Friday

Nov. 9, 2012

Ode to the Vinyl Record

by Thomas R. Smith

The needle lowers into the groove
and I'm home. It could be any record
I've lived with and loved a long time: Springsteen
or Rodrigo, Ray Charles or Emmylou
Harris: Not only the music, but
the whirlpool shimmering on the turntable
funneling blackly down into the ocean
of the ear—even the background
pops and hisses a worn record
wraps the music in, creaturely
imperfections so hospitable to our own.
Since those first Beatles and Stones LPs
plopped down spindles on record players
we opened like tiny suitcases at sweaty
junior high parties while parents were out,
how many nights I've pulled around
my desires a vinyl record's cloak
of flaws and found it a perfect fit,
the crackling unclarity and turbulence
of the country's lo-fi basement heart
madly spinning, making its big dark sound.

"Ode to the Vinyl Record" by Thomas R. Smith, from The Foot of the Rainbow. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when German Nazis coordinated a nationwide attack on Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues. More than 1,000 synagogues were burned or destroyed. Rioters looted about 7,500 Jewish businesses and vandalized Jewish hospitals, homes, schools, and cemeteries. Before that night, the Nazis had killed people secretly and individually. After Kristallnacht, the Nazis felt free to persecute the Jews openly, because they knew no one would stop them.

It's the birthday of the poet Anne Sexton (books by this author), born Anne Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts (1928). She said of her childhood: "I was locked in my room until the age of five. After that [...] at home, or away from it, people seemed out of reach. Thus I hid in fairy tales and read them daily like a prayer-book. Any book was closer than a person. I did not even like my dolls for they resembled people."

She never went to college, eloped when she was 19, and became a suburban 1950s housewife. She was 28 when she had her first nervous breakdown. After a suicide attempt, her psychiatrist advised her to try to writing poetry as therapy. She did, and the following year, she took a poetry seminar with the poet Robert Lowell, who admired her work. Within a few years of having written her first poems, she had published her work in more than 40 magazines, including Harper's and The New Yorker.

For the rest of her life, she was in and out of mental institutions, on and off psychiatric drugs, and she said that poetry was the only thing that kept her alive. She said, "My fans think I got well, but I didn't: I just became a poet."

Most critics consider her best poems to be those in her first two books, To Bedlam and Partway Back (1960) and All My Pretty Ones (1962). Her collection Live or Die (1966) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She committed suicide in 1974.

Anne Sexton said, "Poetry is my love, my postmark, my hands, my kitchen, my face."

It's the birthday of the astronomer Carl Sagan (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1934). He said, "I wanted to be a scientist from the moment I first caught on that stars are mighty suns, [and] it dawned on me how staggeringly far away they must be to appear to us as mere points of light." He spent many nights of his childhood in a field, situating himself so he couldn't see any buildings, trees, or anything else but stars. He graduated from high school and won a scholarship to the University of Chicago when he was only 16.

He became a professor of astronomy at Cornell University. At a time when most other astronomers were focusing on distant stars, other galaxies, and the history of the universe, Sagan focused his research on the planets in our own solar system. He was particularly interested in the possibility that there might be life beyond the planet Earth.

Because he had done extensive research on nearby planets, NASA hired him as an advisor for a mission to send remote-controlled spacecrafts to Venus. Sagan said: "It was just a dream come true. We were actually going to go to the planets!"

In preparation for the mission, Sagan was shocked to learn that there would be no cameras on the robotic spacecrafts, called Mariner I and Mariner II. The other scientists thought cameras would be a waste of valuable space and equipment. They wanted to measure things like temperature and magnetism. Sagan couldn't believe they would give up the chance to see an alien planet up close. He said, "Cameras are important precisely because they could answer questions we are too stupid to ask."

Sagan lost the argument that time, but he won over NASA eventually. The Mariners were the last exploratory spacecraft ever launched by NASA without cameras. He contributed to the Viking, Voyager, and Galileo planetary exploration missions, and his insistence on the use of cameras helped us get the first close-up photographs of the outer planets and their moons. Sagan understood that in order to get the public to care about science, to give tax dollars to science, he would have to appeal to the public's sense of wonder.

He was one of the first scientists to appear on the Johnny Carson show, and he became a regular guest, appearing 25 times. He created the TV show Cosmos, which attracted an audience of more than half a billion people in 60 countries, the most popular scientific television program ever produced.

He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Dragons of Eden (1977), about the evolution of human intelligence, and he was also the author of the best-selling novel Contact (1985), which was made into a movie.

Carl Sagan said: "What an astonishing thing a book is. It is a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts, on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person. [...] Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. Books are proof that humans are capable of working magic."

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

 









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