Apr. 30, 2004

The Two-Headed Calf

by Laura Gilpin

FRIDAY, 30 APRIL, 2004
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Poem: "The Two-Headed Calf," by Laura Gilpin, from The Hocus Pocus of the Universe. © Doubleday and Co. Reprinted with permission.

The Two-Headed Calf

Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum.

But tonight he is alive and in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass. And
as he stares into the sky, there are
twice as many stars as usual.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of singer and songwriter Willie Nelson, born in the small farming community of Abbott, Texas (1933). He was raised by his grandparents and aunts during the Great Depression, and earned his keep by picking cotton. His grandfather gave him his first guitar lessons. After high school, he supported himself going door-to-door selling Bibles, encyclopedias, vacuum cleaners, and sewing machines.

At night, Nelson wrote songs and performed at honky-tonks with names like the County Dump and the Bloody Bucket, where the performers had to be shielded by chicken wire from flying cans and bottles. In 1959 he wrote "Night Life," a song that was eventually recorded by more than seventy artists and sold over thirty million copies. He only made a hundred and fifty dollars from the song, because he sold the copyright, but he used that money to buy a second-hand Buick, and he drove in that Buick to Nashville, hoping to become a country music star.

He spent the next decade writing songs for other country singers, including the song "Crazy" (1961), recorded by Patsy Cline. He grew increasingly frustrated by the music industry, and by 1971 he had divorced his second wife and lost his investment in a failed pig farm, and his house had burned to the ground. He went back to Texas and started recording his own albums. In 1975, he recorded Red Headed Stranger, a concept album about a preacher on the run after murdering his wife and her new lover. At the time, many country singers were backed by orchestras and backup singers, but Nelson recorded the album with just his acoustic guitar and a few other instruments. No one thought it would be a hit, but it sold millions of copies, and inspired a traditional country music revival.

It's the birthday of poet, critic, and nature writer Annie Dillard, born Ann Doak in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1945). When she was a kid, she started reading Modern Library editions of classic literature, hoping to find something she enjoyed as much as Mad Magazine. She thought Freud's Interpretation of Dreams was okay, but she hated James Joyce's Ulysses.

She went to college in Virginia, where she studied creative writing. She got married and then settled down in suburban Roanoke, where she started writing and publishing poems. In the backyard of her house, there was a tiny stream called Tinker Creek. After she survived a near fatal case of pneumonia, she started sitting by the creek every day, watching the ordinary bugs and birds and frogs and minnows, and writing about them in her journal. Along with her observations of the creek, she also began jotting down odd bits of information, interesting quotations, scientific data, and theological speculations. She eventually combined all of the bits and pieces in the book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). She's gone on to write many other books of essays, including The Writing Life (1989), and For the Time Being (1999).

It's the birthday of John Crowe Ransom, born in Pulaski, Tennessee (1888). He's best known as a poet and literary critic, and as the founder of the Kenyon Review, but he started out as a passionate literature professor. He studied Latin and Greek in college and taught high school Latin for a while, but then got a job teaching English at Vanderbilt University.

As a professor at Vanderbilt, Ransom taught several young men who would become important American poets, including Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. At first, his students thought he was a terrible teacher because he forced them to read literature so slowly, sometimes spending an entire hour looking at a single line of poetry. The young men eventually grew to think of Ransom as a mentor, almost a father, and they invited him to join a small group of students who discussed literature and philosophy in their spare time. They called themselves The Fugitive Group, and in 1922 they began to publish an influential literary magazine called The Fugitive.

The poems Ransom contributed to the magazine were collected in the books Chills and Fevers (1924) and Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927). He went on to found The Kenyon Review, and he became one of the most important literary critics of the twentieth century. He was one of the first people to argue that American schools should be teaching American literature, not just European, and that students should be reading modern poetry, not just the classics. He also tried to teach people how to read literature, in books such as The New Criticism (1941).

Ransom believed that art provides the best kind of knowledge, superior to any scientific description of reality, and he argued that a work of literature should only be understood in terms of itself. He thought images in poems were more important than ideas; he wrote, "An idea is derivative and tamed. The image is in the natural or wild state, and it has to be discovered there, not put there, obeying its own law and none of ours."

It was on this day in 1939 that the New York World's Fair opened to the public. The idea for the fair came from a group of businessmen who wanted to revitalize the economy. It was the height of the Great Depression, and Mayor La Guardia decided that the theme of the fair would be The World of Tomorrow. He said, "While other countries are in the twilight of an unhappy age, we are approaching the dawn of a new day."

Planners built the fairground on Flushing Meadows, which had been a garbage dump. The exposition's focal point was the giant tower and sphere, Trylon and Perisphere, which were painted so white that on sunny days people had to squint to look at them. People entered the Trylon by riding up one of the first escalators in the world.

Many recent inventions were marketed at the fair, including television. The first ever public television broadcast in New York City showed President Franklin D. Roosevelt giving a speech at the opening of the fair. AT&T had an exhibit where people could make some of their first long-distance telephone calls. Westinghouse had an exhibit with a robot named Electro and his dog Sparko. The fair's Medicine and Public Health Buildings showed a machine that kept an isolated chicken heart beating.

There were exhibits for air conditioners, refrigerators, FM radio, fluorescent lighting, and washing machines. At the dishwasher exhibit, audience members watched a dishwashing contest between Mrs. Modern, who used a dishwasher, and Mrs. Drudge, who washed dishes by hand. Mrs. Modern always won the contest, and she always looked as neat and refreshed as when she started.

There were prototypes of the early helicopter, called an autogiro, which was basically a plane with a propeller on top. There were dioramas showing model utopian cities of the future, where everyone would soon have fax machines and videophones. Unfortunately, most Americans couldn't afford to go to the fair, and those who did couldn't afford to buy the new inventions advertised there. By the time it closed, in the autumn of 1940, the war in Europe was big news. The 4,000 pounds of steel in the Trylon and Perisphere were eventually melted down to make military equipment. But in the 1950s and 1960s, most of the inventions and designs introduced by the New York World's Fair became mainstays of postwar America.

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