Dec. 22, 2004

A Singing Voice

by Kenneth Rexroth

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: : "A Singing Voice" by Kenneth Rexroth, from Sacramental Acts © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission.

A Singing Voice

Once, camping on a high bluff
Above the Fox River, when
I was about fourteen years
Old, on a full moonlit night
Crowded with whippoorwills and
Frogs, I lay awake long past
Midnight watching the moon move
Through the half drowned stars. Suddenly
I heard, far away on the warm
Air a high clear soprano,
Purer than the purest boy's
Voice, singing, "Tuck me to sleep
In my old 'Tucky home."
She was in an open car
Speeding along the winding
Dipping highway beneath me.
A few seconds later
An old touring car full of
Boys and girls rushed by under
Me, the soprano rising
Full and clear and now close by
I could hear the others singing
Softly behind her voice. Then
Rising and falling with the
Twisting road the song closed, soft
In the night. Over thirty
Years have gone by but I have
Never forgotten. Again
And again, driving on a
Lonely moonlit road, or waking
In a warm murmurous night,
I hear that voice singing that
Common song like an
Angelic memory.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1894 that a Jewish officer in the French army named Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason in a trial that became one of the most divisive events in European history. At the time, Jewish people were more integrated into European life than they had ever been, but anti-Semitism was also on the rise. The word "anti-Semitism" had actually been invented just fifteen years before Dreyfus was arrested. An anti-Semitic political party had recently won several seats in the German parliament, and an anti-Semitic newspaper in Paris had a circulation of 200,000.

The French War Minister had recently been under attack for supposedly letting "Jews and spies" into the army. When it came out that someone in the army had been passing secrets to the German government, Dreyfus was accused of the crime because he was the highest-ranking Jewish soldier. He was convicted after a four-day trial. In a ceremony before his sentencing, he was led out to the barracks square where the badges, stripes and medals were all ripped from his uniform. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on a tiny island off the coast of South America, where he was the only prisoner and the guards were forbidden to speak to him.

Back in Paris, a number of officers soon realized that the actual traitor was a man named Esterhazy, and Dreyfus that had been framed. But no one in the Army was willing to admit that they had done anything wrong. Word of the injustice leaked out and eventually reached Emile Zola, the most famous writer in France. He had just finished writing a 20 volume series of novels, and he was feeling exhausted by fiction. When he heard about the falsely convicted Dreyfus, he saw the scandal as a chance to write about something real, to take real action in the world.

So he published an open letter to the President on the front page of one of the major newspapers in France, detailing all the evidence that Dreyfus had been unjustly convicted. The headline for the article was "J'accuse," which means "I accuse." It's been called the most famous front page in the history of newspapers. 300,000 copies were sold in one day. The article was reprinted in newspapers throughout France and around the world.

At the time, journalists in Europe didn't casually accuse their governments of wrongdoing. By making such accusations in print, Zola was exposing himself to the threat of prosecution, and he eventually had to flee the country or go to prison. Henry James said, "[It was] one of the most courageous things ever done."

The Dreyfus Affair, as it became known, tore France apart. Everyone in the country felt as though they had to choose sides. People called themselves "Dreyfusards" or "anti-Dreyfusards." Dreyfusards saw the conviction of Dreyfus as a symbol of all the corruption and injustice in the French government. Anti-Dreyfusards saw Dreyfus as a symbol of the Jews trying to destroy civilization.

There were artists and writers on both sides of the debate. Manet, Pissarro, and Monet were for Dreyfus. Cézanne, Rodin, Renoir and Degas were all against. Marcel Proust, Anatole France and Mallarme were among the writers for Dreyfus. Valery and Jules Verne were against.

The affair caused rifts within families. People fought duals over it. There was talk of civil war. Anti-Semitic groups led riots and smashed Jewish shop-fronts, attacked synagogues, and desecrated Jewish graveyards. The writer François Mauriac said that his father named his chamber pot "Zola."

Eventually, Dreyfus was called back from exile for a second trial, and it was the most thoroughly reported event up to that point in history. 300 journalists attended the trial, six telegraph wires were installed in Paris for foreign correspondents, and on the first day of the trial 650,000 words were transmitted over the telegraph wire.

When Dreyfus finally appeared in public, the crowds of people were shocked how slight and unassuming he was. They couldn't believe that the man at the center of such a great drama could be so ordinary. One journalist said he looked like a pencil salesman. He later said that he never believed he had been singled out, but just that he was the victim of a mistake. He was convicted again in his second trial, but the President gave him a pardon. The French army didn't publicly acknowledge his innocence until 1995.

One of the journalists who covered the Dreyfus Affair was a Jewish man named Theodor Herzl, who was so disgusted by the anti-Semitism he witnessed that he came to believe Jews would never be accepted in Europe. He began advocating for the creation of a Jewish state, and his idea eventually led to the creation of Israel.

It's the birthday of the bohemian poet Kenneth Rexroth, born in South Bend, Indiana (1905). His father was a wholesale drug salesman, and Rexroth was offered a position in the business and that would have eventually made him one of the top executives. He spent a couple days thinking about that job offer and finally decided that he'd rather try to go off and become some kind of artist.

He wasn't sure what kind of artist he wanted to be, but in the 1920's he was drawn to the artistic community in Chicago's West Side, where speakeasies called the Dill Pickle Club and the Wind Blew Inn were full of politics, theater, jazz and poetry. It was there that Kenneth Rexroth became one of the first poets to try reading his poetry to the accompaniment of jazz music.

Then he got involved in left-wing politics and traveled around the country, speaking from soapboxes for the Industrial Workers of the World, supporting himself by horse-wrangling, sheep-herding, and selling pamphlets that promised a cure for constipation.

He eventually settled in San Francisco, and California changed the way he wrote poetry. His early poems had been full of references to Greek mythology and philosophy, but after his arrival in California, he began to write poems about camping trips and fly fishing and love affairs, in addition to politics.

In the 1950's, San Francisco became the destination for lots of young poets and Rexroth invited them all over to his house, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gary Snyder. He became a mentor to them, and it was he who helped organize the famous 1955 Six Gallery reading where many of the original Beat Poets first read their work to the public. Rexroth became known as the godfather of the Beat Generation.

Kenneth Rexroth published more than fifty more books of poetry and criticism in his lifetime, including The Signature of All Things (1950) and Saucy Limericks and Christmas Cheer (1980). The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth came out in 2002.

Kenneth Rexroth said, "I've never understood why I'm [considered] a member of the avant-garde...I [just] try to say, as simply as I can, the simplest and most profound experiences of my life."

And, "Man thrives where angels would die of ecstasy and where pigs would die of disgust."

It's the birthday of the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, born in Head Tide, Maine (1869). One of the most popular poets of his lifetime, he is remembered for a few short poems, which he said were "pickled in anthological brine," including "Richard Cory," "Miniver Cheevy," and "Mr. Flood's Party."

His father was an extremely practical business man who managed to retire when he was fifty-one years old. He encouraged each of his sons to follow a different career path: medicine, business, and science, but Edwin Arlington Robinson, who was the youngest boy in the family, said, "[As a young man] I realized...that I was doomed, or elected, or sentenced for life, to the writing of poetry."

Unlike many poets, who have to work all manner odd jobs in order to support themselves, Robinson rarely did anything in his life other than write poetry. Before he made a name for himself as a poet, he was known in his hometown as an idler and a failure. The only job he ever kept for more than a few months was a job at a customs house given to him by Theodore Roosevelt, who admired his poetry, and he wasn't required to do any work. Even after he began to support himself with his poetry, he didn't get married, he didn't travel, he didn't teach or give public readings.

Robinson said, "The man who fixes on something definite in life that he must do, at the expense of everything else...has got something that should be recognized as the Inner Fire. For him, that is the Gleam, the Vision and the Word! He'd better follow it. The greatest adventure he'll ever have on this side is following where it leads."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show