Apr. 29, 2011


by Ted Kooser

Mid April already, and the wild plums
bloom at the roadside, a lacy white
against the exuberant, jubilant green
of new grass an the dusty, fading black
of burned-out ditches. No leaves, not yet,
only the delicate, star-petaled
blossoms, sweet with their timeless perfume.

You have been gone a month today
and have missed three rains and one nightlong
watch for tornadoes. I sat in the cellar
from six to eight while fat spring clouds
went somersaulting, rumbling east. Then it poured,
a storm that walked on legs of lightning,
dragging its shaggy belly over the fields.

The meadowlarks are back, and the finches
are turning from green to gold. Those same
two geese have come to the pond again this year,
honking in over the trees and splashing down.
They never nest, but stay a week or two
then leave. The peonies are up, the red sprouts
burning in circles like birthday candles,

for this is the month of my birth, as you know,
the best month to be born in, thanks to you,
everything ready to burst with living.
There will be no more new flannel nightshirts
sewn on your old black Singer, no birthday card
addressed in a shaky but businesslike hand.
You asked me if I would be sad when it happened

and I am sad. But the iris I moved from your house
now hold in the dusty dry fists of their roots
green knives and forks as if waiting for dinner,
as if spring were a feast. I thank you for that.
Were it not for the way you taught me to look
at the world, to see the life at play in everything,
I would have to be lonely forever.

"Mother" by Ted Kooser, from Delights & Shadows. © Copper Canyon Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of publishing colossus William Randolph Hearst, who was born in San Francisco in 1863. He demanded the helm of his first paper, the San Francisco Examiner, when he was 23 and his father acquired the paper as payment for a gambling debt. It wasn't long before his papers had a reputation for sensationalism, or as it came to be called, "yellow journalism" — one of his writers said "A Hearst newspaper is like a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut." On the other hand, Hearst newspapers also employed some of the best writers in the business, like Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and Jack London.

He and Joseph Pulitzer had an open rivalry in the New York market. Reporters from Hearst's Morning Journal and Pulitzer's World went beyond scooping each other to stealing stories outright from the competition. Hearst had the last laugh when he ran a story about the death of Colonel Reflipe W. Thenuz — an anagram of "we pilfer the news" — and Pulitzer's paper took the bait, even adding made-up dateline information. This prank was harmless enough, but when the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor in 1898, the two papers both published a supposedly suppressed cablegram saying the explosion was not an accident. There was no such cable, but it boosted sales of both papers to record levels, and the public demanded that President McKinley declare war on Spain. As the famous story goes, artist Frederick Remington was sent to Cuba by Hearst to cover the war. He wrote home, "There is no war. Request to be recalled," only to be told, "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war." And so he did.

And it's the birthday of the man who once said, "Jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with": bandleader, pianist, and composer Edward Kennedy — better known as Duke — Ellington, born in Washington, D.C., in 1899. He composed more than 3,000 songs in his lifetime, enduring jazz classics like "Mood Indigo" (1930), "It Don't Mean a Thing (if it Ain't Got That Swing)" (1932), and "Sophisticated Lady" (1933), and he led his big band from 1923 until his death in 1974. His nickname came from his dapper demeanor and easy grace: His mother, Daisy, had worked hard to teach him elegant manners, and he'd learned the lessons well, so his childhood friends took to calling him "Duke."

He took piano lessons as a boy, but skipped more of these than he attended, and it wasn't until he started hanging around a poolroom and hearing ragtime and stride piano, played by the likes of Turner Layton and Eubie Blake, that his passion was kindled. For what it's worth, he also credited the kindling to more earthy causes, saying, "I never had much interest in the piano until I realized that every time I played, a girl would appear on the piano bench to my left and another to my right."

He formed a band, called the Washingtonians, with some friends, and they enjoyed moderate success in New York City in the mid-1920s, even making a few records, like "Choo Choo (Gotta Hurry Home)" (1924), "Black and Tan Fantasy," and "Creole Love Call" (both 1927). It was taking a job as the house orchestra at Harlem's famous Cotton Club that put them over the top, and they were heard on radios all across America.

Ellington's versatility and ability to evolve right along with the music helped him survive most of jazz's changing styles. He flowed from hot jazz to swing to Big Band, although bebop, which he told Look magazine in 1954 was "like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing," nearly put him out of business, since bebop ensembles were smaller and cheaper for clubs to hire. By the 1960s, he began collaborating with former rivals and young bebop artists, and it wasn't long before he was reinstated as one of the highest-earning artists in jazz. His son, Mercer, took up the baton of the orchestra upon Duke's death of lung cancer in 1974, and his grandson Paul took it up in turn upon Mercer's death. The Duke Ellington Orchestra still tours.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of poet C.P. Cavafy (books by this author), born in Alexandria, Egypt (1863). His parents were Greek, and he wrote his poetry in modern Greek, but lived in Alexandria almost his entire life. In 1889, he got a job as an unpaid clerk at the city's Irrigation Office, and he stayed there until he retired 30 years later. He lived with his mother until he was 36, in an apartment just above a brothel, and across the street from a church and a hospital. Cavafy once said, "Where could I live better? Below, the brothel caters to the flesh. And there is the church which forgives sin. And there is the hospital where we die."

It's the birthday of poet Yusef Komunyakaa (books by this author), born James Willie Brown Jr. in Bogalusa, Louisiana (1947).

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