Dec. 22, 2007

Driving Home At Night

by David Budbill

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Poem: "Driving Home At Night" by David Budbill, from Judevine. © Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1999. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)

Driving Home At Night

Midnight. Outside the car it is
15 below. A foot of new snow.
The village is deserted, dark,
except for eight street lamps
and the light in the window
at Jerry's Garage that says:

The smell of woodsmoke seeps
into the car.

Judevine, ugliest town
in northern Vermont, except
maybe East Judevine.
Disheveled, wretched, Judevine- -
my town- -is beautiful in the night.

It is beautiful because
its couple hundred souls
have given up their fears,
their poverty and worry.
For a few hours now they know
only the oblivion of sleep
and the town lies quiet
in their ease.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the birthday of Thomas Higginson, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1823), whom we know today as the publisher of Emily Dickinson's poetry. He received a letter from Dickinson in the spring of 1862 with four of her poems asking "Mr. Higginson... Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?" He read the poems, but he did not know what to make of them. After her death, he helped edit and publish her poetry, re-writing many of her verses, and making them more acceptable for society. Later, scholars would spend years undoing his changes.

It was on this day in 1964 that comedian Lenny Bruce (books by this author) was sentenced to four months in jail for obscenity. At the time, Bruce was using profanity in his stand-up routine, and he talked openly about sex and made offensive jokes about race, politics, and religion. During the trial, a police witness described Bruce's performance to the court, and Bruce claimed that the man was trying to steal his act. Dozens of artists came to Bruce's defense, including Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, James Baldwin, and Allen Ginsberg. After the sentence, Lenny Bruce became obsessed with the trial and he gave up performing as a comedian and began reading the court transcripts to his audiences. He died two years later of a heroin overdose, still waiting to hear an appeal of his case. It wasn't until 2003 that Governor George Pataki granted him a posthumous pardon.

It's the birthday of poet Kenneth Rexroth, (books by this author) born on this day in South Bend, Indiana (1905). After unsuccessfully writing poems in Chicago's West Side, Rexroth became involved in left-wing politics and traveled around the country, speaking from soapboxes horse-wrangling, sheepherding, and selling pamphlets that promised a cure for constipation. When Rexroth finally settled in San Francisco, the city was the new destination for young artists and Rexroth invited poets like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti over to his house. Kenneth Rexroth published more than 50 books of poetry, including The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944) and In Defense of the Earth (1956). Rexroth once said, "Man thrives where angels would die of ecstasy and where pigs would die of disgust."

It was on this day that the French playwright Jean Racine, (books by this author) was baptized near Soissons, France. As a boy, Racine was cloistered from society in a heretical Catholic sect called the Jansenists, and he was forbidden from enjoying the smallest earthly pleasures, especially reading. When one of Racine's instructors found him reading Aethiopica, a Greek romance, he threw the book into the fire. The young boy smuggled in another copy and after he had finished it, Racine handed the book to his teacher saying, "Here, now you can burn this one, too." Jean Racine is best known for his play Phaedra (1677), based on the Greek myth about Queen Phaedra who falls in love with her stepson and commits suicide after her husband, Theseus, returns from the underworld and discovers her betrayal.

It's the birthday of Charles Stuart Calverley, (books by this author) born in Martley, Worcestershire (1831). He was said to have the kind of spark that comes along once a generation, and he was a gifted musician, athlete, and orator. He took the Oxford prize in Latin verse, which he wrote in a single afternoon. After a prank, Calverley migrated to Cambridge and he took the prize in Latin there, too. No one else has ever won both. Calverley's future was bright and he studied for a career in law, but he suffered a tremendous head injury in a skating accident and spent the rest of his life as an invalid, writing his own verse and parodies of work by others.

It's the birthday of Edwin Arlington Robinson, (books by this author) born in Head Tide, Maine (1869). His family was wealthy, and he expected a life of ease, but his father died, the family's investments in the West went bad, and his mother contracted an illness so contagious that no undertaker would touch her body. Edward and his brothers had to dress her, make the coffin, and bury her themselves. Robinson continued to write poetry unsuccessfully and he lived on the brink of starvation, until one day Kermit Roosevelt read Robinson's poems and he gave them to his father, Theodore Roosevelt, who gave him a cushy job in a Customs House. President Roosevelt told him, "I expect you to think poetry first and customs second." All Robinson had to do was show up, read the morning newspaper, and leave it on his chair to prove he had been in. This sustained him until he started to write poetry that won some praise. Edwin Arlington Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1922, the first year it was awarded. And he won it again in 1925 and 1928. By the time he died, Edwin Robinson was one of the best-known poets in the country.

It's the birthday of composer Giacomo Puccini, born in Lucca, Tuscany (1858). Puccini's four greatest operas are thought to be the last in the great Italian tradition. All begin with a love story, focus on the female lead, and all of them end tragically. They are La Boheme (1896), Tosca (1900), Madame Butterfly (1904), and Turandot, which was left incomplete at Puccini's death in 1924.

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