Nov. 15, 2013


by Ted Berrigan

What to do
                    when the days' heavy heart
                                                                      having risen, late
in the already darkening East
                                                      & prepared at any moment, to sink
                                                                                                                     into the West
surprises suddenly,
                                   & settles, for a time,
                                                                         at a lovely place
where mellow light spreads
                                                                from face to face?
The days' usual aggressive
                                                  contrary beat
                                                                           now softly dropped
into a regular pace
                                  the head riding gently its personal place
where pistons feel like legs
                                                 on feelings met like lace.
take a walk, then,
                                   across this town. It's a pleasure
to meet one certain person you've been counting on
                                                                                              to take your measure
who will smile, & love you, sweetly, at your leisure.
                                                                                               And if
she turns your head around
                                                     like any other man,
                                                                                            go home
and make yourself a sandwich
                                                        of toasted bread, & ham
                                                                                                         with butter
lots of it
                 & have a diet cola,
                                                     & sit down
& write this,
                        because you can.

"Peace" by Ted Berrigan, from The Collected Poems. © University of California Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1940 that 75,000 men were called to Armed Forces duty under the first peacetime conscription in American history.

There had been a long history of resistance to mandatory military service in this country. During World War I, an estimated 3 million young men refused to register, and 12 percent of those called up didn't report for duty or deserted.

Franklin Roosevelt's decision to impose a draft in the summer of 1940 was especially controversial because the country wasn't even at war. But Americans had all seen newspaper and newsreel coverage of the German Army rolling over Poland in a few weeks, and doing the same in France in a few months. By June of that year, Germans controlled most of the European continent, and the United States had a poorly trained standing army of only about 200,000 soldiers.

So even though he worried it might hurt his chances of re-election that November, Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the first peacetime draft in American history. That October, 16 million young men appeared at precinct election boards across the country to register with the Selective Service. The first lottery was held in Washington, D.C., and it was designed to be as patriotic a ceremony as possible. Secretary of War Henry Stimson was blindfolded with cloth taken from a chair that had been used at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the ladle he used to scoop out numbers had been made from the wood of one of the rafters of Independence Hall.

After the selection process, the first 75,000 draftees were called up to service on this day in 1940. During World War II alone, the draft selected 19 million men and inducted 10 million. The draft lapsed briefly after World War II, but the Red Scare persuaded Truman to start it up again, and it continued until 1973.

Most Americans were happy about the end of the draft, but in 1999 the historian Stephen Ambrose wrote: "Today, Cajuns from the Gulf Coast have never met a black person from Chicago. Kids from the ghetto don't know a middle-class white. Mexican-Americans have no contact with Jews. Muslim Americans have few Christian acquaintances ... But during World War II and the Cold War, American [men] from every group got together in the service, having a common goal — to defend their country ... They learned together, pledged allegiance together, sweated together, hated their drill sergeants together, got drunk together, went overseas together. What they had in common — patriotism, a language, a past they could emphasize and venerate — mattered far more than what divided them."

It's the birthday of American poet Ted Berrigan (books by this author), born in Providence, Rhode Island (1934). He served in the Korean War as a sentry, went to college at the University of Tulsa, and then went to live on the Lower East Side of New York City, where he met up with poets Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard, and Dick Gallup. To get by, Berrigan wrote papers for students at Columbia; bummed money from friends; and stole, read, and resold books he couldn't afford to buy. He would walk as fast as he could from one movie theater or art gallery or museum to another, and liked to stay up all night long drinking coffee and talking with friends. He and his friends would quote from the work of their favorite poets — John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Shakespeare, Dante. Ron Padgett wrote, "We had become living anthologies of literature, striding, excited and harmlessly obnoxious, through the streets of New York rejoicing!" In 1962, Berrigan married Sandy Alper after a courtship of only a few days, and they had a son the next year. Berrigan wrote in a letter to his wife: "I have no money, only New York, and Dick and Joe and always and ever our love. And because of that this life is all good. The hospital, your mother and father, the deputies ... the private detectives, the people outside I have not met yet, it's all somehow good in spite of itself."

Berrigan started work on his innovative collection of 14-line poems called The Sonnets the next year. He wrote the first six sonnets in one night, and then he wrote two or three per day for about three months. Some of the sonnets were made from lines of poems he or his friends had already written, some were translations of poems, some were completely new. The Sonnets was published in 1964, and it was a big success. Berrigan later said: "When I came to New York, I hadn't written anything good at all. I came to New York to become this wonderful poet ... to find a way to work at it. That only took about a year and a half, then I wrote this major work and there I was. Just as I thought I would be, in my inane stupidity." He went on to teach and write poetry for 20 years, until his death in 1983, at the age of 48.

It's the birthday of American artist Georgia O'Keeffe, born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (1887). She studied art in college and then supported herself teaching art at various colleges, but she found that teaching left her no time for her own work, and the turpentine smell of the art classrooms made her sick. She went for months and years on end without painting anything, only to start over again and try something new.

On a trip to Taos, New Mexico, O'Keeffe fell in love with the desert. She felt that the thin, dry air helped her to see better, and she devoted the rest of her career to painting desert mountains, flowers, stones, and skulls.

Georgia O'Keeffe said: "Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things."

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




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