May 7, 2006

praise god, though he's no place in any

by Robert Lax

SUNDAY, 7 MAY, 2006
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Poem: "praise god, though he's no place in any" by Robert Lax from Tertium Quid. © Stride. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

praise god, though he's no place in any

praise god, though he's no place in any
astronomic seating plan,
sing still his might for still he can
wreak havoc on the race of man.
    he still can shrug the earth a bit
    to make your standing towers sit
    and quite destroy your joules and volts
    with mediocre thunder-bolts.
    he still can tear your towns apart
    while his surrealistic art
    grows grass where hitler's moustache grows
    and ferns from hirohito's toes
    fills frank sinatra's mouth with ashes
    and springs a toad from garbo's lashes
    and with some slight celestial mayhem
    destroys the shrines of martha graham
    and porter cole and coward noel
    and splits the earth from pole to pole,
    or with some ray you haven't found
    sink dante's hell-shaft under-ground.
sing still his might for still he can
wreak havoc on the race of man.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Johannes Brahms, born in Hamburg, Germany (1833). He's one of the few composers whose work was recognized while he was still alive.

It's also the birthday of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, born seven years later in Votkinsk, Russia (1840). He wrote symphonies, operas and three great ballets: Swan Lake (1876), The Nutcracker (1892), and The Sleeping Beauty (1889).

He had a tortured love life, because he was homosexual, which was illegal at the time. Under pressure, he impulsively married a young music student. The marriage was a disaster. Tchaikovsky had a mental breakdown, attempted suicide and left the country. He wrote his brother from Florence: "Only now, especially after the tale of my marriage, have I finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature."

It's the birthday of the poet Jenny Joseph, (books by this author) born in Birmingham, England (1932). She was an aspiring poet throughout her twenties, supporting herself with odd jobs. Then in 1960, when she was twenty-eight years old, she published a poem called "Warning," that began with the line, "When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple."

The poem was moderately successful at first, published in several anthologies, but then it began to spread across the world among people who don't usually read poetry. It was photocopied and passed around, stuck up on people's refrigerators. People read it at church gatherings and funerals and senior citizens' homes. It was printed on cards, T-shirts, and posters. It appeared on hundreds of thousands of websites, and in 1996, in a poll conducted by the BBC, it was voted as Britain's favorite post-war poem.

Somehow, as the poem became more and more popular, Jenny Joseph's name as the author was lost. Jenny Joseph eventually published an authorized, illustrated version of the poem in 1997, which sold thousands of copies, but her name is still mostly unknown. She has published many collections of poetry, including The Thinking Heart (1978), Persephone (1986), and Ghosts and Other Company (1996), and she is considered one of the foremost contemporary British poets.

Jenny Joseph doesn't mind that her poem is more famous than she is. When she was recently asked if she would start wearing purple anytime soon, she replied, "I can't stand purple. It doesn't suit me."

It's the birthday of the philosopher David Hume, (books by this author) born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1711). He was born at a time when Edinburgh was one of the poorest and most backward cities in Western Europe. Alcoholism was rampant. The religious climate was extremely strict. If you skipped church on the Sabbath, there was a volunteer group of religious police known as the Seizers who would grab you on the street and forcibly take you to mass. Less than fifteen years before Hume was born, an eighteen-year-old college student was put on trial for saying openly among his friends that he thought Christianity was "ill-invented nonsense." He was convicted and hanged for blasphemy.

But then David Hume came along and became a leader of what is called the "Scottish Enlightenment." Among his circle of friends and associates was Adam Smith, who invented the study of economics; Adam Ferguson, who helped invent sociology; James Hutton; who invented geology; James Watt, who developed the steam engine; Sir Walter Scott, who wrote the first great English novel; and Hugh Blair, who was the first university professor to teach a course in English literature.

David Hume's great contribution to the Scottish Enlightenment was his philosophy, laid out in his first book, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), in which he argued that it may be impossible to know anything for certain about the world. We can experience the world, but we will never fully understand it.

In 1755, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland tried to prosecute and excommunicate Hume for his skepticism about religion. It was only sixty years after a college student was hanged to death for similar charges, but the case against David Hume was dismissed.

David Hume said, "Reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness."

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




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