Saturday

Nov. 19, 2011

First Thanksgiving

by Sharon Olds

When she comes back, from college, I will see
the skin of her upper arms, cool,
matte, glossy. She will hug me, my old
soupy chest against her breasts,
I will smell her hair! She will sleep in this apartment,
her sleep like an untamed, good object,
like a soul in a body. She came into my life the
second great arrival, after him, fresh
from the other world—which lay, from within him,
within me, Those nights, I fed her to sleep,
week after week, the moon rising,
and setting, and waxing—whirling, over the months,
in a slow blur, around our planet.
Now she doesn't need love like that, she has
had it. She will walk in glowing, we will talk,
and then, when she's fast asleep, I'll exult
to have her in that room again,
behind that door! As a child, I caught
bees, by the wings, and held them, some seconds,
looked into their wild faces,
listened to them sing, then tossed them back
into the air—I remember the moment the
arc of my toss swerved, and they entered
the corrected curve of their departure.

"First Thanksgiving" by Sharon Olds, from Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Sharon Olds (1942) (books by this author). Her poetry is intimate and often autobiographical; she told the Guardian: "Poems like mine — I don't call them confessional, with that tone of admitting to wrong-doing. My poems have done more accusing than admitting. I call work like mine 'apparently personal'. Or in my case apparently very personal." But in spite of the candor of her poems, she's intensely private, uncomfortable talking about her family and her childhood in interviews. "What I'm nervous about is making explicit and 'part of the record' connections between poems and actual people. I've never talked about actual biography — it just seems to me like the right thing to do when you look at the poems I write." She's also said, "To me the difference between the paper world and the flesh world is so great that I don't think we could put ourselves in our poems even if we wanted to."

She was born in San Francisco, and grew up in Berkeley, California, raised in a religious tradition of the "hellfire Calvinist" variety, she says. "I was in a church where there was both great literary art and bad literary art, the great art being psalms and the bad art being hymns. The four-beat was something that was just part of my consciousness from before I was born." She studied at Stanford and later Columbia University, where she wrote her doctoral dissertation on prosody in the poems of Emerson, but she didn't have a poetic breakthrough of her own until she made what she called a deal with the devil. "So what I said was something like: 'Give me my own poems and I'll give up everything that I've learned.' Of course I hadn't learned that much, because I wasn't that good a student. I said: 'It doesn't have to be any good, just as long as it's mine — I mean as long as it sounds like an ordinary person.'" What broke her work open, she said, was when she began to use enjambment: "Writing over the end of the line and having a noun starting each line — it had some psychological meaning to me, like I was protecting things by hiding them." Her first collection, Satan Says, was published in 1980, when she was 37.

She was recently asked where she got the inspiration for her poems, and she replied, "Poems come from ordinary experiences and objects, I think. Out of memory — a dress I lent my daughter on her way back to college; a newspaper photograph of war; a breast self-exam; the tooth fairy; Calvinist parents who beat up their children; a gesture of love; seeing oneself naked over age 50 in a set of bright hotel bathroom mirrors."

On this date in 1863, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was four and a half months after the devastating battle, and it was a foggy, cold morning. Lincoln arrived about 10 a.m. Around noon, the sun came out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. A military band played, a local preacher offered a long prayer, and the headlining orator, Edward Everett, spoke for more than two hours. Everett described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once. When Everett finished, Lincoln spoke.

Now considered one of the greatest speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address ran for just over two minutes, fewer than 300 words, and only 10 sentences. It was so brief, in fact, that many of the 15,000 people that attended the ceremony didn't even realize that the president had spoken, because a photographer setting up his camera had momentarily distracted them. The next day, Everett told Lincoln, "I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."

There are several versions of the speech, and five different manuscript copies; they're all slightly different, so there's some argument about which is the "authentic" version. Lincoln gave copies to both of his private secretaries, and the other three versions were re-written by the president some time after he made the speech. The Bliss Copy, named for Colonel Alexander Bliss, is the only copy that was signed and dated by Lincoln, and it's generally accepted as the official version for that reason. The Bliss text, below, is inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

"But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

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

 









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