Nov. 27, 2012

Taking the Hands

by Robert Bly

Taking the hands of someone you love,
You see they are delicate cages . . .
Tiny birds are singing
In the secluded prairies
And in the deep valleys of the hand.

"Taking the Hands" by Robert Bly, from Silence in the Snowy Fields. © Wesleyan University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1786 that Scottish poet Robert Burns (books by this author) borrowed a pony and made his way from his home in Ayrshire to the city of Edinburgh.

The fall of 1786 had been an eventful one for Burns. He wasn't making any money farming, and after he got his girlfriend Jean Armour pregnant, he decided he needed to find a way to support his new family — not to mention his illegitimate one-year-old daughter, whose mother was a servant in the Burns household and wanted money. Burns accepted a friend's offer to work as a clerk in Jamaica, and was set to leave in September.

A few weeks before his departure date, he published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), hoping to raise enough money to pay his fare to Jamaica. Instead, the book was so successful that Burns began to doubt if he should leave Scotland. Then Jean gave birth to twins. At the same time, he received word that Scottish poet Thomas Blacklock liked his book and encouraged him to come to Edinburgh. Burns wrote: "I had taken the last farewell of my few friends, my chest was on the road to Greenock; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Scotland — 'The Gloomy night is gathering fast' — when a letter from Dr. Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition. The Doctor belonged to a set of critics for whose applause I had not dared to hope. His opinion that I would meet with encouragement in Edinburgh for a second edition, fired me so much, that away I posted for that city, without a single acquaintance, or a single letter of introduction." He borrowed a pony from a friend, and off he went.

The story goes that during his two-day trip to Edinburgh, he was entertained lavishly by farmers eager to meet the poet. A friend of his had arranged for a farmhouse where he could stay for the night. There were so many people excited to see Burns that when he arrived, one farmer raised a makeshift flag — a white sheet tied to a pitchfork — and on cue all the neighboring farmers arrived to host Burns for a huge meal. He rode on to another farmhouse for a large breakfast the next morning, and yet another farm for lunch. By evening of the second day, he finally arrived in Edinburgh.

He was delighted by his reception there, and everyone's enthusiasm about publishing a second edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. About a week after his arrival, he wrote in a letter: "For my own affairs, I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas à Kempis or John Bunyan; and you may expect henceforth to see my birthday inserted among the wonderful events, in the Poor Robin's and Aberdeen Almanacks, along with the Black Monday, and the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. My Lord Glencairn and the Dean of Faculty, Mr. H. Erskine, have taken me under their wing; and by all probability, I shall soon be the tenth worthy, and the eight wise man of the world. Through my Lord's influence it is inserted in the records of the Caledonian Hunt, that they universally, one and all, subscribe for the second edition."

It's the birthday of historian Charles A. Beard (books by this author), born in Knightstown, Indiana (1874). He was known as a "progressive historian" because of his new approach to considering American history. He thought that the founding fathers wrote the Constitution as a way to protect their own economic interests more than for any ideological reasons. Similarly, he saw the Civil War not as a war about slavery, but as a conflict between major economic forces: the agricultural economy of the South and the industrialized economy of the North.

His books include An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913); The Rise of American Civilization (1927), which he co-wrote with his wife, Mary Beard; and The American Spirit (1942).

It's the birthday of writer James Agee (books by this author), born in Knoxville, Tennessee (1909). He is best remembered for his autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family (1957), and his account of Southern sharecroppers during the Dust Bowl, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). But during his life, he was best known as a film critic. He worked for Time and then for The Nation. The poet W.H. Auden declared that Agee's weekly film column in The Nation was "the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today."

It's the birthday of filmmaker Les Blank, born in Tampa, Florida (1935). He went to Tulane in New Orleans, studied English, and went off to graduate school in Berkeley. He tried to be a writer, but everything he wrote was rejected by publishers. He thought he should stay in graduate school and become a teacher instead, but after his marriage failed, he couldn't concentrate in any of his classes. He dropped out, but he couldn't find a job doing anything — he even failed the intelligence test required to get a job as a bill collector. Then he saw a film by Ingmar Bergman, and it changed his life. He said: "When I saw The Seventh Seal for the first time I was in a pretty low state — he showed me a world where someone was worse off than me. And he showed me that art and beauty can come from the worst misery of the human experience." So he decided to become a filmmaker.

Blank has made more than 40 films, many of them documentaries about different types of traditional American musicians, including those who perform Cajun music, the blues, cowboy tunes, and the polka. He has made films about garlic, about a man who buys tea in China and brings it back to San Francisco, and about Werner Herzog. His films include The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins (1969), Burden of Dreams (1982), Chulas Fronteras (1976), Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980), and All in This Tea (2007).

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




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