Nov. 1, 2004

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

by William Stafford

Monday, 1 NOVEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "A Ritual to Read to Each Other" by William Stafford, from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems © Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give - yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is All Saints Day, and Pope Julius II chose this day in 1512 to display Michelangelo's paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for the first time. The chapel itself was built about twenty-five years earlier, and various Renaissance painters were commissioned to paint frescos on the walls. It was Pope Julius II who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling.

Michelangelo was 33 years old at the time, and he tried to point out to the Pope that he was known for his sculpture, not his painting, but the Pope wouldn't listen. So Michelangelo used his skills as a sculptor to make the two-dimensional ceiling look like a series of three-dimensional scenes - a technique that was relatively new at the time. It took him four years to finish the job, between 1508 and 1512. He worked from a scaffold 60 feet above the floor, and he covered about 10,000 square feet of surface. Every day fresh plaster was laid over a part of the ceiling and Michelangelo had to finish painting before the plaster dried.

For several centuries, art historians had believed that Michelangelo was more interested in form than in color, because the frescos he painted were so dark and dull. Then, over a ten-year period during the 1980's, a group of restoration experts removed hundreds of years of dirt, smoke, and varnish from the Sistine Chapel's ceiling, and it turned out that the frescos were some of the most colorful paintings of the whole Renaissance.

The German writer Wolfgang Von Goethe wrote, "We cannot know what a human being can achieve until we have seen [the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel]."

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Stephen Crane, born in Newark, New Jersey (1871). He's remembered as one of America's greatest writers, even though died before he was thirty years old. He came from a family of Methodist preachers, and he said, "[They were] of the old ambling-nag, saddle-bag, exhorting kind." His father was known as the author of the book Popular Amusements (1869), which warned parents against the evils of such activities as gambling and baseball.

Stephen Crane fell in love with baseball as an eleven year old, after his father's death. His mother moved the family to Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Crane spent all his summers roaming the town, looking for any pickup baseball games he could join.

He played catcher on his prep-school team. At the time, baseball catchers wore almost no protective gear, and the catcher's mitt was basically a gardening glove with a little extra padding. Stephen Crane became famous within his prep school league for being able to catch anything, even bare handed. One of his teammates said, "He played baseball with fiendish glee."

His first serious writing was sports coverage of the games he played in for his high school newspaper. He went on to study engineering in college, but he said, "I found engineering not at all to my taste. I preferred baseball." He might have gone from college baseball to professional baseball, but he dropped out of college to become a writer instead.

Crane had started cutting classes to spend all his time in New York City and he was fascinated by what he found there. He said, "When I ought to have been at recitations I was studying faces on the streets, and when I ought to have been studying my next day's lessons I was watching the trains roll in and out of the Central Station."

He began writing for New York City tabloids while he was still a teenager. His first novel Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893) was too vulgar for any of the publishers at the time, so he borrowed money from his brother to have it self-published. Booksellers wouldn't stock it, so he gave away about a hundred copies and burned the rest. He said, "I cannot see, why people hate ugliness in art. Ugliness is just a matter of treatment."

It had been about twenty years since the Civil War ended, and all the newspapers were filled with the reminiscences of Civil War veterans. Crane decided to write a Civil War story himself, though he knew almost nothing about the war. He gathered all the books he could find on the subject and wrote his novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895).

That novel made him famous. It was called the most realistic war novel ever written, and no one could believe that its author was a twenty-four year old who'd never been in battle himself. Civil War veterans wrote into newspapers claiming that they knew Stephen Crane; they'd fought beside him in various Civil War battles. When the writer Hamlin Garland asked him how he'd conveyed the battlefield scenes so vividly, Stephen Crane said he'd just drawn on his own experience as an athlete.

Crane spent the rest of his life working as a war correspondent. On New Year's Eve in 1896, he was on a boat to Cuba to cover the Spanish American War when the boat hit a sandbar and sank. He barely survived in a small dingy with three other men, and spent 30 hours at sea, eventually jumping ship and swimming to shore. The event damaged his health and led to his death a few years later, but it also inspired his short story "The Open Boat" (1898) which many consider to be his masterpiece.

"The Open Boat" begins, "None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks...A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats."

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