Nov. 1, 2005


by Billy Collins

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Poem: "House" by Billy Collins from The Trouble With Poetry And Other Poems.© Random House, New York. Reprinted with permission.


I lie in a bedroom of a house
that was built in 1862, we were told—
the two windows still facing east
into the bright daily reveille of the sun.

The early birds are chirping,
and I think of those who have slept here before,
the family we bought the house from—
the five Critchlows—

and the engineer they told us about
who lived here alone before them,
the one who built onto the back
of the house a large glassy room with wood beams.

I have an old photograph of the house
in black and white, a few small trees,
and a curved dirt driveway,
but I do not know who lived here then.

So I go back to the Civil War
and to the farmer who built the house
and the rough stone walls
that encompass the house and run up into the woods,

he who mounted his thin wife in this room,
while the war raged to the south,
with the strength of a dairyman
or with the tenderness of a dairyman

or with both, alternating back and forth
so as to give his wife much pleasure
and to call down a son to earth
to take over the cows and the farm

when he no longer had the strength
after all the days and nights of toil and—
the sun breaking over the same horizon
into these same windows,

lighting the same bed-space where I lie
having nothing to farm, and no son,
the dead farmer and his dead wife for company,
feeling better and worse by turns.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the singer, songwriter, and novelist Kinky Friedman, born Richard Friedman, in Chicago (1944). He grew up Jewish in Texas and went on to become one of the few successful Jewish country singers with his band the Texas Jewboys. He developed a cult following, writing humorous country ballads such as "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed," and "They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore" about a fight in a bar between a Jewish man and an anti-Semite.

Then in the mid-1980's Friedman was walking down the street in New York City when he saw a woman being attacked by a mugger at an ATM machine. Friedman grabbed the man and held him until police arrived, and the next day the New York Post ran his picture on the front page with the headline, "COUNTRY SINGER PLUCKS VICTIM FROM MUGGER." The experience of crime fighting inspired Friedman to start writing mystery novels about a former country music singer named Kinky Friedman who lives with his cat and solves crimes in his spare time. His books include Elvis, Jesus and Coca-Cola (1993), and The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover (1996).

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 he died before he was thirty years old. As a young man, he considered becoming a professional baseball player. 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.

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."

After reading a series of reminiscences of Civil War veterans published in newspapers, Crane decided to write a Civil War story himself, and the result was his novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), the story of Henry Fleming, who signs up for the 304th New York regiment, hoping to experience the glory of battle that he's read about in school. But when he finally finds himself in his first actual battle, he winds up running away, wandering through the wilderness, and stumbling upon wounded soldiers and dead bodies, until he joins back up with his regiment and becomes the war hero he had hoped to be.

The Red Badge of Courage 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 in to 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). Crane died two years later of TB. He was just twenty-eight years old.

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




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