Dec. 23, 2000

Broadcast date: SATURDAY, 23 December 2000

Poem: “The Gift,” by William Carlos Williams, from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams Volume II 1939-1962 (New Directions).

The Gift

As the wise men of old brought gifts
   guided by a star
      to the humble birthplace

of the god of love,
   the devils
      as an old print shows
retreated in confusion.

   What could a baby know
      of gold ornaments
or frankincense and myrrh,
   of priestly robes
      and devout genuflections?

But the imagination
   knows all stories
      before they are told
and knows the truth of this one
   past all defection

The rich gifts
   so unsuitable for a child
      though devoutly proffered,
stood for all that love can bring.

   The men were old
      how could they know
of a mother's needs
   or a child's

But as they kneeled
   the child was fed.

      They saw it
   gave praise!

      A miracle
had taken place,
   hard gold to love,
a mother's milk!
      their wondering eyes.

The ass brayed
   the cattle lowed.
      It was their nature.

All men by their nature give praise.
   It is all
      they can do.

The very devils
   by their flight give praise.
      What is death,
beside this?

   Nothing. The wise men
      came with gifts
and bowed down
   to worship
      this perfection.

On this day in 1947, three physicists—John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley—demonstrated a transistor to executives at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. That first transistor was crudely constructed from a razor blade, gold foil, an uncoiled paper clip, a piece of plastic, and a sliver of germanium crystal. Nine years later they received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their invention.

It's the birthday of poet and translator Robert Bly, born in Madison, Minnesota (1926). He was editor of the long running literary magazine The 50s (which later became The 60s). His books of poetry include The Light Around the Body (1967—National Book Award), and Eating the Honey of Words (1999). He’s also the author of the prose books Iron John: A Book about Men (1990) and The Sibling Society (1996).

It's the birthday of Harriet Monroe, born in Chicago (1880). She was 32 years old when she decided to establish a magazine devoted entirely to poetry—and intended to pay poets for their work. In September, 1912, she came out with the first issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. For the next twenty-four years Monroe raised money, awarded prizes, and published Poetry. In 1914 she published Carl Sandburg's controversial "Chicago Poems" and in 1915 printed "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot.

It's the birthday of the man who deciphered the Rosetta Stone, Jean François Champollion, in 1790 in a small town in southwest France. The Rosetta Stone was a black stone covered with inscriptions found by a French officer near the Egyptian town of Rosetta in 1799. There were three bands of text: hieroglyphics on top, Arabic-looking characters in the middle, and Greek on the bottom. It became very famous all across Europe, and Jean François Champollion decided that he wanted to be the first to decipher the its hieroglyphics. He determined which hieroglyphs corresponded to which names of famous people: Alexander, Cleopatra, Augustus, and Nero. Finally, in 1822, he had learned enough characters to understand the structure of the Egyptian language, and had broken the code.

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