Oct. 20, 2006

Samurai Song

by Robert Pinsky

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Poem: "Samurai Song" by Robert Pinsky, from Jersey Rain. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Samurai Song

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1892 that the city of Chicago officially dedicated the World's Columbian Exposition, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus sailing to America. Though it was formally dedicated on this day in 1892, the planning ran behind schedule, so the fair wasn't actually held until the following summer.

The area designated for the fair covered almost 700 acres along the shore of Lake Michigan, and a giant "white city" was built in the style of classical architecture. The children's book writer L. Frank Baum was one of the visitors to the fair, and used the White City as the model for his Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz (1900).

At night, everything was lit up with a string of electric lights, the first time electric lights were used on such a large scale in America. In fact in was at the Chicago World's Fair that most Americans first saw electricity in use. Among the many things first introduced to Americans at the fair were postcards, fiberglass, the zipper, the ice cream cone, Cracker Jacks, Quaker Oats, Shredded Wheat, belly dancing, spray paint, the Pledge of Allegiance, and, of course, the Ferris Wheel. It was the most successful world's fair ever held in the United States. In its half-year of existence, it drew 27 million visitors, or about half the American population at the time.

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Pinsky, (books by this author) born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1940). He's the author of many collections of poetry, including Sadness and Happiness (1975), The Want Bone (1990), and Jersey Rain (2000). He said, "The longer I live, the more I see there's something about reciting rhythmical words aloud—it's almost biological—that comforts and enlivens human beings."

Today is the birthday of political humorist Art Buchwald, (books by this author) born in Mount Vernon, New York (1925). This past February (2006), Buchwald was diagnosed with kidney failure. He decided he didn't want to go through dialysis, so he checked into a hospice and expected to die within a few weeks. A huge number of people came to say goodbye. He said, "You had to take a ticket like in a shopping center because there were so many people coming in. But as time went on, they kept saying, 'Wait a minute. Why are you still here?'"

For a reason doctors can't explain, Buchwald's kidneys had started working again. So he decided to write a book about the experience of getting ready to die and then not dying. It's called Too Soon to Say Goodbye, and it comes out this November. It includes eulogies that Tom Brokaw and Mike Wallace wrote in anticipation of his death, because Buchwald said, "I told them, 'I'm not going to be cheated out of a funeral.'"

Art Buchwald said, "I always wanted to get into politics, but I was never light enough to make the team."

It's the birthday of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, (books by this author) born in Charleville, France (1854). He was a wild bohemian as a young man. He hopped trains to Paris, usually without a ticket, where he lived on the street and often wound up in jail. He had a habit of taking off his clothes and shouting obscenities in public, and that tended to put people off. But everyone agreed that his poetry was the work of a genius, and the poet Paul-Marie Verlaine fell in love with him. The two had a scandalously open homosexual affair that shocked the rest of the Paris literary scene. But they had a bitter break-up, and the relationship ended when Verlaine tried to murder Rimbaud with a pistol, shooting him in the arm. Verlaine went to prison and Rimbaud went back to his mother, and wrote one of his last books, A Season in Hell (1873). He then gave up on poetry and took off to wander around the world, winding up in Africa, where he became an arms dealer.

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