Jan. 23, 2007

To the Congress of the United States, Entering its Third Century

by Howard Nemerov

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Poem: "To the Congress of the United States, Entering Its Third Century" by Howard Nemerov, from The Selected Poems of Howard Nemerov. © Swallow Press and Ohio University Press. Reprinted with permission (buy now)

To the Congress of the United States, Entering Its Third Century

because reverence has never been america's thing,
            this verse in your honor will not begin "o thou."
but the great respect our country has to give
may you all continue to deserve, and have.

         *         *         *
here at the fulcrum of us all,
the feather of truth against the soul
is weighed, and had better be found to balance
lest our enterprise collapse in silence.

for here the million varying wills
get melted down, get hammered out
until the movie's reduced to stills
that tell us what the law's about.

conflict's endemic in the mind:
your job's to hear it in the wind
and compass it in opposites,
and bring the antagonists by your wits

to being one, and that the law
thenceforth, until you change your minds
against and with the shifting winds
that this and that way blow the straw.

so it's a republic, as Franklin said,
if you can keep it; and we did
thus far, and hope to keep our quarrel
funny and just. though with this moral:—

praise without end for the go-ahead zeal
of whoever it was invented the wheel;
but never a word for the poor soul's sake
that thought ahead, and invented the brake.

                                                  26 ii 89

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote under the name Stendhal, (books by this author) Marie Henri Beyle, born in Grenoble, France (1783). He decided to become a writer after he stumbled upon a pile of trashy romance novels thrown away by his uncle.

After serving in Napoleon's army, he got a job as a government bureaucrat and wrote journalism on the side. Then, in 1818, he met the love of his life, Métilde Dembowski, the wife of a Polish officer. She rejected his advances, but he followed her across Italy, showing up at parties, staring at her from across the room, trying to disguise himself by wearing a pair of green spectacles. After months of embarrassment, he finally gave up hope and left the country.

He never saw her again, but he wrote a book about the experience called On Love (1822), trying to define what love is. He said that as he worked on it, he had to stop every few minutes to weep. He wrote in On Love: "You hear a traveler speaking of the cool orange groves beside the sea at Genoa in the summer heat: Oh, if you could only share that coolness with her! One of your friends goes hunting, and breaks his arm: wouldn't it be wonderful to be looked after by the woman you love! To be with her all the time and to see her loving you ... a broken arm would be heaven."

Stendhal tried for many years to write a play, but he had no gift for dialogue, so all his plays were failures. He was in his mid-40s when he finally decided to write novels. In 1830, he published his masterpiece, The Red and the Black, about a handsome, lower-class tutor who has an affair with the mother of his students and later tries to murder her.

None of Stendhal's books received much attention in his lifetime. But he believed that he would be famous after his death, and he was right. He is now considered one of the greatest French writers of the 19th century. A new translation of The Red and the Black came out in 2003.

Stendhal said, "A novel is like a bow, and the violin that produces the sound is the reader's soul."

It's the birthday of the painter Edouard Manet, born in Paris (1832). Manet's father was a magistrate, and he wanted his son to pursue a career in law also. Manet saw things differently, in part because his uncle often had taken the young Manet to the Louvre, where he would urge his nephew to pursue painting seriously.

He said, "There is only one true thing: Instantly paint what you see. When you've got it, you've got it. When you haven't, you begin again. All the rest is humbug."

It's the birthday of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, born Jean Baptiste Reinhardt, in Liberchies, Belgium (1910). He grew up in a gypsy camp and learned to play the violin before the guitar. In 1928, his left hand was burned so badly in a caravan fire that he lost the use of the fourth and fifth fingers. He figured out a way to get around the disability, which may be why he had such an original guitar playing style. He never learned to read music, but he composed several jazz classics including "Djangology" and "Minor Swing."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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