Saturday

Jun. 25, 2011

My Happiness

by Mary Ruefle

I laid my happiness in a field
My happiness lay in the field and looked up at the sky
My happiness extended the same courtesy to the clouds
My happiness in the field was visible for miles around
My happiness was visible to the hawk
My happiness was fond of the beetle beside it

A porcupine lumbered by
My happiness followed it
Perhaps because it was being followed
the porcupine "stole" my happiness
My happiness lumbered along after itself, happily
We came to a road
The porcupine went into a culvert and didn't come out
And that was the end of my happiness

"My Happiness" by Mary Ruefle, from Indeed I Was Pleased With the World. © Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1876, the Battle of the Little Bighorn — also known as "Custer's last stand — took place in Montana. Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry against a band of Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapahoe Indians who refused to give up the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory and return to the reservation. The Indians, led by Crazy Horse, Gall, and Sitting Bull, wiped out Custer and every man in the five companies that were with him. (The only survivor was a horse, Comanche, who became a celebrity at military parades.) Custer's last stand proved to be the Lakotas' last stand as well; white Americans were outraged at the battle's outcome, especially falling as it did so near to the country's centennial on July 4, and soon the band was forced to surrender, losing the Black Hills to white settlers.

Custer remains a complicated figure in American history, part Civil War hero, part martyr, and part blundering egomaniac. He wasn't tactically brilliant so much as he was brave and lucky. But his death inspired many a poet to write elegiac verses to his martyrdom. Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote a lengthy tribute in iambic pentameter (Custer, 1896), including the following stanza:

A second's silence. Custer dropped his head,
His lips slow moving as when prayers are said —
Two words he breathed — 'God and Elizabeth,'
Then shook his long locks in the face of death
And with a final gesture turned away
To join that fated few who stood at bay.
Ah! deeds like that the Christ in man reveal
Let Fame descend her throne at Custer's shrine to kneel.

In A.H. Laidlaw's poem "Custer" (1898), he is less tragic Christ-like figure, more super-hero:

Straight on his steed doth he meet the grim battle,
The red line of danger grows deadly and large,
Loud from the hills rings the rifleman's rattle,
But Custer is ready, so forward and charge!

Firing with left hand, and fencing with right,
The reins in his teeth, like a handless young Hun,
What is his fate in the terrible fight?
The thousands hath slain him, yet Custer hath won.

Even Walt Whitman fired off a sonnet on hearing the news of Custer's death, later published in Leaves of Grass as "From Far Dakota's Cañons":

From far Dakota's caƱons,
Lands of the wild ravine, the dusky Sioux, the lonesome stretch, the silence,
Haply to-day a mournful wail, haply a trumpet-note for heroes.

The battle-bulletin,
The Indian ambuscade, the craft, the fatal environment,
The cavalry companies fighting to the last in sternest heroism,
In the midst of their little circle, with their slaughter'd horses for breastworks,
The fall of Custer and all his officers and men.

Continues yet the old, old legend of our race,
The loftiest of life upheld by death,
The ancient banner perfectly maintain'd,
O lesson opportune, O how I welcome thee!
As sitting in dark days,
Lone, sulky, through the time's thick murk looking in vain for light, for hope,
From unsuspected parts a fierce and momentary proof,
(The sun there at the centre though conceal'd,
Electric life forever at the centre,)
Breaks forth a lightning flash.

Thou of the tawny flowing hair in battle,
I erewhile saw, with erect head, pressing ever in front, bearing a bright sword in thy hand,
Now ending well in death the splendid fever of thy deeds,
(I bring no dirge for it or thee, I bring a glad triumphal sonnet,)
Desperate and glorious, aye in defeat most desperate, most glorious,
After thy many battles in which never yielding up a gun or a color
Leaving behind thee a memory sweet to soldiers,
Thou yieldest up thyself.

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist George Orwell (books by this author), born Eric Arthur Blair in Bengal, India (1903). He didn't care for his birth name; he found "Eric" too Norse and "Blair" too Scottish. When he began writing in earnest, he adopted what he felt was a solidly English name; his surname comes from the River Orwell in East Anglia.

His father was a British civil servant, and the family was, in Orwell's words, "upper lower middle class"; nevertheless, the boy went to several exclusive boarding schools, including Eton, on a scholarship. He didn't enjoy the experience, feeling alienated from his well-to-do classmates, and chose not to go on to Oxford or Cambridge. He became a military policeman instead, serving in Burma, where he came to hate imperialism, totalitarianism, and the class system. He returned to England a literary and political rebel. He called himself an anarchist for many years, and later a socialist who was nonetheless critical of the existing socialist movement.

He's most famous for his anti-communist and dystopian novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), but he was also a master of literary nonfiction, using deceptively straightforward prose to describe moments of personal insight. His 1931 essay "A Hanging" describes his role in the execution of a prisoner in Burma:

"At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path. It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. ... He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less."

Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) was a retelling of time he spent among the poor in England and Europe; The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) was both a pro- and anti-socialist look at unemployed miners in the north of England. His posthumously published essay "Such, Such Were the Joys ..." (1952) recalled his boarding school days and the classism he encountered there.

He also wrote an essay decrying the abuse of language by politicians and the media, called "Politics and the English Language" (1946). In it, he includes five rules for effective written communication:
   (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
   (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
   (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
   (iv) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
   (v) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

On this day in 1947, Anne Frank's (books by this author) diary was published. She began keeping the diary in 1942, when she was 13, and she wrote it during the two years that her family was in hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam. They were discovered in 1944 and taken to concentration camps, where Anne died of typhus in 1945. After the family was captured, Otto Frank's secretary, Miep Gies, found the diary and gave it to Mr. Frank after the war. He published it, but only after removing things he felt were too personal. It has been translated into 65 languages — the English version first came out in 1952 — and a 1995 edition restored the excised material.

"It's an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I — nor for that matter anyone else — will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. Still, what does that matter? I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart."

It's the birthday of British comedian Ricky Gervais (1961), born in Reading, England. He studied philosophy at University College, London, and then got a job at the university after graduation, hiring bands to play for events. He even formed a band of his own, briefly: a duo, Seona Dancing, that had a minor hit in the Philippines with their single "More to Lose" (1985). His "mockumentary" sitcom The Office, about a fictional paper company and its overconfident and painfully inept middle manager, David Brent, was a big success — something Gervais didn't really expect. He told interviewer James Hughes, "This is why I confuse broadcasters, because The Office shouldn't have been as big as it was. It's an acquired taste ... Suddenly, this strange, acquired-taste comedy aimed at the very few with no laugh track, no stars, no jokes and quite depressing scenes was the biggest comedy around ... I think I'm a cult comedian who got more famous than he should have."

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

 









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