Dec. 23, 2012

A Christmas Poem

by Robert Bly

Christmas is a place, like Jackson Hole, where all
To meet once a year. It has water, and grass for
All the fur traders can come in. We visited the place
As children, but we never heard the good stories.

Those stories only get told in the big tents, late
At night, when a trapper who has been caught
In his own trap, held down in icy water, talks; and a
With a ponytail and a limp comes in from the edge of
     the fire.

As children we knew there was more to it—
Why some men got drunk on Christmas Eve
Wasn't explained, nor why we were so often
Near tears nor why the stars came down so close,
Why so much was lost. Those men and women
Who had died in wars started by others,
Did they come that night? Is that why the Christmas
Trembled just before we opened the presents?

There was something about angels. Angels we
Have heard on high Sweetly singing o'er
The plain.
The angels were certain. But we could not
Be certain whether our family was worthy tonight.

"A Christmas Poem" by Robert Bly, from Morning Poems. © Harper Collins, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Robert Bly (books by this author), born in Madison, Minnesota (1926). He came from a Norwegian family, and he spent a year at St. Olaf College, where his English professor read the first piece he turned in and told him to quit freshman English and join an upper-level creative writing class. There he met a fellow classmate who wrote poetry. He said: "I fell in love with her, and I wrote a poem to her. I had the strangest sensation. I felt something in the poem I hadn't intended to put there. It was as if 'someone else was with me.'" He went on to Harvard, where he met fellow poets like John Ashbery and Donald Hall. He published his first collection of poems, Silence in the Snowy Fields, in 1962. His books include The Light Around the Body (1967), Loving a Woman in Two Worlds (1985), The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (2001), and Talking into the Ear of a Donkey (2011).

He said, "Poetry keeps longing alive."

It's the birthday of editor Harriet Monroe (books by this author), born in Chicago (1860). She wanted to be a famous poet, but she was shocked at how little poets earned. She said, "The minor painter or sculptor was honored with large annual awards in our greatest cities, while the minor poet was a joke of the paragraphers, subject to the popular prejudice that his art thrived best on starvation in a garret."

Although she hadn't written much poetry, Monroe's brother-in-law was a consulting architect for Chicago's Columbian Exposition, and Monroe was chosen to write a commemorative ode for the Fair's dedication. The World's Fair was celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New Year, so Monroe's poem did the same. She spent almost two years working on it, and in October of 1892, a 6-foot-tall actress with a booming voice (but no microphone) recited Monroe's "Columbian Ode" in front of an audience of more than 100,000 people. Some of the sections were set to music and sung by a choir of 5,000, backed by a military band.

At first, "Columbian Ode" didn't help Monroe's career as much as she hoped. She had a pamphlet edition made of the poem, but she didn't sell many copies, and so all that winter she used it for fuel. She said, "I well remember the emotions between laughter and tears which came over me every time I stuffed that stove." She wasn't going to let it rest at that — she decided that she wasn't making sales because the New York World had printed her poem and given it away for free, so she sued the World for $25,000. She said that she had suffered "shame, mortification and great personal annoyance" on top of her loss of income. The court awarded her $5,000.

Monroe took that money, and money she had raised from Chicago businessmen, and launched Poetry magazine in 1912. After the first issue came out, critics jumped on it, claiming that it was ridiculous to have a poetry magazine based in Chicago. One editorial called it "Poetry in Porkopolis."

Monroe was determined to publish something different from the popular magazines. Early issues contained work by unknown poets Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. A couple of years later, she published "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," T.S. Eliot's first professionally published poem.

Monroe continued to edit the magazine until her death in 1936, at the age of 75. She was in Peru, on her way to climb Macchu Picchu.

It was on this day in 1947 that the first transistor was demonstrated at Bell Laboratories. The transistor was a device for switching and amplifying electrical current. Before that, people had relied on glass vacuum tubes, which were large, breakable, prone to overheating, and not very powerful.

For years, the physicist William Shockley had been working unsuccessfully to create a model transistor. He enlisted the help of two colleagues, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. They adapted his failed model, and they demonstrated it to officials at Bell Labs on this day. Shockley wasn't there, and apparently he was unhappy that he missed it, although he called it a "magnificent Christmas present." Shockley thought that the transistor should be patented under his name, since he considered himself the leader of the group. Bardeen and Brattain disagreed, since they were the ones who had actually figured it out. Bell Labs decided to register the patent under the names of Bardeen and Brattain, but put all three in the publicity photos. In 1956, all three shared the Nobel Prize in physics for their work on the transistor.

It was on this day in 1823 that the holiday poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel in New York. In recent years, there has been considerable debate as to the authorship. According to tradition, it was written by the poet and professor Clement Clarke Moore, who was struck with his vision of St. Nicholas while he was out on a snowy sleigh ride. He is said to have used a local Dutch handyman as his model for St. Nick. The reindeer names included Dunder and Blixem, the local Dutch words for thunder and lightning, although they were eventually changed to the German Donder and Blitzen.

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




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