May 9, 2005

A History of Modern Poetry

by David Lehman

MONDAY, 9 MAY, 2005
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Poem: "A History of Modern Poetry" from When a Woman Loves a Man by David Lehman © Scribner. Reprinted with permission.

A History of Modern Poetry

The idea was to have a voice of your own,
distinctive, sounding like nobody else's
The result was that everybody sounded alike
The new idea was to get rid of ideas
and substitute images especially the image
of a rock so everyone wrote a poem
with the image of a rock in it capped with snow
or unadorned this was in the early 1970s
a few years before Pet Rocks were a Christmas craze
showing that poetry was ahead of its time as usual
and poetry had moved on
the new idea was to make language the subject
because language was an interference pattern
there was no such thing as unmediated discourse
and the result was that everybody sounded alike

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who gave us Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie, born in Angus, Scotland (1860).

It's the birthday of the poet Mona Van Duyn, born in Waterloo, Iowa (1921).

It's the birthday of the poet Charles Simic, born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (1938). He came to this country as a child. He grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. He went to work as a proofreader at the Chicago Sun Times, then went into the U.S. Army.

He published his first book of poems What the Grass Says in 1967. It was Charles Simic, who said, "Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them. We are always at the beginning, eternal apprentices."

It was on this day in 1960 that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, approved the use of a first birth control pill. How it came about was a long story, but Margaret Sanger was a crucial character in it.

She was a woman who worked as a nurse on the lower east side of New York City. Her own mother had given birth to eleven children, suffered seven miscarriages, and Margaret Sanger came to believe that women needed the right to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

She published a pamphlet in 1914 called Family Limitation and opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in the same year in Brooklyn. It was illegal to advocate the use of contraception back then, and she was arrested. And her arrest drew attention, and it enabled her to get the laws changed.

By the 1950s, Margaret Sanger was trying to get scientists to develop a pill that might stop ovulation. She got some money from a woman named Katharine McCormick to fund a research project, and she found a scientist named Gregory Pincus who was interested in the effect of hormones on ovulation; and a gynecologist in Boston named John Rock, who agreed to do the clinical trials.

The hormone progesterone was synthesized from a wild yam. It was tested on rabbits, run through clinical trials, approved for use as a method of birth control. It was one of the first times a drug had been approved by the FDA for anything other than to cure an illness or relieve pain. The official name was Enovid-10, but it was known simply as "the pill."

Less than two years after it came on the market in 1962, 1.2 million women were using it every day. By 1968, the number had jumped to 12 million. Today it's estimated that of women born after 1945 in America, 80 percent have at one time or another taken the pill. It did not end overpopulation, as some people thought it would. It did not end unwanted pregnancies. About 50 percent of all pregnancies in the U.S. today are unplanned.

Margaret Sanger was 81 years old when the FDA approved the birth control pill in 1960. Her son and her granddaughter read about it in the paper. They went to Sanger's house. She was eating breakfast in bed. When they told her what had happened, she said, "It's certainly about time."

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