May 22, 2007
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Poem: "Tornado Weather" by Vincent Wixon, from The Square Grove: Poems. © Traprock Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission.
Clouds build all day,
hold west of the section.
Plowing east he feels them
piling darker, deeper.
Wind through ankle high corn
comes cold, dries his back,
and he pushes the throttle a notch,
checks the hills blurring between the wheels.
At the field's end he raises the shovels,
as first drops darken his shirt.
He shifts into high and opens the engine for home.
The rain thickens, turns hard,
pings off the tractor, bounces on the road,
stings his bent head and back.
He pulls under the cottonwood,
covers the stack with a can,
and sprints for the barn.
Clouds hang low and come on
a black-green curtain wide as sky.
The high leaves of the cottonwoods
shudder for the first time all day.
Women stand on their porches
and the air turns cool.
They shiver, hug their sleeveless arms,
and listen for the tractor-whine
of their husbands leaving the fields.
They call the children from the barn,
and turn inside to switch on the radio.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of composer Richard Wagner, born in Leipzig, Germany (1813). When he was eight years old, he went to see an opera by a composer named Carl Maria von Weber. When Wagner got home from the performance, he wrote out all the music for the opera entirely from memory. He went on to stage another opera by the same composer in his family's drawing room.
He wrote his first complete opera in 1834, but he couldn't get it produced. His second opera was based on the Shakespeare play Measure for Measure, but it was such a disaster that Wagner had to run away to Paris to get away from his creditors. Then in 1848, he got involved in a revolutionary political movement, writing articles supporting an uprising of the people. When the uprising failed, he went into exile in Zurich. He didn't produce any new musical works for 15 years.
He came to believe that the problem with modern opera was that it lacked the literary seriousness of great drama. He decided to write an opera that would combine the dramatic elements of a Shakespearean play with the musical greatness of Beethoven. The result was his Ring Cycle, which consisted of four operas based on Norse myths. It took him 26 years to complete. It tells the story of a magical ring, which gives its owner the power to rule the world. A hero named Siegfried struggles to win the ring, but he is eventually betrayed and killed. His lover, Brünnhilde, then returns the ring to the Rhine River, where it was created, and in the process the Gods are destroyed.
It was in the middle of working on his Ring Cycle, that Wagner took a break to write an opera called Tristan und Isolde. It was that opera, which premiered on June 10, 1865, that made him into an international celebrity.
Richard Wagner said, "Achievements, seldom credited to their source, are the result of unspeakable drudgery and worries."
It's the birthday of journalist and cultural critic Garry Wills (books by this author), born in Atlanta, Georgia (1934). He grew up in a conservative Roman Catholic family. He went off to study for the priesthood at St. Louis University, and at the last minute he switched to philosophy.
When he was just 22 years old, he sent a parody of a Time magazine article to the conservative National Review. But during the 1960s, he started traveling around the country, writing about protests and race riots. He began to argue against the Vietnam War and for federal support of civil rights.
His first important book was Nixon Agonistes (1970), about Nixon's 1968 campaign for the presidency. Since then, he has written more than 20 more books – about religion, Shakespeare, the Kennedys, the Declaration of Independence, Ronald Regan, John Wayne, the Gettysburg Address, and the pope.
It's the birthday of novelist and nature writer Peter Matthiessen (books by this author), born in New York City (1927). His father was a successful architect, and Matthiessen grew up in an affluent area of southwest Connecticut. He served in the Navy during World War II, studied at Yale, and then traveled to Paris, where he and two other young writers, Harold Humes and George Plimpton, decided to start a literary journal called The Paris Review.
After publishing two novels that weren't very successful, Matthiessen took off on a trip across the United States in his Ford convertible, with a shotgun and a sleeping bag, looking for places where certain American animals were dying out: the bear, the wolf, the crane. His journey became the subject of his book Wildlife In America (1959), which was one of the books that helped launch the modern environmentalist movement in the United States. Matthiessen has continued to write books about nature, such as The Snow Leopard (1978). His most recent book is End of the Earth: Voyage to Antarctica, which came out in 2003.
Peter Matthiessen said, "There's an elegiac quality in watching [American wilderness] go, because it's our own myth, the American frontier, that's deteriorating before our eyes. I feel a deep sorrow that my kids will never get to see what I've seen, and their kids will see nothing; there's a deep sadness whenever I look at nature now."
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