Dec. 29, 2001


by Billy Collins

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Poem: "Nightclub," by Billy Collins from The Art of Drowning (The University of Pittsburgh Press).


You are so beautiful and I am a fool
to be in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.
There seems to be no room for variation.
I have never heard anyone sing
I am so beautiful
and you are a fool to be in love with me,
even though this notion has surely
crossed the minds of women and men alike.
You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool
is another one you don't hear.
Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.
That one you will never hear, guaranteed.

For no particular reason this afternoon
I am listening to Johnny Hartman
whose dark voice can curl around
the concepts of love, beauty, and foolishness
like no one else's can.
It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette
someone left burning on a baby grand piano
around three o'clock in the morning;
smoke that billows up into the bright lights
while out there in the darkness
some of the beautiful fools have gathered
around little tables to listen,
some with their eyes closed,
others leaning forward into the music
as if it were holding them up,
or twirling the loose ice in a glass,
slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream.
Yes, there is all this foolish beauty,
borne beyond midnight,
that has no desire to go home,
especially now when everyone in the room
is watching the large man with the tenor sax
that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves forward to the edge of the stage
and hands the instrument down to me
and nods that I should play.
So I put the mouthpiece to my lips
and blow into it with all my living breath.
We are all so foolish,
my long bebop solo begins by saying,
so damn foolish
we have become beautiful without even knowing it.

It's the birthday of novelist William Gaddis, born in New York City (1922), who has been called one of the "most highly regarded yet least read novelists in America." He published only four novels in his lifetime, yet he is considered by many critics as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His first novel, The Recognitions, was published in 1955. Nearly 1,000 pages long, it confounded critics and readers alike. It did not bring Gaddis the recognition he hoped it would, and for the next 15 years, he wrote speeches for business executives and scripts for government films. Then in 1975 he published his second novel, J R. This book, a 700- page satire of corporate America written almost entirely in dialogue, won the 1976 National Book Award. Ten years later, Carpenter's Gothic was published. Gaddis's last novel, A Frolic of His Own, was published in 1994.

It's the birthday of science fiction writer Charles L. Harness, born in Colorado City, Texas (1915). Harness's first novel was Flight Into Yesterday, which was later changed to The Paradox Men (1955). His most famous novella, The Rose, was published in 1966. He once said: "I did it for the money."

It's the birthday of businessman Joyce C. Hall, born in David City, Nebraska (1891). Hall was a born entrepreneur who, at the age of 18, heard that Kansas City was a place with a progressive attitude, and so moved there, bringing with him several shoeboxes full of picture postcards. With his brothers Rollie and William, he started manufacturing his own cards, and established the Hall Brothers Company, which eventually became Hallmark Cards, now the largest greeting-card manufacturer in the world. He introduced several innovative sales techniques, including the idea of self-service open display racks for his cards.

In 1170 this day, Thomas Becket was murdered. Becket was a successful young administrator in the household of Theobold, Archbishop of Canterbury, when he was introduced to the newly crowned King of England, Henry II. The two hit it off immediately and became fast friends. When Archbishop Theobold died, Henry petitioned the Pope to make Becket archbishop. The Pope agreed. A small problem—the fact that Becket was not an ordained priest—was quickly resolved. He was ordained as a priest, the next day was ordained as a Bishop, and the following afternoon made Archbishop of Canterbury. As time went on, however, the King and Becket began to disagree on Church and State policies. At one point, the King was alleged to have shouted, "What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" Four knights, thinking they would please the King, then rode to Canterbury and murdered Becket in the Cathedral.

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