Oct. 12, 2011
If Life Were Like Touch Football
Driving north on Route 2A
from Vermont to Maine
listening to the news:
—the New England Patriots coach was caught
trying to videotape the handsignals of the New York
I remember how we six sisters
would recruit a few boys from the neighborhood
for a pick-up game of touch football in the street,
how we'd break into teams,
huddle around whomever was chosen to be qb,
how the qb would extend her left palm, flat,
into the middle of the huddle,
plant the index finger of her right hand in the center of her
palm, and then
with finger motions and whispers,
she would diagram who was to go where and when,
in order to so confuse and fool the other team
that one of us could break free
and go long.
Oh that feeling
of running as fast as I could
extending my arms, my hands, my fingers
as far as I could
watching that spiraling bullet of a football,
if you can touch it,
you can catch it.
If you can touch it,
you can catch it.
It's the birthday of poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald (books by this author), born in Springfield, Illinois (1910). His parents were Irish-Catholics who met as actors in a play called The Sign of the Cross. His mother died when he was three, but for a few years he enjoyed life with his father and younger brother. He wrote: "My small brother and I spent the early years in an old-fashioned country. The foliage of the tree at our window, dusky in summer or thrashing wet in summer storms, brought living nature into the room on which we closed and opened our eyes. [...] Close by was the smooth texture of wallpaper tinted with pale leaves and flowers. Downstairs the windows of the entrance hall, facing south, had panes of colored glass, and sumptuous lights of purple or red gold would be found brightening or fading here and there in the room. Outside there was the quietude of the street, shady or snowy, broken by wagons, by a rare automobile, and by the slow heavy meter of the freight trains clanking by at the corner, by day or by night — one of the great sounds the world made." Then his brother, his only sibling, died when Fitzgerald was seven. His father, an invalid, was bedridden and required constant care from his son. Despite it all, Fitzgerald excelled as a student and an athlete, and the poet Vachel Lindsay, who was also from Springfield, took the boy under his wing.
When Fitzgerald was 17, he finished high school and his father died. He didn't feel ready for college, so he went to the Choate School in Connecticut, and there he met the classics teacher and translator Dudley Fitts. Fitzgerald was in awe of his new teacher, and he decided to go to Harvard because Fitts had gone there. At Harvard, he started publishing poems in Poetry magazine. He graduated with honors. After graduation, he worked as a journalist, for the New York Herald Tribune and Time. He started collaborating with Fitts to translate Greek drama.
Fitzgerald was married three times. His second wife was Sally Morgan, whom he met while serving in the Navy during World War II. Sally was a stylish, smart young woman, a devout Catholic, and a naval intelligence officer, just like Fitzgerald. She had planned to become a nun, but changed her mind and married Robert instead. He re-embraced the Catholicism of his youth. They settled in Connecticut, and had a wide circle of literary friends, including Robert Lowell. In a letter to John Berryman, Lowell wrote: "Fitzgerald is good on the classics, and good (very strident Catholic, though) on religion. Terribly patient and earnest and somehow surprisingly subtle at times — and completely unselfish. [...] I think you'd have hit it off, if he'd talked." It was Lowell who introduced the Fitzgeralds to a young writer, also Catholic, named Flannery O'Connor.
O'Connor and the Fitzgeralds hit it off immediately. She was looking for somewhere to stay while she finished her first novel, so the Fitzgeralds invited her to stay with them in Connecticut. She lived with them for almost two years. She worked on her novel writing in the mornings, and helped take care of the Fitzgerald children in the afternoons. In the evenings she and Robert and Sally would sit around the kitchen table, drinking martinis and talking about writing, movies, and theology. The Fitzgeralds made O'Connor the godmother of their daughter Maria — the editor Robert Giroux was Maria's godfather.
O'Connor became very ill with lupus, the disease that would eventually kill her, and she moved back to Georgia. But she wrote the Fitzgeralds constantly. Soon after leaving, she wrote to them: "I reckon you all are underway with the academic yer [sic] '51–52 and No. 5. I hope this one will be a girl & have a fierce Old Testament name and cut off a lot of heads. You had better stay down and take care of yourself. Your children sound big enough to do all the work. By beating them moderately and moderately often you should be able to get them in the habit of doing domestic chores."
After they had six children, the Fitzgeralds moved to Italy so that Robert could be inspired as he translated The Odyssey. O'Connor wrote to a friend about Robert Fitzgerald: "He is a poet, translator, journalist, what-have-you, and has six children. Supporting six children in Connecticut got to be something else so he put them all on a plane for Italy and now they live in Genova." The Odyssey (1961) was a huge success, critically acclaimed, and won the Bollingen Prize.
After Flannery O'Connor died, Robert Fitzgerald became the executor of her literary estate. In 1965, he became the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard. When he was appointed, Time magazine wrote: "Last week Harvard assigned the chair to methodical, elegant, harmonious, dignified, energetic Robert Stuart Fitzgerald, 54, poet, journalist, anthologist and translator of the classics."
Fitzgerald was a beloved professor, first in his many temporary teaching positions, and then at Harvard, where he taught until his retirement in 1981. Penelope Laurans, a student who became Fitzgerald's third wife, recalled their first meeting: "The class, almost all gathered by the time I arrived that afternoon, was seated around a long table, one intimidating young woman calmly puffing away on a pipe. He came forward to me, as he did to everyone who came to class that day, and formally shook my hand, bending slightly in my direction and saying kindly, 'I'm Robert Fitzgerald.' [...] The highest grade he awarded was NAAB (Not At All Bad). The few people in the class who merited that accolade even once felt that their entire semester had been a success. Students thought he looked the part of a writer and that his eyes told of a deep life. He was of medium height and build, with a classical profile, the most distinctive feature of which was a sharp Grecian nose. [...] He was a recognizable figure in his tan raincoat and black beret with a green bookbag slung over his shoulder, making his way from office to library to classroom. He had courtliness, the courtesy of gesture and manner that made him immediately stand out and earned him deference and respect. Even people who didn't know him — a taxi driver in Cleveland or a shopkeeper in a small village in Maine — would call him 'Professor' since he carried that air and that authority around with him. [...] He would hunch over the essay or the poem or the dinner table and make his point slowly, stopping to puff or stub out his cigarette, pausing much and harrumphing often, but every word that eventually came out had its nuanced place in the sentences that he brought forth as if he were setting them on paper."
Robert Fitzgerald's books include translations of The Iliad (1974) and The Aeneid (1983); books of poems: A Wreath for the Sea (1943), Spring Shade (1972); and The Third Kind of Knowledge: Memoirs and Selected Writings (1993). He died in 1985 at the age of 74.
He said, "Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation."
It was on this day in 1892 that the Pledge of Allegiance was recited en masse for the first time, by more than 2 million students. It had been written just a month earlier by a Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy, who published it in Youth's Companion and distributed it across the country. It was recited on this day to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas. It was slightly shorter in its 1892 version: "I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands — one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
After that, it got revised twice, and both revisions made the Pledge wordier. The first was in 1923, when it was changed from "my flag" to "the flag of the United States of America." This change was made to ensure that immigrants were pledging to the American flag and not the flags of their home countries. The second change was to add the words "under God." A few determined preachers worked for years to get it changed, but it wasn't until 1954 that it was amended. President Eisenhower attended a sermon by the Reverend George Docherty, who said: "Apart from the mention of the phrase, 'the United States of America,' this could be a pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity." Eisenhower was convinced and within a few months the Pledge was amended to include "under God" as a way to distinguish this country from the Soviet Union.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®