Oct. 7, 2006

School Prayer

by Diane Ackerman

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Poem: "School Prayer" by Diane Ackerman from I Praise My Destroyer. © Vintage Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

School Prayer

In the name of the daybreak
and the eyelids of morning
and the wayfaring moon
and the night when it departs,

I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.

In the name of the sun and its mirrors
and the day that embraces it
and the cloud veils drawn over it
and the uttermost night
and the male and the female
and the plants bursting with seed
and the crowning seasons
of the firefly and the apple,

I will honor all life
—wherever and in whatever form
it may dwell—on Earth my home,
and in the mansions of the stars.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, (books by this author) born Diane Fink in Waukegan, Illinois (1948). A writer who has always been interested in the outside world more than her own life, she wrote her first book of poetry, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (1976), entirely about astronomy. She has since written many other poems about science, as well as cattle farming, flying an airplane, and soccer. She became a journalist as well, specializing in essays about animals, and she once put a bat on top of her head to see if it would really get tangled in her hair. It didn't, but she described how it coughed gently.

She is best known for her book A Natural History of the Senses (1990), a collection of wide-ranging essays about her own thoughts and experiences of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.

On this day in 1955, poet Allen Ginsberg (books by this author) read his poem "Howl" for the first time at a poetry reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco. He had graduated from Columbia University back in 1948, and hadn't been having an easy time figuring out what to do with himself. He'd gotten involved with a bohemian crowd that included Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, but the same crowd also included hardcore criminals. One night, he was out with a friend in a stolen car, and they got caught by the police. His friend was sent to jail, but Ginsberg wound up in a mental hospital.

On his first day in the hospital, Ginsberg met a man named Carl Solomon, and the two became instant friends. Carl had been committed to the hospital when he'd shown up at the front door demanding to be lobotomized, because he didn't see any point in having a brain in American society. He and Ginsberg spent their time in the hospital discussing French avant-garde poetry and Dostoyevsky. Ginsberg thought Carl Solomon was one of the most brilliant people he'd ever met, and he decided that if this man was in a mental hospital, then there was definitely something wrong with America.

When he got out of the hospital, Ginsberg worked a series of respectable jobs, doing market research for advertising companies. He eventually wound up in San Francisco, where he spent his nights living like a bohemian with his friends, but he kept going to the same respectable job during the day.

In the spring of 1954, Ginsberg suggested to his boss that he be replaced with an IBM computer, and his boss took the advice. Ginsberg knew he'd have six months of unemployment pay to live on, so he decided to make the most of it. One afternoon that August, he sat down at his typewriter with the goal of writing down whatever came into his head as quickly as he could. For some reason, he thought of Carl Solomon, the guy he'd met at the mental hospital, and he began to type the famous opening line, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked."

He wrote the whole first section of the poem that afternoon, cataloguing the lives and experiences of all his bohemian friends who hadn't fit in with contemporary society. But he kept coming back to his friend Carl Solomon. At the top of the first page of the poem, he wrote in pink pencil, "Howl for Carl Solomon." He later revised and greatly expanded the poem, and shortened the title to the single word "Howl."

Ginsberg had never given a public reading before, but he decided to debut his new poem at a reading with five other poets, at the Six Gallery, a converted auto-repair shop on the corner of Union and Fillmore in downtown San Francisco. Allen Ginsburg was the second-to-last reader, and when he took the stage he was a little nervous. But after a few lines of the poem, he began to chant the words like a preacher, and the audience began to cheer at the end of every line.

One of the people in the audience that night was the poet and upstart publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He went on to publish Howl and Other Poems (1956), and an obscenity scandal turned Ginsberg into one of the most famous poets in America.

It's the birthday of the Australian novelist Thomas M. Keneally, (books by this author) born in Sydney (1935). He's the author of Schindler's Ark (1982), also published as Schindler's List. It tells the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved more than 1,300 Jews from the Nazis. Of the book, he said: "... when I got the idea for Schindler I was on my way back from a festival on Australian films ... and I came back through America to see publishers. [I had to buy a briefcase], and that's how I came up with the Schindler story: by buying a briefcase from a fellow who owned a luggage store in Beverly Hills who was a Schindler survivor."

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