Mar. 3, 2007


by Robert Hass

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Poem: "Sonnet" by Robert Hass, from Sun Under Wood. © The Ecco Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


A man talking to his ex-wife on the phone.
He has loved her voice and listens with attention
to every modulation of its tone. Knowing
it intimately. Not knowing what he wants
from the sound of it, from the tendered civility.
He studies, out the window, the seed shapes
of the broken pods of ornamental trees.
The kind that grow in everyone's garden, that no one
but horticulturalists can name. Four arched chambers
of pale green, tiny vegetal proscenium arches,
a pair of black tapering seeds bedded in each chamber.
A wish geometry, miniature, Indian or Persian,
lovers or gods in their apartments. Outside, white,
patient animals, and tangled vines, and rain.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist and philosopher William Godwin, (books by this author) born in Cambridgeshire, England (1756). In his lifetime, he was celebrated as one of the most radical political philosophers in England. He had a great influence on the Romantic school of literature with his book An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice (1793), in which he argued that the best government is none at all. His book was one of the first comprehensive arguments for a kind of political anarchism, and it included the argument that property should be abolished.

That book made him famous in his lifetime, but we remember William Godwin for his daughter. His wife Mary Wollstonecraft died from complications of childbirth in 1797, but their daughter, also named Mary, survived, and she went on to write the novel Frankenstein.

It was on this day in 1863 that Congress passed the Civil War conscription act, which required all men between the ages of 20 and 45 to serve three years in the military. But one big loophole in the law allowed wealthy men to hire substitutes to serve in their place.

The draft was hugely controversial in Northern cities. Increasingly lengthy casualty lists were printed in newspapers every day, and men of the working classes resented the fact that they were being used as cannon fodder while the rich men sat idle. The frustration eventually led to the New York Draft riots that summer.

It's the birthday of inventor Alexander Graham Bell, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1847). He was trying to help the deaf by developing a device for transmitting sound with electricity, and that led to the telephone. But though he brought the phone into the world, Bell refused to have a telephone in his own study, and that there was no telephone in the house where he spent his winters in Florida. He hated the interruption.

It was on this day in 1875 that the opera Carmen appeared on stage for the first time at the Opéra-Comique in France, written by Georges Bizet. When it premiered, the audience was shocked by the characters of Carmen, a gypsy girl, and her lover, Don José. It's set in exotic Spain among gypsies and bullfighters. One element that shocked audiences was that the heroine smokes on stage, something considered less than proper then. Bizet died of a heart attack just three months after the opera's debut. He was worn out from rehearsals.

It's the birthday of the host of the radio show "This American Life," Ira Glass, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1959). After his freshman year of college, he was looking for a summer job in television or advertising, and someone suggested that he try to be an intern for National Public Radio. In 1989, he moved to Chicago and started a live show called The Wild Room that included music, stories, and commentary, and outtakes from his own documentaries. In 1995, he came up with the idea for a show called "Your Radio Playhouse," which would tell a series of stories each week, centered on a certain aspect of everyday life in America. That show became "This American Life," which has become one of the most popular radio programs in the country.

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