Sunday

Nov. 19, 2006

Philosophy

by Daniel Hoffman

SUNDAY, 19 NOVEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Philosophy" by Daniel Hoffman, from Makes You Stop and Think: Sonnets. © George Braziller. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Philosophy

In sophomore year the great philosopher,
Then ninety, out of retirement came, to pass
His wisdom on to one more generation.
Reading his last lecture to our class,

That afternoon the mote-filled sunlight leaned
Attentively with purpose through the tall
Windows in amber buttresses that seemed
To gird the heavens so they wouldn't fall.

The blaze of his white mane, his hooded eyes,
The voice that plumbed us from reflection's skies
So far above temptation or reward—

The scene has never left my mind. I wrote
His lecture down, but, in an old trunk, my notes
Have crumbled, and I can't recall a word.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Sharon Olds, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1942). Olds studied as many languages as she could in college, including French, Italian, German, Greek, and Middle English. She went on to get a Ph.D. in American Literature at Columbia. She spent 10 years trying to write good poetry, but she felt that she was just imitating other poets. Then, when she was 30 years old, she said, "I had kind of a religious experience. I made a vow to Satan on the steps of Columbia University. ... I said, I will give up all I have learned here if I can just write my own poems and I don't care if they're good. I just want to write my own stuff."

A few years later, Olds was still struggling when she heard about a writing workshop that would be held at the local YMCA with the poet Muriel Rukeyser. It turned out to be the last class that Muriel Rukeyser taught, and Olds said that it changed her life. She said that Rukeyser's advice was to write about the things that they tell you to forget.

She finally published her first book of poems, Satan Says, in 1980, when she was 37. She said, "I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky."

Olds has since published many more collections including The Dead and the Living (1984), The Father (1992), and Blood, Tin, Straw (1999).


It was on this date in 1861 that Mrs. Julia Ward Howe sat down and wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The poem was first published in the February 1862 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and later set to the popular melody "Glory Hallelujah."


It was on this day in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln (books by this author) got up in front of about 15,000 people seated at a new national cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and delivered the Gettysburg Address.

The men killed in the battle had been buried hastily in shallow graves with haphazard wooden markers, but in the months since the battle, a man named David Wills oversaw the task of identifying and burying the dead properly. There would be a ceremony to dedicate the new cemetery, and Wills invited the most popular poets of the day to write something in honor of the occasion they all declined. So David Wills invited Edward Everett, a well-known speaker who was famous for his speeches about battlefields.

It was almost as an afterthought that Wills decided to invite President Lincoln to the ceremony, and Lincoln chose to attend the ceremony even though his wife begged him not to. One of their sons was sick, and they had recently lost another son to illness. But Lincoln thought the event was too important to miss. It would give him a chance to clarify the reasons for continuing to fight the war, even as it continued to claim tens of thousands of lives.

No one is sure exactly when Lincoln wrote his speech. Most people who knew him said that he spent a great deal of time writing every public statement he ever made, so he probably composed the first draft in Washington D.C. Witnesses said they saw him working on the speech on the train ride to Pennsylvania, and others said that they saw him working in his room the night before the event."

It was a foggy, cold morning on this day in 1863. Lincoln arrived about 10 a.m. Around noon the sun broke out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. A military band played, a local preacher offered a long prayer, and the headlining orator Edward Everett spoke for more than two hours. At that time, a two-hour speech was quite normal. Everett described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once.

When Everett was finished, Lincoln got up, and pulled his speech from his coat pocket. It consisted of 10 sentences, a total of 272 words. The audience was distracted by a photographer setting up his camera, and by the time Lincoln had finished his speech and sat down the audience didn't even realize he had spoken. But the speech was reprinted in newspapers around the country, and it went on to become one of the most important speeches in American history.


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