorded Lead Belly performing seven songs, including the waltz “Goodnight, Irene.” The Lomaxes returned a year later to record again, and Lead Belly included a song he had written especially for the governor of Louisiana, hoping to receive a pardon as he had in Texas. The Lomaxes took his song to the governor, and he was pardoned a month later, but it turned out to be just a coincidence. After his release from prison, Lead Belly became a famous musician, playing for huge crowds across the country. His most famous songs include “The Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line,” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

It’s the birthday of Edward Hirsch (1950) (books by this author), born in Chicago, Illinois. He studied at Grinnell College in Iowa, and at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a Ph.D. in folklore. He’s been a chronic insomniac since childhood, and the motif of sleeplessness often finds its way into his poems. His first book, For the Sleepwalkers, was published in 1981. Other collections include Wild Gratitude (1986), The Night Parade (1989), Earthly Measures (1994), On Love (1998), Lay Back the Darkness (2003), and most recently, Special Orders (2008) and Gabriel: A Poem (2014).

He started to write poetry as a teenager, not because he wanted to be a poet, but because he was trying to find a way to cope with the turbulent feelings of adolescence. Later, he showed some of his poems to a teacher at Grinnell, who told him, “These aren’t poems; these are diary entries” and sent him off to read some of the great poets. “I then let the poetry itself be my guide, the poetry itself teach me how to read it. Later, when I was in my late 30s and early 40s I was thinking back to that boy I was and I was thinking, ‘You know, a guide would have been a help, and I think readers could use some help.’” In 1999, he published that guide: a book called How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. It was an instant best-seller and has had several printings.

He told Contemporary Authors: “I would like to speak in my poems with what the Romantic poets called ‘the true voice of feeling.’ I believe, as Ezra Pound once said, that when it comes to poetry, ‘only emotion endures.’”

It’s the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Robert Olen Butler (books by this author), born in Granite City, Illinois (1945). He won the Pulitzer Prize for short fiction in 1993 for his collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992).

Butler’s first novel, The Alleys of Eden, was published in 1981 after 21 publishers had turned it down. It was the first book in what would become a Vietnam trilogy. The novel received very good reviews, but it sold only a few thousand copies. He wrote six novels before winning the Pulitzer Prize, but it was only after the award that he achieved any commercial success from his writing.

Butler says: “I didn’t sell much for a long time. And before I sold that first novel, I wrote five ghastly novels, about 40 dreadful short stories, and 12 truly awful full-length plays, all of which have never seen the light of day and never will.” Butler went on to write another collection of short stories called Tabloid Dreams (1997), in which all the stories are based on actual headlines he had seen in grocery store tabloid newspapers. His latest novel, The Empire of Night, came out in 2014.

It’s the birthday of novelist Susan Vreeland (books by this author), born in Racine, Wisconsin, in 1946. She grew up in California, became a teacher, and for 30 years she taught English and ceramics in the San Diego public schools. She wrote a book called What Love Sees (1988), based on the true story of her parents’ friends, a couple who were both blind but who managed a ranch and raised children with the help of a Seeing Eye cow. But she was also busy with her teaching, and for a while she wrote occasional stories or articles, but not much else.

Then, in 1996, she was diagnosed with lymphoma. She had chemotherapy and operations, and for a few months she couldn’t do much but read, and even that was hard for her. So instead, she paged through art books, and she especially liked Vermeer, whose paintings were so calming. She needed more treatment, and she had to take off another year of teaching, and so she started writing stories based on Vermeer. Vermeer only painted 35 paintings, and so Susan Vreeland imagined that he had painted one more, and she wrote a story about that, and then several more stories about Vermeer and the imagined 36th painting and the people who owned it over the years. She said: “My goal at the time wasn’t to create a novel that would make it out in the big world. It was to have enough time left in my life to finish this group of stories and print out 12 copies, so my husband could give them to members of my writing group so they’d have something to remember me by.” She did finish them, and she turned them into a novel, and a tiny publishing house in Denver agreed to publish the novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999). It became a best-seller. Her most recent novel is called Lisette’s List (2014).

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