Jun. 18, 2002

Why There Will Always Be Thistle

by Maxine Kumin

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Poem: "Why There Will Always Be Thistle," by Maxine Kumin from The Long Marriage (W.W. Norton).

Why There Will Always Be Thistle

Sheep will not eat it
nor horses nor cattle
unless they are starving.
Unchecked, it will sprawl over
pasture and meadow
choking the sweet grass
defeating the clover
until you are driven
to take arms against it
but if unthinking
you grasp it barehanded
you will need tweezers
to pick out the stickers.

Outlawed in most Northern
states of the Union
still it jumps borders.
Its taproot runs deeper
than underground rivers
and once it's been severed
by breadknife or shovel
-two popular methods
employed by the desperate-
the bits that remain will
spring up like dragons' teeth
a field full of soldiers
their spines at the ready.

Bright little bursts of
chrome yellow explode from
the thistle in autumn
when goldfinches gorge on
the seeds of its flower.
The ones left uneaten
dry up and pop open
and parachutes carry
their procreant power
to disparate venues
in each hemisphere
which is why there will always
be thistle next year.

In 1815 on this day, Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. The vicious fighting lasted all day on a waterlogged Belgian battlefield that made combat conditions especially difficult. By six in the evening, Napoleon was gaining the advantage, but the Duke of Wellington regrouped his forces until the British army prevailed.

It's the birthday of singer and composer (James) Paul McCartney, born in Liverpool, England (1942), who, according to Time magazine, is "the most successful songwriter in the history of the United States record industry, having penned thirty-two number one hits…. His song Yesterday is the most recorded ever, with more than two thousand versions."

It's the birthday of writer Gail Godwin, born in Birmingham, Alabama (1937). Her thesis became her first novel, The Perfectionists (1970), which was about a young couple's failing marriage. This was followed by two more novels, and a collection of short stories. But it was her fifth book, A Mother and Two Daughters (1982), that brought her to the New York Times best seller list. Godwin's next two novels were set in the South and drew upon her own life experiences. A Southern Family (1987) was based on the suicide of her half-brother Tommy, and Father Melancholy's Daughter was based on the depression that plagued Godwin's father for most of his life.

It's the birthday of artist and illustrator James Montgomery Flagg, born in Pelham Manor, New York (1877). By the age of fifteen, he was on staff at two magazines: Life, and Judge, the premier humor magazine of the time. He studied for a short time at the Art Students League in New York, and then studied painting in France for two years. But he felt that his real forte was illustration, and he returned to the States to illustrate books. But he is best known for creating the famous poster of Uncle Sam looking directly out at the viewer, pointing his finger and saying "I want YOU for the U.S. Army." More than four million copies of that poster were printed between 1917 and 1918 to recruit soldiers for World War One, and it was used again for the same purpose during World War Two.

It's the birthday of collector and philanthropist Henry Clay Folger, born in New York City, New York (1857). After graduating from Amherst College, Folger got a job as a clerk in an oil refinery owned by Standard Oil. Forty-nine years later, he retired as its Chairman of the Board. While he was in college, Folger became enamored with the works of Shakespeare, and he began collecting Shakespeariana. Over the years his collection grew and grew, and in 1928, he announced that he would erect a library in Washington, DC dedicated to promoting the history and writings of Shakespeare. The cornerstone for the Folger Shakespeare Library was laid on May 28, 1930. The Library is currently a major center for scholarly research. It houses the first collected edition of Shakespeare's works, printed in 1623, known as the First Folio.

It's the birthday of newspaper publisher Edward Wyllis Scripps, born in Rushville, Illinois (1854), who began his newspaper career as an office boy at the Detroit Tribune, which was managed by his half-brother, James. He went on to purchase a number of penny papers throughout the Mississippi Valley, and, with his partner Milton McRae, established the Scripps-McRae League, the first chain of daily newspapers in the United States. His newspapers were generally liberal and supported the labor unions; at the time of his death in 1926, approximately two-fifths of the papers' stock were owned by his employees. Scripps' lifelong interest in science led him to endow the Scripps Foundation for Population Research at Miami University in Ohio, as well as the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at La Jolla, California.

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