Monday Sep. 12, 2016

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Three Songs at the End of Summer

A second crop of hay lies cut
and turned. Five gleaming crows
search and peck between the rows.
They make a low, companionable squawk,
and like midwives and undertakers
possess a weird authority.

Crickets leap from the stubble,
parting before me like the Red Sea.
The garden sprawls and spoils.

Across the lake the campers have learned
to water ski. They have, or they haven’t.
Sounds of the instructor’s megaphone
suffuse the hazy air. “Relax! Relax!”

Cloud shadows rush over drying hay,
fences, dusty lane, and railroad ravine.
The first yellowing fronds of goldenrod
brighten the margins of the woods.

Schoolbooks, carpools, pleated skirts;
water, silver-still, and a vee of geese.


The cicada’s dry monotony breaks
over me. The days are bright
and free, bright and free.

Then why did I cry today
for an hour, with my whole
body, the way babies cry?


A white, indifferent morning sky,
and a crow, hectoring from its nest
high in the hemlock, a nest as big
as a laundry basket…
In my childhood
I stood under a dripping oak,
while autumnal fog eddied around my feet,
waiting for the school bus
with a dread that took my breath away.

The damp dirt road gave off
this same complex organic scent.

I had the new books—words, numbers,
and operations with numbers I did not
comprehend—and crayons, unspoiled
by use, in a blue canvas satchel
with red leather straps.

Spruce, inadequate, and alien
I stood at the side of the road.
It was the only life I had.

“Three Songs at the End of Summer” by Jane Kenyon from Collected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of German-American satirist, cultural critic, and journalist H.L. Mencken (1880) (books by this author), born Henry Louis Mencken in Baltimore, Maryland, where he lived his entire life. Mencken was sometimes called the “Sage of Baltimore” or the “Bard of Baltimore” for his acerbic, pungent critiques of American life and politics.

Mencken’s father owned a cigar factory, and the family lived in an attractive row house in Union Square. Except for five years of married life, Mencken lived in that house until the day he died. When he was seven, his father gave him a printing press, which Mencken later said was one of the things that inspired him to become a journalist. His other inspiration was Mark Twain. He discovered Huckleberry Finn at nine and called it “the most stupendous event in my life.” After high school, his father gave him two choices: he could go to college or he could work in the cigar factory. Mencken chose the factory, which he hated, but he also took one of the very first correspondence courses ever offered: a class in writing from Cosmopolitan University. Her later joked it was his sole journalism training.

After his father died of a stroke, Mencken began hounding the offices of the Morning Herald, finally talking himself into a job. Within two years, he was the drama critic. Within three, the city editor. A year later, he was the managing editor. Mencken once said, “I believe that a young journalist, turned loose in a large city, had more fun than any other man.”

Mencken’s column, “The Free Lance,” which ran in the Baltimore Sun for 18 years, was nationally syndicated and made him quite famous for his caustic views on politics, culture, and science. In 1931, he referred to the state of Arkansas as “an apex of moronia,” and the legislature there passed a motion to pray for his soul. About Isaac Newton, he said: “[Isaac Newton] was a mathematician, which is mostly hogwash, too. Imagine measuring infinity! That’s a laugh.”

In 1925, Mencken traveled all the way to Tennessee to cover the famous trial of John Thomas Scopes, a high school teacher who’d been arrested for daring to teach evolutionary theory. It was Mencken who gave the trial its infamous name: the “Monkey Trial,” and who convinced famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow to offer his services to John Scopes. In the play Inherit the Wind (1955), which was based on the Scopes trial, the character of E.K. Hornbeck, a blustering, cynical atheist, was based on Mencken. Mencken was also an editor of The Smart Set, a witty literary magazine that published many up-and-coming authors, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Mencken was a prolific letter writer, often penning more than 60 letters a day, which turned out to be more than 100,000 letters during his lifetime. In between writing his columns, he published more than 30 books, including the memoir trilogy Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943). He also wrote The American Language, a multivolume study of how English language is spoken in the United States, which is now considered a classic. Until he was 50 years old, Mencken was called “America’s Best Known Bachelor,” having published numerous screeds against marriage in his columns. But he’d fallen in love, and he got married, and one newspaper quipped, “Bachelors of the nation are aghast, and sore afraid, like a sheep without a leader.” Mencken responded: “The Holy Spirit informed and inspired me. Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches: this one seemed to be a superb one.”

Mencken’s wife died five years after they married. He was heartbroken. He criticized President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and didn’t support the New Deal, and his popularity waned. He never fully recovered from a stroke (1948) and died in 1956.

H.L. Mencken said, “The two main ideas that run through all of my writing, whether it be literary criticism or political polemic are these: I am strong in favor of liberty and I hate fraud.”

The Battle of Marathon, one of history’s earliest recorded battles, took place on this date in the year 490 B.C.E. Greek historian Herodotus tells us that King Darius I of Persia was determined to crush Athens and Eretria, because the Greek city-states had supported the Ionian Revolt and burned the Persian city of Sardis to the ground. Darius wanted revenge, and he spent four years planning his strategy. He sent an armada to pummel the cities in August. Eretria was captured first, and then Persian forces moved on toward Athens. The two armies spent several days in a stalemate, facing each other across the Plain of Marathon, neither one really willing to start the battle. This was fine with the Athenians, who were greatly outnumbered by the Persians, and they were hoping for reinforcements from Sparta to arrive. Eventually, a large share of the Persian cavalry departed, possibly on board a ship bound for Athens. The Athenian generals took advantage of the cavalry’s absence and surrounded the Persian camp. Herodotus wrote: “The Persians ... when they saw the Greeks coming on at speed, made ready to receive them, although it seemed to them that the Athenians were bereft of their senses, and bent upon their own destruction; for they saw a mere handful of men coming on at a run without either horsemen or archers. Such was the opinion of the barbarians; but the Athenians in close array fell upon them, and fought in a manner worthy of being recorded.”

The battle was a rout, and the Persians retreated to Asia, losing 6,400 soldiers to Athens’ 192. Darius’ son Xerxes I eventually took up the cause, attempting to invade Greece again 10 years later. But now the Greeks knew that the Persians could be beaten, and their confidence grew. They successfully held off the Persians’ subsequent invasion attempts, and the Battle of Marathon is regarded as the kicking-off point for the rise of Classical Greece and the birth of Western civilization.

Of course, the battle also gave its name to the long-distance race of the same name. The legend holds that a Greek messenger named Pheidippides ran the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens to bring news of the rout, collapsing and dying after he delivered the news. What most likely happened was that he ran from Athens to Sparta before the battle — a distance of 140 miles — to ask for the Spartans’ help. But when Plutarch wrote the story in the 1st century A.D., he confused the story of Pheidippides with that of the Athenian army quick-marching back to Athens after the battle to protect the city from the remaining Persian forces. Organizers of the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, came up with the idea of a commemorative race to honor their ancient Greek forbears. So the competitors retraced the legendary steps of Pheidippides, running the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens.

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