Sep. 17, 2004


by Carl Dennis

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Poem: "Invitation" by Carl Dennis, from New and Selected Poems © Penguin. Reprinted with permission.


This is your invitation to the Ninth-Grade Play
At Jackson Park Middle School
8:00 P.M., November 17, 1947.
Macbeth, authored by Shakespeare
And directed by Mr. Grossman and Mrs. Silvio
With scenery from Miss Ferguson's art class.

A lot of effort has gone into it.
Dozens of students have chosen to stay after school
Week after week with their teachers
Just to prepare for this one evening,
A gift to lift you a moment beyond the usual.
Even if you've moved away, you'll want to return.
Jackson Park, in case you've forgotten, stands
At the end of Jackson Street at the top of the hill.
Doubtless you recall that Macbeth is about ambition.
This is the play for you if you've been tempted
To claw your way to the top. If you haven't been,
It should make you feel grateful.
Just allow time to get lost before arriving.
So many roads are ready to take you forward
Into the empty world to come, misty with promises.
So few will lead you back to what you've missed.

Just get an early start.
Call in sick to the office this once.
Postpone your vacation a day or two.
Prepare to find the road neglected,
The street signs rusted, the school dark,
The doors locked, the windows broken.
This is where the challenge comes in.

Do you suppose our country would have been settled
If the pioneers had worried about being lonely?

Somewhere the students are speaking the lines
You can't remember. Somewhere, days before that,
This invitation went out, this one you're reading
On your knees in the attic, the contents of a trunk
Piled beside you. Forget about your passport.
You don't need to go to Paris just yet.
Europe will seem even more beautiful
Once you complete the journey you begin today.

Literary Notes:

On this day in 1787, the U. S. Constitution was completed and signed by a majority of delegates attending the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. The State House (where the Declaration of Independence was also signed) was filled with representatives from every existing state, except Rhode Island. The oldest member of the convention was Benjamin Franklin (81), of Pennsylvania, called the "Sage of the Constitutional Convention." The youngest was Jonathan Dayton (26), of New Jersey. The majority of those present had studied law, and there were soldiers, planters, educators, ministers, doctors, financiers and merchants.

George Washington was chosen unanimously to preside over the convention. It began on May 25, 1787, and it took fewer than one hundred working days to frame the Constitution. A Committee of Detail was named to write a draft. It was finished on August 6 and included a Preamble and 23 articles. On September 8, a Committee of Style was appointed to revise the draft, which was finished in four days.

The Constitution began with the Preamble, drafted by a man from the Bronx named Gouverneur Morris: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Once the document was completed, it was rewritten prior to its signing by an assistant clerk of the Pennsylvania State Assembly named Jacob Shallus. He was paid $30. to transcribe and engross the words of the Constitution. It was four sheets long, each measuring 28 3/4 in. by 23 5/8 in. The Constitution has 4,534 words, including the signatures of the 39 deputies who signed it. It takes about half an hour to read.

On February 2, 1790, about nine months after George Washington was inaugurated as President, our government began operating under the Constitution of the U. S. Two hundred and ten years after its signing, in 1997, Constitution Day was created, on which day the Preamble is recited in celebration of the work of these men.

It's the birthday of Ken Kesey, born in La Junta, Colorado (1935). He's best known as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He grew up in Oregon—swimming, fishing, and riding the rapids on the Oregon River with his brother, Chuck. He was a wrestler and a boxer and was voted "most likely to succeed" in his high school graduating class.

Kesey went to Stanford University, where he studied creative writing. At the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park, he earned $75 a day as a subject in experiments on the effects of LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs. He stayed on as a night attendant in the mental ward, the basis for his first and most famous novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962).

In 1975, Pauline Kael wrote (about Kesey's book), "The novel preceded the university turmoil, Vietnam, drugs, the counter-culture ... it contained the essence of the whole period of revolutionary politics going psychedelic ..."

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was made into a film in 1975 and won five Oscars the following year. Kesey wrote two other novels, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), and Sailor Song, which was not published until 1992. He died in November 2001.

Ken Kesey said, "The thing about writers is that they never seem to get any better than their first work ... This bothers me a lot. You look back and their last work is no improvement on their first. I feel I have an obligation to improve, and I worry about that."

He also said, "You can't really be strong until you see a funny side to things."

And, "The trouble with super heroes is what to do between phone booths."

And, "I'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph."

It's the birthday of doctor and poet William Carlos Williams, born in Rutherford, New Jersey (1883). He studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and became a doctor. He said, "There are few things in life that one comes to want to do as one grows older, apart from turning over a little cash...I've been writing...ever since I started to study medicine...Both seem necessary to me. One gets me out among neighbors, the other permits me to express what I've been turning over in my mind as I go along."

Williams wrote many books of poetry, and a biography of his mother, Yes, Mrs. Williams (1959), who lived with Williams after his father died in 1918 until her own death in 1949.

He said, "I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it."

Williams is best known for his shorter poems like "The Red Wheelbarrow" (1962):

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

It's the birthday of poet Carl Dennis, born in 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri. Dennis grew up in the Midwest, where he began to write poetry as a teenager. He graduated in 1961 from the University of Minnesota. He went to Berkeley, and later took a job teaching at the State University of New York in Buffalo. His colleagues encouraged him to pursue his own interests in poetry.

"I came into a world where there was a poetry reading every night," he said. "I found that writing poetry...was the thing that gave me most pleasure, the thing that I felt most alive when I was doing. So ... I wanted to do as much of it as I could."

He wrote eight books of poetry, including The Near World (1985), The Outskirts of Troy (1988), and Ranking the Wishes (1997). In 2001, Dennis won the Pulitzer Prize for his eighth book, Practical Gods (2001).

Carl Dennis said, "The poetry I admire most tries to relate society to solitude, common life to privileged life, and hope to memory."

It's the birthday of novelist and movie playwright William Wister Haines, born in Des Moines, Iowa (1908). He is often called the author of the first important literary work about World War II. Command Decision (1947) was about the bombing of German plane factories. Haines wrote it first as a play but found no interest from producers, so he turned it into a novel. When that version proved successful, it was turned back into the stage drama he originally intended. The Broadway hit opened Oct. 1, 1947, and ran to Sept. 18, 1948, for a total of 409 performances. A year later, it became a movie starring Clark Gable.

Haines' mother was Ella Wister Haines, an author of mysteries and serial stories, many of which appeared in The Des Moines Register. Her brother was Owen Wister, author of the 1902 novel, The Virginian, which set the standard for the Western genre.

William Wister Haines' first novel was Slim (1934). The book was made into a movie in 1937 starring Henry Fonda and Dubuque-born Margaret Lindsay. Haines' other film credits include The Texans (1938), Beyond Glory (1948), The Wings of Eagles (1957)—a John Wayne film, and Torpedo Run (1958).

William Wister Haines said, "Don't be afraid to ask dumb questions. They're more easily handled than dumb mistakes."

On this day in 1862, 23,000 men from the Union and Confederate armies were killed or wounded at the Battle of Antietam, in the fields near Sharpsburg, Maryland. It's known as the "bloodiest day in American History."

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




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