Oct. 20, 2004


by Carl Sandburg

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Poem: "Jerry" by Carl Sandburg, from Billy Sunday and Other Poems © Harcourt Brace & Co. Reprinted with permission.


Six years I worked in a knitting mill at a machine
And then I married Jerry, the iceman, for a change.
He weighed 240 pounds, and could hold me,
Who weighed 105 pounds, outward easily with one hand.
He came home drunk and lay on me with the breath of stale
Blowing from him and jumbled talk that didn't mean anything.
I stood it two years and one hot night when I refused him
And he struck his bare fist against my nose so it bled,
I waited till he slept, took a revolver from a bureau drawer,
Placed the end of it to his head and pulled the trigger.
From the stone walls where I am incarcerated for the natural
Of life, I proclaim I would do it again.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1892 that the city of Chicago officially dedicated the World's Columbian Exposition, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus sailing to America. Though it was formally dedicated on this day in 1892, the planning ran behind schedule, so the fair wasn't actually held until the following summer.

It was the most successful world's fair ever held in the United States. In its half-year of existence, it drew 27 million visitors, or about half the American population at the time. The novelist Hamlin Garland wrote to his parents, "Sell the cookstove if necessary and come. You must see the Fair!"

The area designated for the fair covered almost 700 acres along the shore of Lake Michigan, and a giant "white city" was built in the style of classical architecture. The buildings were also strung with electric lights and lit up at night, the first time electric lights were used on such a large scale in America. In fact in was at the Chicago World's Fair that most Americans first saw electricity in use. The children's book writer L. Frank Baum was one of the visitors to the fair, and used the White City as the model for his Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz (1900).

Among the many things first introduced to Americans at the fair were postcards, the zipper, the ice cream cone, Cracker Jack, Quaker Oats, Shredded Wheat, belly dancing, spray paint, the Pledge of Allegiance, and of course the Ferris Wheel. The Ferris Wheel was 264 feet high, carried 2000 passengers at a time, turning on a 45-foot axel—the largest single piece of steel ever forged.

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Pinsky, born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1940). He's the author of many collections of poetry, including Sadness and Happiness (1975), The Want Bone (1990) and Jersey Rain (2000).

He was the first member of his family to go to college, and his parents were a little bit disappointed that he chose to study literature. In graduate school, his mother called him every week and reminded him that there was still time to take the optician's licensing exam. But he decided not to take that exam and instead got his PhD in English and supported himself as a professor and a literary critic.

He published poetry on the side of his career as a teacher, and became known for writing spiritual poems about topics most people don't consider spiritual. In his first collection was a 17-page poem called "Essay on Psychiatrists." His second book of poetry was a book length poem called An Explanation of America (1979) which he said he wrote as a way of explaining his country to his daughter. He wrote, "[I will always feel] as if I lived / In a time when the country aged itself / As if we were a family, and some members / Had done an awful thing on a road at night, / And all of us had grown white hair, or tails."

He was named the nation's ninth Poet Laureate in 1997, and he embarked on a project to create a national audio-video archive of Americans reading their favorite poems aloud. He published a new collection of poems chosen as favorites by Americans called Invitation to Poetry, which came out this year.

Robert Pinsky said, "The longer I live, the more I see there's something about reciting rhythmical words aloud—it's almost biological—that comforts and enlivens human beings."

He also said, "The medium of poetry is not words, the medium of poetry is not lines—it is the motion of air inside the human body, coming out through the chest and the voice box and through the mouth to shape sounds that have meaning. It's bodily."

It's the birthday of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, born in Charleville, France (1854). Long before there was such a thing as rock and roll, Rimbaud was a sort of precursor to the young, rebellious, outrageous rock star. He was poetry's version of Elvis or Mick Jagger.

In high school, his teachers were astonished when he wrote poems as good as anything by Victor Hugo. He entered a regional poetry contest at the age of fifteen, where he was supposed to spend several hours composing a poem for the judges. He slept through the first three hours, then ate a meal, and wrote his poem a few minutes before time was called. His poem won the competition.

When he was sixteen, Rimbaud wrote a letter to one of his teachers, describing his poetic philosophy. He said, "The first task of any man who would be a poet is to know himself completely; he seeks his soul, inspects it, tests it, learns it...Every kind of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself; he exhausts every possible poison so that only essence remains."

Following that philosophy, Rimbaud began hopping trains to Paris, usually without a ticket, where he lived on the street and often wound up in jail. People from his hometown would bail him out, and he'd go home to his angry mother, only to run away again a few weeks later.

He began writing letters to the poet Paul Verlaine, whose work he admired, and Verlaine invited him to stay at his house. When he arrived, Rimbaud had his first masterpiece in his pocket, a poem called "The Drunken Boat" (1871), describing the journey of an empty boat as it wanders the ocean and eventually breaks apart.

Rimbaud didn't get along with Verlaine's family or his friends. He had a habit of taking off his clothes and shouting obscenities in public, and that tended to put people off. But everyone agreed that his poetry was the work of a genius and Verlaine fell in love with him. The two had a scandalously open homosexual affair that shocked the rest of the Paris literary scene. But they had a bitter break-up, and the relationship ended when Verlaine tried to murder Rimbaud with a pistol, shooting him in the arm.

Verlaine went to prison and Rimbaud went back to his mother, and wrote one of his last books A Season in Hell (1873), which some critics consider his farewell to poetry itself. He wrote, "I tried to invent new flowers, new stars, new flesh, new tongues...I who called myself angel or seer, exempt from all morality, I am returned to the soil with a duty to seek and rough reality to embrace...At last, I shall ask forgiveness for having fed on lies."

Rimbaud had been sixteen when he started publishing his poetry and he was nineteen when gave up on poetry and took off to wander around the world, winding up in Africa, where he became an arms dealer. He kept writing letters to his family, but he never wrote another poem, and never gave any hint that he missed writing it. A cult grew up in Paris around the few books of poetry he had published, and years before his death, people already referred to him as the late Arthur Rimbaud.

A new bi-lingual collection of his work, Rimbaud Complete, came out in 2002.

Arthur Rimbaud said, "The poet is truly the thief of fire."

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