Dec. 6, 2005

You Go to School to Learn

by Thomas Lux

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Poem: "You Go to School to Learn" by Thomas Lux from New & Selected Poems © Houghton Mifflin. Reprinted with permission.

You Go to School to Learn

You go to school to learn to
read and add, to someday
make some money. It—money—makes
sense: you need
a better tractor, an addition
to the gameroom, you prefer
to buy your beancurd by the barrel.
There's no other way to get the goods
you need. Besides, it keeps people busy
working—for it.
It's sensible and, therefore, you go
to school to learn (and the teacher,
having learned, gets paid to teach you) how
to get it. Fine. But:
you're taught away from poetry
or, say, dancing (That's nice, dear,
but there's no dough in it
). No poem
ever bought a hamburger, or not too many. It's true,
and so, every morning—it's still dark!—
you see them, the children, like angels
being marched off to execution,
or banks. Their bodies luminous
in headlights. Going to school.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Susannah Moodie, born Susannah Strickland in Suffolk, England (1803). She grew up in a middle class English family and was accustomed to ordinary life, but as a young woman, she married an adventurous man who had traveled around Africa, and the two of them sailed off to live in the backwoods of Canada, which at the time was still wild country.

She had thought that life in the new colony would be exciting, but in fact she endured extremely harsh winters, malaria, and the economic depression of the 1830's. Her family in England often sent her fancy dresses and dancing shoes, which were completely useless to her in the wilderness. She decided that someone needed to write about the reality of pioneer life to warn other people away from it. But in the course of writing about her experiences, she found that she actually loved her adopted country.

Her book Roughing it in the Bush, (1852) became a classic of early Canadian literature. Today most children in Canada read that book, the way most American children read Little House in the Big Woods.

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, born in Middlesex, England (1893). As a child, Warner loved listening to her mother's stories about growing up in India. She said, "[My mother's memory was] this astonishing storehouse, full of scents and terrors, flowers, tempests, monkeys, beggars winding worms out of their feet." When she became a writer, Warner tried to write fiction that would reproduce the feeling she got from her mother's stories, of something fantastic emerging from something ordinary.

Her first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), was about a woman who makes a deal with the Devil and becomes a witch in order to get away from her restrictive family. She wrote The Cat's Cradle Book (1940), about a woman who believes that cats crawl into the beds of children at night to tell them fairytales, and The Kingdoms of Elfin (1977), about a magical world where women are the rulers.

It's the birthday of poet (Alfred) Joyce Kilmer, born in New Brunswick, New Jersey (1886). He was a struggling poet, working as a writer of definitions for the Standard Dictionary, when he got a chance to hike through the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. When he got home, he wrote a poem, trying to express the beauty of what he saw in the forest. He called the poem "Trees." It begins, "I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree" and ends with the lines, "Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree."

He never wrote anything else that got so much attention, but "Trees" is still incredibly popular. It was set to music and memorized by millions of people across America.

It's the birthday of lyricist Ira Gershwin, born Israel Gershvin on the East Side of New York City (1896). He's considered one of the great lyricists of the twentieth century, best known for writing the lyrics to songs like "I've Got Rhythm" (1930) and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (1937). He collaborated on many musicals, including Funny Face (1927), Strike Up the Band! (1930), and Porgy and Bess (1935).

After his brother died of a brain tumor in 1937, Ira took a break from songwriting for four years, but he eventually came back and worked with other composers like Jerome Kern and Kurt Weill.

He wrote,

They're writing songs of love—but not for me
A lucky star's above—but not for me
With love to lead the way I've found more clouds of gray
Than any Russian play could guarantee."

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




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