Jan. 17, 2013

Praise of a Collie

by Norman MacCaig

She was a small dog, neat and fluid —
Even her conversation was tiny:
She greeted you with bow, never bow-wow.

Her sons stood monumentally over her
But did what she told them. Each grew grizzled
Till it seemed he was his own mother's grandfather.

Once, gathering sheep on a showery day,
I remarked how dry she was. Pollóchan said, 'Ah,
It would take a very accurate drop to hit Lassie.'

And her tact — and tactics! When the sheep bolted
In an unforeseen direction, over the skyline
Came — who but Lassie, and not even panting.

She sailed in the dinghy like a proper sea-dog.
Where's a burn? — she's first on the other side.
She flowed through fences like a piece of black wind.

But suddenly she was old and sick and crippled ...
I grieved for Pollóchan when he took her for a stroll
And put his gun to the back of her head.

"Praise of a Collie" by Norman MacCaig, from Collected Poems. © Chatto & Windus. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Eighteenth Amendment, the Volstead Act, and better known as Prohibition, took effect on this date in 1920, a year after it was ratified. It made the manufacture, sale, and transportation of liquor illegal. The temperance movement had been fighting this fight for almost 80 years. Its activists wanted to protect families and communities from the horrors of alcohol abuse. They saw the 18th Amendment as a major victory for morality — but in reality, it made criminals out of a lot of ordinary American citizens, and made liquor even more desirable than it had been before.

In the end, it was the Depression that led to the demise of Prohibition. A wealthy Republican named Pauline Sabin led the repeal movement. She said that making liquor legal again would create jobs, weaken organized crime, and generate tax revenue. It took almost 14 years before the 21st Amendment reversed Prohibition. It's the first and only time an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been repealed.

Today is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1706). He was a printer, a scientist, an inventor, a writer, the founder of America's first lending library, and one of the Founding Fathers of America itself. He recalled in his Autobiography (1794) that writing well became "of great Use to me in the Course of my Life, and was a principal Means of my Advancement."

He was fond of writing adages and aphorisms:

"Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead."

"How many observe Christ's birthday! How few, his precepts! O! 'tis easier to keep Holidays than Commandments."

"Beware of the young doctor and the old barber."

"He that lives upon hope will die fasting."

"Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment."

It's the birthday of the youngest of the Brontë sisters: Anne Brontë was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, in 1820 (books by this author). We don't know as much about her as we do about her sisters, Charlotte and Emily. She was sensitive, passionate, and spiritual, but also a bit meek and timid. She was especially close to Emily, and they would make up fanciful stories about an imaginary country called "Gondal." When she was 19, she took a position as a governess, because she wanted to contribute to the support of the household. Six years later, she returned home and began writing. The three sisters hatched a plan to publish a book of poetry under three male pseudonyms: Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The book got a couple of good reviews and sold all of two copies. But Anne continued to write, and she sold a couple of poems to regional periodicals. She also wrote two novels: the first, Agnes Grey (1847) sold pretty well, and her second, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), was a smash hit. It sold out the first printing in six weeks.

It was also in 1848 that Charlotte and Anne went to London to reveal the fact that the Bell brothers were really the Brontë sisters. Anne in particular had gotten frustrated over the speculation about the sex of the authors, and whether it was appropriate for women to write novels. She wrote: "I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man."

Within the next year, three of the four Brontë siblings — Emily, Anne, and their brother Branwell — died of tuberculosis. Anne was the last to die, and before she died, leaving Charlotte alone, Anne whispered, "Take courage."

Today is the birthday of poet William Edgar Stafford (books by this author), born in Hutchinson, Kansas (1914). Among his best-known books are The Rescued Year (1966), Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems (1977), Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer's Vocation (1978), and An Oregon Message (1987).

During the Second World War, he was a conscientious objector. He refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army. From 1940 to 1944, he was interned as a pacifist in civilian public service camps in Arkansas and California where he fought fires and built roads. He wrote about the experience in the 94-page prose memoir Down In My Heart (1947), which opens with the question, "When are men dangerous?"

Today is the birthday of First Lady Michelle Obama, born Michelle Robinson in Chicago (1964). She grew up on the South Side of Chicago, with a stay-at-home mom and a dad who worked for the city water plant and was active in local politics. She skipped the second grade, went to Chicago's first magnet high school, ranked second in her graduating class, went off to college at Princeton, and then to law school at Harvard. She met Barack Obama at the law firm in Chicago where they both worked. For their first date, they went to a Spike Lee movie called Do the Right Thing. In 1992, the two married.

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




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