Sep. 10, 2007

To Luck

by W. S. Merwin

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Poem: "To Luck" by W. S. Merwin, from Present Company. © Copper Canyon Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission.

To Luck

In the cards and at the bend in the road
we never saw you
in the womb and in the crossfire
in the numbers
whatever you had your hand in
which was everything
we were told never to put
our faith in you
to bow to you humbly after all
because in the end there was nothing
else we could do
but not to believe in you
still we might coax you with pebbles
kept warm in the hand
or coins or the relics
of vanished animals
observances rituals
not binding upon you
who make no promises
we might do such things only
not to neglect you
and risk your disfavor
oh you who are never the same
who are secret as the day when it comes
you whom we explain
as often as we can
without understanding

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of naturalist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould, (books by this author) born in New York City (1941). He was five years old when his father took him to the Museum of Natural History, and he saw his first dinosaur skeleton, a 20-foot high tyrannosaurus. He went on to study geology and paleontology and wrote his dissertation on an extinct land snail native to the Bahamas. He once said that his research on the taxonomy of the snail was of interest to about eight people in the world, but, he said, "Those eight people really care."

In 1974, he was offered a job writing a monthly column for Natural History magazine. He decided that his guiding focus in the column would be the theory of evolution, but aside from that, he would write about whatever he was interested in, from the history of Mickey Mouse to the unreliability of IQ tests. His essays were collected in books such as The Panda's Thumb (1980) and The Flamingo's Smile (1985), and he became one of the most famous scientists in America. He believed he was successful simply because he tried to be a good writer. He said, "So many scientists think that once they figure it out, that's all they have to do, and writing it up is just a chore. I never saw it that way; part of the art of any kind of total scholarship is to say it well.''

Stephen Jay Gould said, "Homo sapiens [are] a tiny twig on an improbable branch of a contingent limb on a fortunate tree."

It's the birthday of the poet who wrote under the initials H.D., Hilda Doolittle, (books by this author) born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1886). She met Ezra Pound when she was a teenager and they fell in love, but her father forced her to break off the relationship. They stayed friends, and Pound brought her armfuls of books to read every day. She followed him to Europe and when she showed him some of her poems he loved them and sent them to Poetry magazine, signing them for her, "H.D. Imagist." He invented a new school of poetry based on her work that he called Imagism, which broke from formal metered verse and used clear, simple language to describe the world. She went on to publish many collections of poetry, including Sea Garden (1916) and Red Roses for Bronze (1929).

She wrote, "To sing love, / love must first shatter us."

It's the birthday of Lutheran minister and publisher Isaac Kaufmann Funk, (books by this author) born in Clifton, Ohio (1839). After serving as a minister, he founded a publishing house and began to publish anti-alcohol pamphlets and religious journals. In 1877, he partnered with a former classmate named Adam Willis Wagnalls, and they published many books together. But the book that we remember them for is Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of the English Language. It was the first English dictionary that gave definitions of words with the most current definition first and the oldest definition last, rather than the other way around. At the time, dictionaries were thought of as historical records of the language. Funk and Wagnalls made dictionaries practical.

It's the birthday of Czech poet and novelist Franz Werfel, (books by this author) born in Prague (1890). He wrote The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, about the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks, and The Song of Bernadette (1941), about the 14-year-old girl who had seen visions of the Virgin Mary.

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