Jul. 28, 2009

Counting Thunder

by Robert Bernard Hass

For several weeks the weather has been mild
And we have wallowed in this picnic sun,
(Our baskets stuffed with bread and wine) beguiled
By a string of buttered days, which one by one

Have lulled us into such complacency
That any thought of rain or want or cold
Would seem killjoy to a mind disposed to see
A clump of daisies nodding by the road.

But lightning flash upon the ridge portends
A sudden change of weather is at hand.
Caught unaware, we face the rising wind
And count the interval before the sound

Of thunderclap announces the return
Of darker times we had soon forgotten.
The dog cowers. The weather vane turns
Wildly, and we scramble forth to batten

Down the shutters banging out their warning.
No use pretending storm clouds won't draw near.
They're certain now. The anvil head is mounting
High above the things we've held so dear.

We light the lantern as clouds obscure the sun,
And gather frightened children in our arms.
The lightning flash and thunder merge at one,
And we hunker down beneath the raging storm.

"Counting Thunder" by Robert Bernard Hass, from Counting Thunder. © David Robert Books, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, born in Stratford, England (1844). He grew up Anglican, but not only did he convert to Catholicism, he decided to become a priest, and he went to rural Wales to study for his ordination, and he loved the landscape and the simplicity of life. It was there that he wrote poems like "God's Grandeur" and "The Windhover."
He wrote,
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

It's the birthday of the philosopher Karl Popper, (books by this author) born in Vienna (1902). His dad was a lawyer who loved the classics and philosophy, and his mom taught him to love music, and Popper said that his childhood was "decidedly bookish." He went to school at the University of Vienna, and while he was there, Albert Einstein came to give a lecture, and Karl Popper was awed by the scientist. He started thinking about the way Einstein's theories worked, and realized that what made them legitimate scientific theories was that they were concrete enough that it would have been possible to prove that they were false, whereas many social scientists and political theorists (like Marx and Freud) presented theories that were impossible to actually prove were not true. So he wrote The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934) and argued that the closest a scientist can get to proving that his or her theory is true is by failing to find evidence that it is false.

He said, "It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood."

It's the birthday of children's author Natalie Babbitt, (books by this author) born on this day in Dayton, Ohio (1932). She grew up during the Great Depression, and her family moved around from town to town in Ohio. As a kid she loved reading fairy tales and myths, but once she found an illustrated copy of Alice in Wonderland, all she wanted to do was become a children's book illustrator. So she studied drawing at the Laurel School for Girls in Cleveland, and then at Smith College. But she got married, and her husband was a college president, and so Babbitt spent her time raising their three children and going to all kinds of social events that were expected of a president's wife. Then her husband wrote a children's story called The Forty-Ninth Magician, and Babbitt illustrated it. It was a successful book. But the stress of work was too much for her husband, and he gave up writing, so Babbitt decided that if she was going to illustrate book she would have to write them herself.

Her first novel for children was The Search for Delicious (1969), about a young man who is sent on a quest to save the kingdom by finding the definition of the word "delicious." She wrote several more books, and then her most famous, Tuck Everlasting (1975), the story of Winnie Foster, who leaves her sheltered home and meets the Tuck family, a family who has discovered the secret of immortality and realized that it isn't as perfect as it sounds. Harper's Magazine said that Tuck Everlasting was "probably the best work of our best children's novelist."

It's the birthday of Alice Duer Miller, (books by this author) born in New York City (1874). In 1940, she published The White Cliffs, a novel in verse. It's the story of an American girl who goes on vacation to London and falls in love with a young English man, and they get married. Then he goes off to fight in World War I, and is killed. She is pregnant, gives birth to a son, and stays in England to raise him there. At the end of the book, England enters World War II, and she is scared that her now-grown son will be killed in battle just like her husband. But she wants him to fight for the country he loves, even though her heart is still in America. The White Cliffs was dramatic and epic, and it was incredibly popular in both England and America, selling more than 1 million copies and convincing a lot of Americans that the country should join World War II.

And it's the birthday of the poet John Ashbery, (books by this author) born in Rochester, New York (1927). His father was a fruit farmer and his mother a high school biology teacher, and neither of them was very interested in literature. But his grandfather lived nearby and had a big library, and the boy would spend hours in there reading everything he could. He wrote his first poem at age eight, with the lines: "The tall haystacks are great sugar mounds/ These are the fairies' camping ground." He said that was just about the last poem he ever wrote that rhymed and was so straightforward. When he was in high school, he published poems in Poetry magazine, and since then he has written many books of poetry, and he is considered one of the most important poets in America. He said, "There is the view that poetry should improve your life. I think people confuse it with the Salvation Army."

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