Saturday

Nov. 5, 2005

Praise Song

by Barbara Crooker

SATURDAY, 5 NOVEMBER, 2005
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Poem:"Praise Song" by Barbara Crooker. Reprinted with permission of the poet.

Praise Song

Praise the light of late November,
the thin sunlight that goes deep in the bones.
Praise the crows chattering in the oak trees;
though they are clothed in night, they do not
despair. Praise what little there's left:
the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls,
shells, the architecture of trees. Praise the meadow
of dried weeds: yarrow, goldenrod, chicory,
the remains of summer. Praise the blue sky
that hasn't cracked yet. Praise the sun slipping down
behind the beechnuts, praise the quilt of leaves
that covers the grass: Scarlet Oak, Sweet Gum,
Sugar Maple. Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy
fallen world; it's all we have, and it's never enough.


Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Guy Fawkes Day, celebrating the day in 1605 when police foiled the so-called Gunpowder Plot by seizing Guy Fawkes before he could blow up the English Parliament. Fawkes was a British soldier who had converted to Roman Catholicism at a time when the British government was making it a crime to be a Catholic. Catholic masses were held in secret chapels, clergy had to go into hiding and sleep in closets, and families that refused to attend Protestant mass suffered crippling fines.

Fawkes became so disgusted by British Protestantism that he left England and enlisted in the Spanish Army in the Netherlands. He became known as a soldier of great courage. At that time, a small group of Catholics were secretly planning to assassinate the Protestant King James I, and they enlisted Fawkes to help them execute the plot, and he agreed.

They rented a cellar under the Parliament building, and Fawkes planted more than 20 barrels of gunpowder there, in the hopes of blowing up the king. The rest of their plan included an uprising in the Midlands, and the crowning of a puppet queen, the king's young daughter Elizabeth. But an anonymous tip gave up the plot to the authorities and Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed, ready to light the fuse. He managed to withstand torture on the rack for two days before giving up the names of his co-conspirators.

For Catholics, the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot only worsened their oppression. They could no longer practice law, serve as officers in the army or navy, nor vote in local or parliamentary elections. Some British authorities even suggested that Catholics should have to wear red hats in public.

November 5th came to be celebrated as a holiday in England and in the early American colonies. People would build bonfires, light off fireworks, and burn Guy Fawkes in effigy. But even in England, the holiday has been overshadowed by the American import of Halloween.

It's the birthday of actor and playwright Sam Shepard, born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois (1943). Shepard grew up in the small town of Durante, California. His father was an abusive alcoholic. Shepard said that one of his father's rules was, "You weren't allowed to have any feelings." One night his father came home late and found the front door locked, so he tore the door right off the house. Sam Shepard left home the next day. He made his way all the way from California to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he got a job with a traveling theater troupe.

Shepard said, "That was one of the most exciting times of my life…We never spent more than one or two nights in the same place and our stages were always the altars of churches…We crisscrossed New England, up into Maine and Vermont. The country amazed me, having come from a place that was brown and hot and covered with Taco stands. Finally we hit New York City and I couldn't believe it. I'd always thought of the 'big city' as Pasadena and the Rose Parade. I was mesmerized by this place."

He got involved in the burgeoning Off Off Broadway theater scene in New York City. He was working as a busboy at a Greenwich Village cabaret when he learned that one of the head waiters had just founded a new experimental theater, which eventually produced his first play, called Cowboys (1964). Shepard began writing furiously, often finishing a one-act play in a single sitting, and he produced so much that even he doesn't remember how many there were. He said, "There was so much to write, I felt I couldn't spend time rewriting; I had to move on to the next thing." One of his early plays, Icarus's Mother (1965), is about a group of characters lying on the beach, waiting for a fireworks display to begin, talking about what they see in the sky.

His first big success was Buried Child (1978), about the patriarch of a disintegrating family, an old man named Dodge who has spent years doing nothing but drinking whisky and watching TV, until the day his grandson Vince comes home and demands to be recognized as the heir to the family farm. It was the most accessible play Shepard had ever written, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Shepard has gone on to produce more plays than any other American playwright, almost none of which premiered on Broadway. His latest play God of Hell came out in 2004.

Sam Shepard said, "The work never gets easier. It gets harder and more provocative. And as it gets harder you are continually reminded there is more to accomplish. It's like digging for gold. And when you find the vein, you know there's a lot more where that came from."

On this day in 1930, a Swedish newspaper reporter telephoned Sinclair Lewis to tell him that he was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, for his novel Main Street (1920). Lewis thought the caller was making a practical joke and began to imitate the man's accent. But it was not a joke. Lewis was, in fact, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It's the birthday of writer and historian Will Durant, born in North Adams, Massachusetts (1885). He's best known for a huge, eleven-volume work called The Story of Civilization (1939-1975). In the book, which he wrote with his wife Ariel, he attempts to synthesize nearly all of human history, following artistic, scientific, religious, and political movements. It was an effort to create a world history for the ordinary person. Though the book was heavily criticized for being incomplete, it was important to many people who wanted to read and enjoy history and were sick of dry, scholarly texts.


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