Feb. 1, 2007

At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border

by William Stafford


by Langston Hughes

THURSDAY, 1 February, 2007
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Poem: "At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border" by William Stafford, from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. © Graywolf Press. (buy now)

At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed-or were killed-on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of American movie director John Ford, born Sean Aloysius O'Fearna, in Cape Elizabeth, Maine (1895), the youngest of 13 children. He made more than 120 films, most of them Westerns. On the sets of his movies he wore old khaki pants, tennis shoes with holes in the toes, a worn-out fedora, and a dirty scarf around his neck. He always had poor eyesight. He started wearing an eye patch like a pirate after he went blind in one eye. He usually worked with a glass of brandy in his hand and was always smoking a cigar.

It's the birthday of poet Galway Kinnell, (books by this author) born in Providence, Rhode Island (1927). He became obsessed with the poetry of William Butler Yeats in college when his roommate, the poet W. S. Merwin, woke him up one night and read Yeats to him until dawn. After that night, Kinnell devoted himself to writing poetry.

He's the author of many books of poetry, including Body Rags (1968) and Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980). His Selected Poems (1980) won both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He said, "Maybe the best we can do is do what we love as best we can."

It's the birthday of humorist S(idney) J(oseph) Perelman, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1904). He started working as a cartoonist when he was in college, but he eventually switched to writing humorous essays for various magazines, including The New Yorker. His friend Groucho Marx persuaded him to come to Hollywood to write screenplays. He worked on Marx Brothers movies such as Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), but Perelman hated Hollywood. He called it, "a dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth, the ethical sense of a pack of jackals, and a taste so degraded that it befouled everything it touched." And he said, "[Working there] was no worse than playing the piano in a whorehouse."

He eventually went back to writing essays for The New Yorker and published many collections, including The Ill-Tempered Clavichord (1952) and Chicken Inspector No. 23 (1966). Much of his work is collected in Most of the Most of S.J. Perelman (2000).

Perelman was famous for his bizarre, absurdist humor. One of his essays begins, "I guess I'm just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws."

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Langston Hughes, (books by this author) born in Joplin, Missouri (1902). He was a member of the Harlem Renaissance, and he was one of the first African-American poets to embrace the language of lower-class black Americans. In his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926) he said, "[I want to write for] the people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round."

In his poem "Laughers," he made a list of what he called "my people": "Dish-washers, / Elevator boys, / Ladies' maids, / Crap-shooters, / Cooks, / Waiters, / Jazzers, / Nurses of Babies, / Loaders of Ships, / Rounders, / Number writers, / Comedians in Vaudeville / And band-men in circuses — / Dream-singers all."

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Reynolds Price, (books by this author) born in Macon, North Carolina (1933). He once described his birthplace as "a town of 227 cotton and tobacco farmers nailed to the flat red land at the pit of the Great Depression."

He always wanted to write, but he wasn't sure what he wanted to write about until he met the author Eudora Welty, who encouraged him to write about the world he'd known growing up in the South. He said, "[She] revealed to me what is most essential for any beginning novelist — which is that his world, the world he has known from birth, the world that has not seemed to him in any way extraordinary is, in fact, a perfectly possible world, [and a] subject for serious fiction."

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