Jan. 10, 2005

High Water Mark

by David Shumate

Monday, 10 JANUARY, 2005
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Poem: "High Water Mark" by David Shumate, from High Water Mark © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.

High Water Mark

It's hard to believe, but at one point the water rose to this
level. No one had seen anything like it. People on rooftops.
Cows and coffins floating through the streets. Prisoners
carrying invalids from their rooms. The barkeeper consoling
the preacher. A coon hound who showed up a month later
forty miles downstream. And all that mud it left behind. You
never forget times like those. They become part of who you
are. You describe them to your grandchildren. But they think
it's just another tale in which animals talk and people live
forever. I know it's not the kind of thing you ought to say...
But I wouldn't mind seeing another good flood before I die.
It's been dry for decades. Next time I think I'll just let go and
drift downstream and see where I end up.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Philip Levine, born in Detroit (1928). He's the author of many collections of poetry, including What Work Is (1991), The Simple Truth (1994), and The Mercy (1999). He discovered writing before he really knew what it was. He said, "As a boy of fourteen, I took long walks and talked to the moon and stars, and night after night I would reshape and polish these talks, but the moon and stars never answered."

After college, he tried getting a job in advertising, but he couldn't stand it, so he supported himself working in various auto factories around Detroit. Looking around at the other men in the factories, he realized none of them had a voice. Nobody was speaking for them or writing for them. He said, "As young people will... I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them, and that's what my life would be. And sure enough I've gone and done it. Or I've tried anyway."

Philip Levine said, "In a curious way, I'm not much interested in language. In my ideal poem, no words are noticed. You look through them into a vision of... just see the people, the place."

It was on this day in 1776 that Thomas Paine published his political pamphlet Common Sense arguing for American independence from Great Britain. At the time of the publication, Paine had been living in America only two years. He'd grown up in England, where he'd struggled to earn a living as a tax collector. He saw first-hand the corruption of the British government, and had recently been fired from his job when he met Benjamin Franklin in London, who encouraged him to move to America.

He arrived just in time to see the colonies rebelling against problems in the British tax system similar to what he had experienced back in England. He got a job as a journalist, and he immediately began to write about the political situation. After the battle of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, he decided that the only solution to the conflict would be total independence for the American colonies. But when he expressed those ideas in his newspaper, he lost his job.

He spent the next several months traveling around Pennsylvania, going to various bars and taverns and talking to ordinary people about their opinions on American independence. He used these conversations to develop a writing style that an ordinary person could easily understand, and he used that style to write his pamphlet "Common Sense."

The pamphlet sold more than 500,000 copies, more copies than any other publication had ever sold at that time in America. It helped persuade many Americans to support revolution, and six months later, the colonies officially declared independence.

It's the birthday of the poet Robinson Jeffers, born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (1887). His father was an Old Testament scholar who taught him Greek and Latin, but from an early age he was also interested in science. He spent his free time either writing poetry or constructing homemade wings with which he attempted to fly. In college, he studied medicine, anatomy, astronomy, and forestry. He was still trying to figure out what to do for a living when he inherited enough money to support himself writing poetry, so he moved to the coast of California and built himself an observation tower so that he could observe the natural world and write about it.

His scientific studies had persuaded him that human beings were just one animal species whose time on earth would be brief, and he explored this idea in his poetry. He wrote,

"[Nature] knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve... As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from."
He was living in his tower, without electricity or plumbing, publishing his books of poetry at his own expense, when an editor chose one of his poems for an anthology of California verse. Jeffers sent the editor his new collection, Tamar and Other Poems (1924) as a thank you gift, and the editor liked it so much that he sent it around to various magazines, where it got great reviews. Jeffers sent all the copies of the book he had to New York, and they immediately sold out.

Within a year, Jeffers was hailed as a genius, compared to Sophocles and Shakespeare and Walt Whitman. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Real estate agents started using his name to sell land in Carmel, California, where he lived.

But after his initial success, he began to write long narrative poems that no one could categorize. They told stories of sex and violence, more like the novels of Faulkner than any poetry being written at the time. Critics didn't know what to make of these poems, and so by the 1940's, Jeffers had sunk back into obscurity. He's been reassessed in the last two decades as possibly one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century. A new collection of his work, The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers came out in 2001.

Robinson Jeffers wrote,

"Man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
Die blind and blacken to the heart:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems."

It's the birthday of historian Stephen E. Ambrose, born in Decatur, Illinois (1936). He was the son of a small town doctor, and he became a football star at the University of Wisconsin, where he played both offense and defense and often spent the entire sixty-minute game on the field. If he had been a little bigger, he would have considered turning pro. But after taking a class with a popular history professor on campus, he decided to devote his life to history.

He was twenty-eight years old when a small university press published his first book, Halleck: Lincoln's Chief of Staff (1962), a biography of General Henry Halleck. Only a few thousand copies of the biography were printed, and Ambrose assumed that it had only been read by the academic community. But one day he got a phone call from the former President Dwight Eisenhower, who had read his book on Halleck and liked it so much that he wanted Ambrose to be his own biographer. Ambrose wrote several about Eisenhower, including The Supreme Commander (1970) and Eisenhower: The President (1984), and those books helped him make the leap from academic to popular historian.

He went on to write many best-selling books about American history, including Band of Brothers (1992) and Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (1996). He participated in the more than 1,400 interviews of World War II veterans, collecting oral histories of the war, and he drew upon those interviews to write one of his most popular books, D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (1994). Ambrose was the founder and director of the National D-Day Museum which opened in New Orleans in 2000. He died in 2002.

Stephen Ambrose believed that he became a successful historian because he got so much practice telling stories to his students. He said, "There is nothing like standing before 50 students at 8 A.M. to start talking about an event that occurred 100 years ago, because the look on their faces is a challenge—'Let's see you keep me awake.' You learn what works and what doesn't in a hurry."

He also said, "As I sit at my computer... I think of myself as sitting around the campfire after a day on the trail, telling stories that I hope will have the members of the audience, or the readers, leaning forward just a bit, wanting to know what happens next."

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




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