Sunday

Aug. 4, 2002

A Road in Kentucky

by Robert Hayden

SUNDAY, 4 AUGUST 2002
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Poem: "A Road in Kentucky," by Robert Hayden from Angle of Ascent (Liveright Publishing).

A Road in Kentucky

And when that ballad lady went
          to ease the lover whose life she broke,
oh surely this is the road she took,
          road all hackled through barberry fire,
through cedar and alder and sumac and thorn.

Red clay stained her flounces
          and stones cut her shoes
and the road twisted on to his loveless house
          and his cornfield dying
in the scarecrow's arms.

And when she had left her lover lying
          so stark and so stark, with the Star-of-Hope
drawn over his eyes, oh this is the road
          that lady walked in the cawing light,
so dark and so dark in the briary light.


It's the birthday of Louis Armstrong, born in New Orleans (1901). When he was eleven he was arrested for shooting a pistol into the air on New Year's Eve and was sent to the Colored Waif's Home for Boys. "Pops, it sure was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," he said later. "Me and music got married at the home." He learned to play the bugle and the cornet there, and he started playing for money when he was released. He fronted every jazz band in the country, toured the world, played for King George the Fifth ("This one's for you, Rex!" he said), made hundreds of recordings and never minded playing the same old tunes over and over again. Someone described his voice as "a piece of sandpaper calling to its mate."

It's the birthday of Knut Hamsun, born in Lom, Norway (1859) His short story "Hunger" (1888) caused a sensation, the novel Mysteries (1892) increased his fame, and The Growth of the Soil (1917) won him the Nobel Prize in 1920, making him Norway's most famous citizen. In 1967, the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in an essay, "Hamsun is the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspect - his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun."

It's the birthday of Percy Bysshe Shelley, born in Sussex (1792). He is remembered now as the author of great Romantic odes like Prometheus Unbound (1820), but he thought of himself early on in his life as a scientific experimenter, a revolutionary and a free thinker. He was kicked out of Oxford for pamphlet he wrote promoting atheism, and when he traveled with the poet Byron he signed hotel ledgers with the words "democrat, great lover of mankind, and atheist" after his name. Byron, embarrassed, scratched them out.

On this day in 1735, John Peter Zenger was acquitted of seditious libel in one of the earliest colonial trials regarding freedom of the press. He was the printer of the New York Weekly Journal. The governor of New York had acted arbitrarily and egregiously against his enemies, and Zenger had published articles about his abuses. The governor ordered him held incommunicado for nine months. At the trial, the prosecution argued that Zenger had published the material and was therefore, ipso facto, guilty of libel. The defense argued that everything Zenger had printed was true, and therefore could not be libelous. It was the first trial to use truth as a defense against libel, and the jury found for Zenger. He was back at the paper the next day.

It's the birthday of Robert Hayden, born in Detroit (1913). He grew up in a rough neighborhood and his parents fought so bitterly that he was taken from their home and placed with foster parents. He got picked on a lot as a child because he was small and wore thick glasses; the library was his refuge. He read a poem by Steven Vincent Benet and was struck by a passage: "Oh, blackskinned epic, epic with the black spear,/I cannot sing you, having too white a heart,/And yet, some day a poet will rise to sing you…" Hayden felt the lines (from "John Brown's Body") were a sort of challenge to him to write about slavery and the Civil War and he enthusiastically responded. It wasn't until the last decade of his life that he began to win recognition. When he was dying of cancer, he couldn't attend a tribute dinner given to him at the University of Michigan, so all the guests at the dinner walked to his house where he rose, dressed, and then greeted them. He died the next day.

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