Apr. 6, 2007

Failing and Flying

by Jack Gilbert

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Poem: "Failing and Flying" by Jack Gilbert, from Refusing Heaven. © Alfred A Knopf. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Failing and Flying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of triumph.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1917, the United States formally declared war against Germany and entered World War I. American participation in the World War permanently transformed the nation. In order to meet increased demands for goods, the federal government expanded dramatically, taking an unprecedented role in guiding the economy. Women got involved in the war effort and impressed enough of the men they worked with that they won support for voting rights shortly after the war. The war also shortened women's skirts, since it created a scarcity of wool. And it probably started the widespread American addiction to cigarettes, since American soldiers got to buy cigarettes at much cheaper prices while serving abroad.

At the time, the war had been going on in Europe for three years, but there was no real immediate threat to the United States. Up until then, Woodrow Wilson had been opposed to the war. His campaign for president in 1916 included the slogan, "He kept us out of the war," though Wilson never used that phrase himself.

But two things changed Wilson's mind. The first was that Germany had declared unrestricted warfare on American merchant vessels, and began torpedoing any ship they thought was carrying munitions to the British and the French. At that point, the United States was the biggest supplier of munitions to the British and the French. And the second was that the United States intercepted a telegram from Germany to Mexico, asking for an alliance against the United States. If Mexico was willing to attack the U.S., the Germans said they would help Mexico regain Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

So President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2. The declaration passed almost unanimously, and war was officially declared on this day in 1917. One of the few people who spoke out against it was the pacifist Senator from Wisconsin, Robert La Follette.

About 3 million American men were inducted into the military. And though they fought for only a short time, it was enough to make a difference. Between the financial support, supplies, and reinforcements, the American entry into the war was the turning point that helped bring it to an end.

The war was extraordinarily expensive for the United States, costing about $1 million per hour in the last 25 months of the war. The amount of money the U.S. government spent on World War I was more than the combined total of what it had spent in the previous 100 years. Woodrow Wilson hoped it would be the war to end all wars, but instead it was just the beginning of the United States' policy of military intervention in world affairs.

It was on this day in 1909 that Robert Peary, Matthew Henson, and four Eskimos became the first men to reach the North Pole. Although, further studies concluded that Peary probably came up about 30 miles short.

It's the birthday of country songwriter and singer Merle Haggard, born in Bakersfield, California (1937). His parents were Dust Bowl migrants from Oklahoma, and Haggard grew up in a house that had been converted from a railroad boxcar by his father. He grew up poor and restless, in and out of reform schools. He stole cars, wrote bad checks, and became a petty thief.

He eventually got caught trying to burglarize a roadhouse, and he spent 27 months in San Quentin prison, where he joined the prison's country music band. The first song he wrote, while he was still on parole, was "Branded Man," about the life of an ex-con.

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