Nov. 4, 2005
Poem: "Blackbird" by C.K. Williams.© Reprinted with permission of the poet.
There was nothing I could have done
a flurry of blackbirds burst
from the weeds at the edge of a field
and one veered out into my wheel
and went under. I had a moment
to hope he'd emerge as sometimes
they will from beneath the back
of the car and fly off,
but I saw him behind on the roadbed,
the shadowless sail of a wing
lifted vainly from the clumsy
bundle of matter he'd become.
There was nothing I could have done,
though perhaps I was distracted:
I'd been listening to news of the war,
hearing that what we'd suspected
were lies had proved to be lies,
that many were dying for those lies,
but as usual now, it wouldn't matter.
I'd been thinking of Lincoln's,
". . .You can't fool all of the people
all of the time. . ." how I once
took comfort from the hope and trust
it implied, but no longer.
I had to slow down now,
a tractor hauling a load of hay
was approaching on the narrow lane.
The farmer and I gave way and waved:
the high-piled bales swayed
menacingly over my head but held.
Out in the newly harvested fields,
already harrowed and raw,
more blackbirds, uncountable
clouds of them, rose, held
for an instant, then broke,
scattered as though by a gale.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1918 that British war poet Wilfred Owen was killed in World War I at the age of 25. It was one week before the war ended. He was trying to get his men across a canal in the early morning hours when they were attacked by enemy fire, and Owen was fatally hit.
It was on this day in 1922 that a British man named Howard Carter made one of the greatest archeological discoveries of all time by discovering the tomb of King Tutankhamen.
It's the birthday of the poet Charles Kenneth Williams, born in Newark, New Jersey (1936). When he was growing up, he said, "I wasn't particularly compelled by words for their own sake, or by 'literature,' which had always repelled me with its auras of mustiness and reverence. I detested almost any book I had to read, hated English in school, and I must have been surprised, maybe even a little put off, to find myself, just as the dreary poetry survey courses ended, turning the stuff out myself." He wrote his first poems to impress his girlfriend, who liked poetry, but he eventually grew to care more about the poetry he wrote than the effect it had on his girlfriend.
After graduating from college, he sat down and tried to read everything he'd ever heard of. He read Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Whitman, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Shelley, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Miller, Frazer, Jung, Plath and Ginsberg. He said, "I'd fall asleep every night over a book, dreaming in other people's voices. In the morning I'd wake up and try, mostly fruitlessly, to write acceptable poems."
For years Williams had been trying to write a poem about the Holocaust. Growing up Jewish, he'd never once been told about the Holocaust by his parents or any other adult. He'd only learned about it from an older friend, in 1958, when he was in his twenties. He was stunned that six million people had been murdered during the first few years of his own lifetime, and he hadn't even heard about it. So he began a huge epic poem about the subject, which he wrote and rewrote, rearranged and revised, again and again, never getting it right.
One afternoon, in 1964, he read a magazine article about civil rights activists in the South, and he decided to write a letter to the editor of the magazine comparing racism in America to the anti-Semitism under Hitler, and it was while he was writing that letter to the editor that he suddenly realized how to write his poem about the Holocaust. That poem was called "A Day for Anne Frank," and Williams has said that he's never struggled very hard to write a poem since.]
It's the birthday of humorist Will Rogers, born near Claremore, Oklahoma (1879). He was the last of eight children, the son of a successful rancher. He never graduated from high school and, at an early age, began performing in rodeo shows, specializing in roping tricks. His father tried to settle him down by enrolling him in a military academy, but he ran away and hopped a boat to South America. From there he took off to Africa, where he began performing in something called "Texas Jack's Wild West Show." He toured with various circuses in New Zealand and Australia until he finally found his way back to the United States, where he performed in vaudeville shows in New York City.
Rogers went on to become the original king of all media. In his lifetime, he was a Broadway showman, Hollywood actor, traveling public speaker, radio commentator, and newspaper columnist. His column was syndicated in almost 400 papers; it was the most widely read column of its day.
Will Rogers said, "When I die, my epitaph is going to read: 'I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn't like.' I am so proud of that I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved. And when you come to my grave you will find me sitting there, proudly reading it."
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