Saturday Sep. 17, 2016

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It is possible that things will not get better
than they are now, or have been known to be.
It is possible that we are past the middle now.
It is possible that we have crossed the great water
without knowing it, and stand now on the other side.
Yes: I think that we have crossed it. Now
we are being given tickets, and they are not
tickets to the show we had been thinking of,
but to a different show, clearly inferior.

Check again: it is our own name on the envelope.
The tickets are to that other show.

It is possible that we will walk out of the darkened hall
without waiting for the last act: people do.
Some people do. But it is probable
that we will stay seated in our narrow seats
all through the tedious denouement
to the unsurprising end—riveted, as it were;
spellbound by our own imperfect lives
because they are lives,
and because they are ours.

“Riveted” by Robyn Sarah from A Day’s Grace. © The Porcupine’s Quill, 2003. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of American poet William Carlos Williams (1883) (books by this author), born in Rutherford, New Jersey. Except for college in Pennsylvania, he lived in Rutherford for his entire life. Williams is best known for his short, imagistic poems like “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just To Say.”

It’s the birthday of the Irish writer Frank O’Connor (1903) (books by this author), the pen name of Michael O’Donovan, born in Cork. He was best known for his short stories, but he also wrote plays, poems, novels, and memoirs. He decided to be a writer at a young age. He told the Paris Review, “From the time I was nine or ten, it was a toss-up whether I was going to be a writer or a painter, and I discovered by the time I was sixteen or seventeen that paints cost too much money, so I became a writer because you could be a writer with a pencil and a penny notebook.” His parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, but he made ample use of libraries to educate himself. He joined the Irish Republican Army while still a teenager, went to prison after a year of living as a homeless fugitive, and then got a library job and started writing. He later worked as director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and as a broadcaster for the British Ministry of Information during World War II. He spent several years in America, teaching by invitation at a succession of colleges and universities, but he always went home to Ireland at least once a year. He claimed he would die if he didn’t.

It’s the birthday of Ken Kesey (books by this author), born in La Junta, Colorado (1935). He grew up in Oregon — swimming, fishing, and riding the rapids on the Willamette River with his brother, Chuck. He was a wrestler and a boxer and was voted “most likely to succeed” in his high school graduating class. Kesey went to Stanford University, where he studied creative writing. At the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park, he earned $75 a day as a subject in experiments on the effects of LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs. He stayed on as a night attendant in the mental ward, the basis for his first and most famous novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). Pauline Kael wrote (about Kesey’s book), “The novel preceded the university turmoil, Vietnam, drugs, the counterculture [...] it contained the essence of the whole period of revolutionary politics going psychedelic.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was made into a film in 1975 and won five Oscars the following year. Kesey wrote two other novels, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) and Sailor Song, which was not published until 1992. He died in November 2001.

It was on this day in 1787 that the United States Constitution was signed by delegates at the final meeting of the Constitutional Convention. The war with Britain had officially ended back in 1783, but the new American government was in shambles. More than 10 years earlier, the Second Continental Congress had created the Articles of Confederation to outline the rights of the federal government. But after British rule, the Americans were hesitant to put power in the hands of a central authority, so the United States had no president or other main leader, just a president of Congress. To make things worse, the Second Continental Congress had tasked each of the 13 colonies with creating its own system of government, and the colonies did such a good job that the states’ governments ended up far more powerful than the central government.

By 1787, not a single state was paying all of its federal taxes, and the government had no way to penalize them. Pirates were attacking American ships, and the government didn’t have money to pay them off. Troops were deserting, and the weak national military was no help to states that needed it. Congress technically had the authority to wage war, regulate currency, and conduct foreign policy, but in reality it had none of these powers because it had no way to force the states to supply money or troops. The leaders of the revolution were worried. James Madison said, “If some very strong props are not applied, the present system will tumble to the ground.” So he and other leaders organized the Constitutional Convention as a way to force the states to create a unified central government.

In May of 1787, 55 delegates arrived in Philadelphia, where they spent the next four months attempting to rewrite the Articles of Confederation. It was a hot summer in Philadelphia, and the bugs were terrible — flies and mosquitoes bit through the delegates’ silk stockings. The average age of the delegates was just 42 years old, but overall they were politically experienced and highly educated. The delegates included George Washington, who was immediately elected president and rarely spoke throughout the four months of proceedings; Alexander Hamilton, who skipped out on most of the Convention but afterward emerged as the principal author of the Federalist Papers, famous essays arguing why the Constitution should be ratified; Governor Morris, a charming and witty man with a peg leg and a habit of sleeping with other peoples’ wives, who gave 173 speeches during the course of the Convention and wrote the famous preamble to the Constitution; 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin, who had to be carried around Philadelphia in a sedan chair because he could no longer walk; and James Madison, who showed up every single day, took detailed notes on all the proceedings, and argued tirelessly for a strong central government.

Madison was a small man, 5’6” and weighing 120 pounds, described by one observer as “no bigger than a half piece of soap,” but he became known as “the Father of the Constitution.” A Georgia delegate wrote of Madison: “Every person seems to acknowledge his greatness. Mr. Madison always comes forward the best informed man of any point in debate.”

The resulting document was not just a revision of the Articles of Confederation, but also its own creation: the Constitution of the United States. The delegates argued about various issues for months, eventually coming to an agreement on the essential purposes of government, a system of checks and balances, the division of federal and state governments, rules for interstate trade, and representation according to population.

At the very end of his notes on the final day of the Constitutional Convention, Madison wrote: “Whilst the last members were signing it, Franklin, looking towards the President’s Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have, said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.

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