Thursday

Nov. 9, 2000

Courage

by Anne Sexton

Broadcast date: THURSDAY 9 November 2000

Poem: "Courage," by Anne Sexton, from The Awful Rowing Toward God (Houghton Mifflin)

Courage

It is in the small things we see it.
The childís first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off our heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword youíll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and youíll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
youíll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

On this day in 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened, and citizens of both sides walked freely through the barrier as others danced on top of it to celebrate the end of an era. By opening the wall, East Germany began a course of action that led to the reunification of the two Germanys by the summer of 1990. It came at a time when East Germany was celebrating its 40-year anniversary, and pro-democracy demonstrations led to the resignation of Erich Honecker, East Germany's head of state and party chief, who had supervised the construction of the Wall. He was replaced by Egon Krenz, who promised open political debate and a lessening of travel restrictions.

Itís the birthday of astronomer and writer Carl Sagan, born in Brooklyn (1934), who did much to popularize science through the television program Cosmos, which he created in 1980.

Itís the birthday of poet Anne Sexton, born in Newton, Massachusetts (1928) -- an intensely "confessional" poet obsessed with voices that urged her, most of her adult life, to kill herself. The first of many suicide attempts came on her 28th birthday. Her psychiatrist at the time of her first suicide attempt gave her a series of diagnostic tests which -- contrary to what family and teachers had said -- proclaimed she was highly intelligent. He also suggested she resume writing poetry, which she had enjoyed but abandoned during high school. She enrolled at a poetry workshop taught by poet John Holmes and also attended by Maxine Kumin, who would become her lifelong peer and ally; they frequently spent hours a day on the phone, reading and critiquing each otherís work. Four years after joining the Holmes workshop, Sextonís first published collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), described her mental breakdown and recovery. Live or Die (1966) won a Pulitzer Prize; The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975) came out a year after her suicide.

Itís the birthday of novelist and playwright Ivan Turgenev, born in Oryel, Russia (1818) to an aristocratic family that taught him French, German and English. Since Russian was thought to be beneath the dignity of true nobles, he had to learn that language from the family servants. He wrote his novel Fathers and Sons (1862), in which he introduced the term nihilist to describe a person disgusted with the old order, which he sees as meaningless. Turgenev was a master at describing the sort of 19th century Russian who no longer had a place in society -- the lishni chyelovyek, the "not-needed" or, as Western critics took to saying, the "Superfluous Man."

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

 









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