Dec. 4, 2007

The Ballad of Woodrow Wilson

by Michael Lind

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Poem: "The Ballad of Woodrow Wilson" by Michael Lind, from Parallel Lives. © Etruscan Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Ballad of Woodrow Wilson

Tall as the morning, he told the crowd
      from his railroad car:
"The League of Nations is our chance
      to save the world from war."

Columbus and St. Louis, then
      Des Moines. "A heaven-sent
occasion to preserve the peace,"
      declared the President.

In Omaha he had a cough.
      The rocking of the train
prevented him from sleeping all
      across the starry plain.

"America's the savior of
      the world," the towns-folk heard
in Bismarck. On to Cour d'Alene:
      "I give you all my word."

In San Diego he was tense,
      in Salt Lake City terse.
"Without the League, another war
      will come, a war much worse."

At Pueblo, Woodrow Wilson saw
      the children and exclaimed:
"These boys, when they are grown, must not
      be drafted, killed and maimed,"

He gripped the railing. "All our boys,
      they will have died in vain
if we should fail..." The curtains closed
      on the departing train.

The waiting crowd in Wichita
      was told the president
was ill. Eastward across the grass
      the locomotive went.

The engine, with a long deep wail,
      dragged the curtained car
over the miles of track that soon
      the boys would ride to war.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, (books by this author) born in Prague (1875), who made a career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books. One princess let him live for a while in her Castle Duino near Trieste, a medieval castle with fortified walls and an ancient square tower. Rilke's room had a view of the gulf of Trieste, which he loved. In a letter from his room he wrote, "I am looking out into the empty sea-space, directly into the universe, you might say."

It was that winter of 1912, alone in the castle, that Rilke later said he heard the voice of an angel speaking to him about the meaning of life and death, and he started a poem that began with the lines, "And if I cried, who'd listen to me in those angelic / orders? Even if one of them suddenly held me / to his heart, I'd vanish in his overwhelming / presence. Because beauty's nothing but the start of terror we can hardly bear, / and we adore it because of the serene scorn / it could kill us with. Every angel's terrifying."

Rilke wrote two poems about angels in almost a single sitting, and he knew that he had begun his most important work, but then he got stuck. He eventually left the castle, the First World War broke out, and he struggled to write anything for the next decade, while he was slowly beginning to suffer the symptoms of leukemia. Finally, in February of 1922, he managed to finish in a single month what he'd started a decade before. The result was a cycle of 10 long poems that he called The Duino Elegies, about the difference between angels and people, and the meaning of death, and his idea that human beings are put on earth in order to experience the beauty of ordinary things.

In the Ninth Elegy, Rilke wrote "Maybe we're here only to say: house, / bridge, well, gate, jug, olive tree, window — / at most, pillar, tower... but to say them, remember, / oh, to say them in a way that the things themselves / never dreamed of existing so intensely."

It's the birthday of British writer Samuel Butler, (books by this author) born in Nottinghamshire, England (1835), who was famous in his lifetime for a satire inspired by Charles Darwin's ideas called Erewhon (1872). But after he died, an incomplete novel called The Way of All Flesh was found in his desk drawer. It was published in 1903, and it became a sensation. It's the story of a priest name Ernest Pontifex, who falls into a series of scandals when he gives his money to a pregnant maid and then mistakes a respectable lady for a prostitute. After its publication, all Butler's notebooks and memoirs were published, and he suddenly became known as a great Victorian writer.

The writer V.S. Pritchett said, "The Way of All Flesh is one of the time-bombs of literature. One thinks of it lying in Samuel Butler's desk for 30 years, waiting to blow up the Victorian family and with it the whole great pillared and balustraded edifice of the Victorian novel."

Samuel Butler said, "There is one thing certain, namely, that we can have nothing certain; therefore it is not certain that we can have nothing certain."

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




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