Apr. 8, 2004

A Good Son

by Miller Williams

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Poem: "A Good Son," by Miller Williams, from The Ways We Touch (University of Illinois Press).

A Good Son

He called home every once in a while
to tell his mother,
just so he could imagine how she would smile,
something or other

about a girlfriend
or work or a new movie he might have seen,
whatever was right.
He lied some, but mostly he stayed between

fantasy and fact.
He was a good son. He loved his mother a lot
and knew what she needed--
to live through him whether he lived or not.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Barbara Kingsolver, born in Annapolis, Maryland (1955). Her novels include The Poisonwood Bible (1998), Prodigal Summer (2001) and Animal Dreams (1990). She grew up in rural Kentucky, where she spent her childhood exploring the alfalfa fields and wooded hills surrounding her home. She started keeping a journal when she was eight years old and has continued to keep one her entire life. She once said she wanted to "nail down the experience of my life through writing, a process that feels something like trying to nail a river to its banks, to hold it still long enough for me to take a good look and try to understand it." She read all of the books she could get her hands on, but most of what she read was written by dead men from Europe, so she never thought she could actually write a book herself.

She majored in biology at DePauw University in Indiana, and then got a masters degree in evolutionary biology. She was working on a PhD thesis on the social lives of termites when she decided to abandon a career in science and try to become a writer. She lied to her thesis committee, telling them she needed to take care of a disabled relative, and then she got a job as a technical writer. The job forced her to sit in front of a computer for eight hours a day and do nothing but write. She later said she learned "to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writer's block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don't. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done."

Kingsolver began writing short stories in her spare time, as well as magazine articles about human rights and environmental issues. She began writing her first novel, The Bean Trees (1988), in 1986, when she was pregnant and suffering from insomnia. Her doctor recommended that she scrub her bathroom floor with a toothbrush to occupy herself, but instead she started writing a novel--in her closet so she wouldn't disturb her husband. She later said, "If I have to . . . I'll go back to writing in the dark. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, writers will go to stupefying lengths to get the infernal roar of words out of their skulls and onto paper."

She finished writing The Bean Trees by the time her child was born. It's about a woman from rural Kentucky who leaves home so she won't get stuck in a boring, dead-end life. Ever since Kingsolver had left home for college she had been trying to get rid of her Kentucky accent and strange speech expressions, but as she worked on her novel she realized that those were the things that made her writing unique, and she tried to recapture them in the voices of her characters. The Bean Trees was a huge success, and she has gone on to write many more best-selling novels. Her latest book is Small Wonder (2002), a book of essays.

Kingsolver wrote, "The main thing that separates happy people from other people [is] the feeling that you're a practical item, with a use, like a sweater or a socket wrench."

It's the birthday of lyricist (Edgar) Yip Harburg, born in New York City (1896). He wrote songs like "April In Paris," "It's Only a Paper Moon," and "Hurry Sundown" for movies including Can't Help Singing (1944), California (1946) and Centennial Summer (1946); but he's best known as the man who wrote the lyrics and much of the script for The Wizard of Oz (1939).

He became high school friends with Ira Gershwin when he discovered they both loved the musicals of Gilbert and Sullivan. They both wrote light verse for their high school and college newspapers, and began writing song lyrics on the side. But instead of jumping into the music business like Gershwin, Harburg spent seven years working for an appliance company. When the market crashed in 1929, he decided to try his hand at writing song lyrics again, and Gershwin co-wrote several songs with him and promoted his work.

Harburg supported left-wing causes his entire life. His first hit song was "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" (1932), written for a musical revue called Americana. Audiences loved it, but radio stations refused to play it because they didn't want to be accused of playing a communist song. Harburg was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, but he went on to write the lyrics for many more musicals.

It's the birthday of investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, born in Chicago, Illinois (1937). He's written books and articles on the war in Vietnam, Watergate, CIA domestic spying, nuclear weapons in Israel, the Kennedy dynasty, the India-Pakistan conflict, and many other topics. His latest book is Against All Enemies (1998), about the government's cover-up of the Gulf War Syndrome.

He majored in history at the University of Chicago, and then went to law school for a year, but he was expelled for poor grades. He worked at a drug store for a while before a friend told him the Chicago City News Bureau was hiring college graduates with no experience for thirty-five dollars a week. He took the job, and he's been working in journalism for the past forty-five years.

His big break came in 1969, when he found out that the U.S. Army was secretly court-martialing a lieutenant for murdering civilians in the village of My Lai in Vietnam. He tracked down the lieutenant and interviewed him about the incident, discovering that the number of civilians killed was even higher than he had suspected. He eventually broke the story of the My Lai massacre in thirty-six newspapers, and went on to write a Pulitzer-Prize winning book on the subject, My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath (1970).

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, Hersh has been writing articles for The New Yorker on the U.S. government's response, Middle Eastern politics, and the fear of many journalists to contradict official White House information.

Hersh said, "Being an investigative reporter is like being a freak. You're trying to get information other people don't want you to have."

It's the birthday of poet Miller Williams, born in Hoxie, Arkansas (1930). His many collections of poetry include Why God Permits Evil (1977), Adjusting to the Light (1992) and The Ways We Touch (1997). Early aptitude tests said Williams "wasn't verbal," so he decided to study biology in college and grad school. In the 1950s, he worked as a biology professor, a department store salesman, a stock-car driver, a movie projectionist and the guy who inserts sticks into popsicles. Finally, in 1964, he published his first book of poetry, A Circle of Stone.

In 1997, he read the poem "Of History and Hope" at Bill Clinton's second inauguration, joining Robert Frost, James Dickey and Maya Angelou as the only poets to have read at a presidential inauguration. Williams had known Clinton since the early '70s, when they were both professors at the University of Arkansas.

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