Oct. 24, 2000

Animal Spirits

by Denise Levertov

Broadcast date: TUESDAY, 24 October 2000

Poem: "Animal Spirits," by Denise Levertov, from This Great Unknowing: Last Poems (New Directions).

Animal Spirits

When I was five and
undifferentiated energy, animal spirits,
pent-up desire for the unknown built in me
a head of steam I had
no other way to let off, I ran
at top speed back and forth
end to end of the drawingroom,
bay to French window, shouting--
roaring, really--slamming
deliberately into the rosewood
desk at one end, the shaken
window-frames at the other, till the fit
wore out or some grownup stopped me.

But when I was six I found better means:
on its merry gallows
of dark-green wood my swing, new-built,
awaited my pleasure, I rushed
out to it, pulled the seat
all the way back to get a good start, and
vigorously pumped it up to the highest arc:
my legs were oars, I was rowing a boat in air--
and then, then from the furthest
forward swing of the ropes

I let go and flew!

At large in the unsustaining air,
flew clear over the lawn across
the breadth of the garden
and fell, Icarian, dazed,
among hollyhocks, snapdragons, love-in-a-mist,
and stood up uninjured, ready
to swing and fly over and over.

The need passed as I grew;
the mind took over, devising
paths for that force in me, and the body curled up,
sedentary, glad to be quiet and read and read,
save once in a while, when it demanded
to leap about or to whirl--or later still
to walk swiftly in wind and rain
long and far and into the dusk,
wanting some absolute, some exhaustion.

It was on this date in 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act went into effect, establishing the minimum wage and the 40-hour work week. It was the first effort by the federal government to regulate wages and hours for workers. The first minimum wage was set at 25 cents per hour.

Today is United Nations Day, commemorating the founding of the United Nations. It was on this day in 1945 that the United Nations Charter officially went into effect.

On this date in 1929, prices collapsed on the New York Stock Exchange in a massive sell-off of stocks. Later in the day, six major banking institutions, led by the firm of J.P. Morgan and Company, put up 40 million dollars apiece to steady the market. The action by the banks held off a Stock Market crash for another five days.

It's the birthday of English-born American poet Denise Levertov, born in Ilford, Essex (1923). During World War II, Levertov served as a civilian nurse in London, where she remained throughout the bombings. She moved to New York after the war, and became a U. S. citizen in 1955. Her poetry is collected in such books as Relearning the Alphabet (1970), Footprints (1972), Candles in Babylon (1982) and Breathing the Water (1987).

It's the birthday of blues singer and harmonica player Sonny Terry, born in Greensboro, Georgia (1911).

It's the birthday of American playwright Moss Hart, born in the Bronx (1904). At seventeen, Hart landed a job as an office boy for the theatrical producer Augustus Pitou, Jr. When Pitou needed a new play on short notice, Hart submitted a play he had written called The Beloved Bandit. On opening night, Hart got sick in the theater's men's room, and later said, "I have been sick in the men's room every opening night of a play of mine in theaters all over the country." Hart went on to write such plays as Once in A Lifetime, and, with George S. Kauffman, You Can't Take it With You (1936), and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939).

On this day in 1901, Mrs. Anna Edson Taylor became the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The barrel was heavily padded inside, and equipped with a harness, leading a reporter to remark that Mrs. Taylor "seems to be taking a lot of credit that belongs to the barrel."

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