Mar. 7, 2014
When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (excerpt)
When one has lived a long time alone,
one refrains from swatting the fly
and lets him go, and one is slow to strike
the mosquito, though more than willing to slap
the flesh under her, and one hoists the toad
from the pit too deep to hop out of
and carries him to the grass, without minding
the poisoned urine he slicks his body with,
and one envelops, in a towel, the swift
who fell down the chimney and knocks herself
against window glass, and releases her outside
and watches her fly free, a life line flung at reality,
when one has lived a long time alone.
It's the birthday of one of the great Texas troubadours and a legend in songwriting circles, Townes Van Zandt, born in Fort Worth (1944). He was born into a wealthy oil family, and they moved around quite a bit when he was a young kid — to Minnesota, Colorado, and Illinois — but he abandoned wealth for poetry and singing and living couch to couch. His focus was the words and the story. Though he never had a hit of his own, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took his song "Pancho and Lefty" all the way to No. 1 in 1983. Others recorded him too — Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, The Cowboy Junkies.
His friend Steve Earle famously said he was "the best songwriter in the whole world," adding, "I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." To which Van Zandt was said to have replied: "I've met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don't think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table."
Years later, Earle recanted. He said, "When somebody's as good as Townes Van Zandt was and more people don't know about it, it's Townes's fault. Part of him didn't consider himself worthy of anything." Van Zandt died in 1997, at age 53.
It's the birthday of novelist Robert Harris (books by this author), born in Nottingham, England (1957). In 1987, he was on vacation in Italy, lying on the beach, listening to the German tourists, when he suddenly imagined that he was living in a world where the Nazis had won. Of writing the first page of that first novel, Fatherland (1991), he said it felt "like having had a powerful car in the garage, and switching it on, and realizing that there was literally nothing you could not do."
Harris, who was a BBC correspondent and newspaper columnist before he was a novelist, said, "It is perfectly legitimate to write novels which are essentially prose poems, but in the end, I think, a novel is like a car, and if you buy a car and grow flowers in it, you're forgetting that the car is designed to take you somewhere else."
On this day in 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that parody can be protected by the fair-use clause of the Copyright Act of 1976. The ruling came about when the rap group 2 Live Crew used elements from "Oh Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison in their song "Pretty Woman."
Orbison's song is about a man's desire for a pretty woman he sees walking down the street. The 2 Live Crew version uses the same guitar riffs and melody, but the relationship has advanced, or rather deteriorated, as she is now a hairy woman, a bald-headed woman, and a two-timing woman.
The music publishing company that owns Orbison's song sued Luther Campbell, the head of 2 Live Crew, for copyright violation, saying he used too much of the original work and gained commercially from it. Campbell argued that he had fair use and the Supreme Court agreed.
Bruce Rogow, the attorney who argued for Luther Campbell, said, "the case stands for the principle that there must be breathing room for artists to create new works." And Supreme Court Justice David Souter wrote, "Like less ostensibly humorous forms of criticism, [parody] can provide social benefit by shedding light on an earlier work and, in the process, creating a new one."
Today, rapper Luther Campbell is a columnist for the Miami New Times. He might run for mayor of Miami-Dade County.
On this date in 1857 it was wisely decided that a baseball game would be made up of nine innings instead of 21 "aces" or runs.
The National Association of Baseball Players decided this. They were a group of men in New York and Brooklyn baseball clubs playing under what was known as the "Knickerbocker Rules," and they had just gotten together formally for the first time in January.
They had agreed that baseball was "manly and healthful" and should be promoted that way to young men as, they told the paper, an "alternative to billiards ... and other unmentionable night amusements." And they had done away with the practice of hitting the runner with a thrown ball to get him out, which caused fistfights.
But they knew that spectators were coming to baseball games, and under the Knickerbocker Rules a game could be over very quickly. So they changed the rules so as not to disappoint the sport's new fans, which might pay money to see them.
It's the anniversary of the first March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (1965), known as "Bloody Sunday." Six hundred civil rights activists left Selma to march the 54 miles to the state capitol, demonstrating for African-American voting rights. They got six blocks before state and local lawmen attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas.
ABC News interrupted a Nazi war crimes documentary to show footage of the violence. In the blink of a television set, national public opinion about civil rights shifted. Demonstrations broke out across the country.
Two weeks later, the March from Selma made it to Montgomery, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, federal court protection, and these words from President Lyndon Johnson: "There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights." When they got to Montgomery, they were 25,000 strong.
It's the birthday of Bret Easton Ellis (books by this author), born in Los Angeles (1964). His first book, Less Than Zero (1985), was published when he was still a student at Bennington College. He's since written five more novels, most of them about a disaffected, disengaged America. Of course that includes his third, American Psycho (1991), a satirical novel written from the first-person perspective of a Wall Street yuppie serial killer.
It was banned by the National Organization for Women and dropped by its first publisher. The critic Roger Rosenblatt wrote of it: "American Psycho is the journal Dorian Gray would have written had he been a high school sophomore. But that is unfair to sophomores." Ellis received death threats for it, and the Walt Disney Corporation even barred him from the opening of Euro Disney. The book has since enjoyed a renaissance with critics and scholars.
Frost claimed that the poem came to him and he wrote it all at once, but an early draft of the poem shows that it was reworked several times.
More than 20 years later, in 1947, a young man named N. Arthur Bleau attended a reading Frost was giving at Bowdoin College. Bleau asked Frost which poem was his favorite, and Frost replied that he liked them all equally. But after the reading was finished, the poet invited Bleau up to the stage and told him a story: that in truth, his favorite was "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." He had written the poem based on his own life, he said. One year on December 22nd, the winter solstice, he realized that he and his wife wouldn't be able to afford Christmas presents for his children. Frost wasn't the most successful farmer, but he scrounged up some produce from his farm, hitched up his horse, and took a wagon into town to try and sell enough produce to buy some gifts. He couldn't sell a single thing, and as evening came and it began to snow, he had to head home. He was almost home when he became overwhelmed with the shame of telling his family about his failure, and as if it sensed his mood, the horse stopped, and Frost cried. He told Bleau that he "bawled like a baby." Eventually, the horse jingled its bells, and Frost collected himself and headed back home to his family. His daughter Lesley agreed that this was the inspiration for the poem, and said that she remembered the horse, whose name was Eunice, and that her father told her: "A man has as much right as a woman to a good cry now and again. The snow gave me shelter; the horse understood and gave me the time."
"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" ends:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®