Jan. 20, 2014

The Song of Wandering Angus

by William Butler Yeats

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dangled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

"The Song of Wandering Aengus" by William Butler Yeats, from The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. © Scribner, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In 1983, after years of petitions, conferences, and advocacy on behalf of the holiday, Ronald Reagan signed a bill into law that made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday.

It's the birthday of Italian film director Federico Fellini, born in Rimini, Italy (1920). As a young man, he enrolled in the University of Rome Law School to avoid military service, but he never attended classes. He worked instead as a cartoonist for a satirical magazine and as a gag writer for a vaudeville troupe. In 1943, he was ordered to undergo a medical examination for the army, but his medical records were destroyed in a bombing. He spent the next two years in the slums of Rome eluding the German Occupation troops, who searched the city for men to replenish the armed forces and to work in slave labor camps. After the war, Fellini turned to filmmaking and made a string of films about beggars, gypsies, swindlers, and prostitutes. He became famous for his film La Dolce Vita (1960). He was a charming man, who always wore a wide-brimmed black hat and gestured with both hands, even while driving one of his favorite motorcars. He overdubbed all his actors' voices because he believed that most people didn't have voices that matched their appearance. He said, "All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography."

It's the birthday of poet Edward Hirsch (books by this author), born in Chicago on this day in 1950. He's the author of the collections For the Sleepwalkers (1981), Wild Gratitude (1986), The Night Parade (1989), Earthly Measures (1994), On Love (1998), Lay Back the Darkness (2003), and most recently, Special Orders (2008).

It was on this day in 1961, Inauguration Day in Washington, poet Robert Frost (books by this author) was invited, at the age of 86, to recite a poem for the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. He was going to recite a poem he had written for the occasion, but his eyes were weak and he had typed the poem on a typewriter with a faint ribbon, and the day was bright with a lot of glare from snow that had fallen the previous day. He was unable to read the poem he had written, so he recited his poem "The Gift Outright" by memory.

It was on this day in 1892 that the first official game of basketball was played in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was invented by a 31-year-old Canadian graduate student named James Naismith, who was teaching at the International YMCA Training School (now Springfield College).

Naismith graduated in theology from the Presbyterian College in Montreal, but his real love was sports, so he went to the YMCA Training School to study the relatively new subject of physical education. The undergraduates were divided into two groups: half wanted to be physical directors, and the other half wanted to be YMCA administrators. In fall, the daily physical activity was football, which everyone loved. But winter indoors, in a small gym, proved a challenge. Instructors led the undergraduates in calisthenics and marching. The future physical directors were fine with this curriculum, since they considered it part of a well-rounded education in athletics; but the future administrators were bored and rebellious. One particularly difficult class, of 18 students, went through two instructors — after the first instructor's marching and calisthenics failed, the school brought in their most respected professor, who tried to make the young men do potato races and various kids' games to keep them active. The students complained that they were starting to hate athletics in general. At faculty meetings, the group was labeled as hopeless.

James Naismith disagreed. He said at one meeting: "The trouble is not with the men but with the system that we are using. The kind of work for this particular class should be of a recreational nature, something that would appeal to their play instincts." In response, the head of the faculty assigned the class to Naismith. Naismith was already teaching canoeing, wrestling, swimming, boxing, psychology, and Bible study. He tried to get out of this new assignment, but to no avail.

Naismith tried modifying football to play it indoors, but had to eliminate tackling because there wasn't enough space, so no one liked it anymore. He tried a modified version of soccer, but the students were required to wear soft-soled shoes inside, and no matter how many times Naismith warned them to kick the ball softly, they kept forgetting and injuring their feet — plus they broke several windows. He tried lacrosse, but almost everyone ended up with serious injuries to their hands or faces. Naismith was desperate to come up with something before his two-week report to the faculty. He said: "It was worse than losing a game. All the stubbornness of my Scotch ancestry was aroused, all my pride of achievement urged me on; I would not go back and admit that I had failed."

The night before his two-week review, he sat in his office above the locker room and considered the theory of games, determined to come up with something new. He wanted a game with simple rules and a lightweight ball so anyone could throw it or catch it without much practice. He chose a large ball because small-balled games like baseball and lacrosse needed additional equipment. By the end of the night, he had a framework, and the next morning before class, he wrote a list of 13 rules for the game. He grabbed a soccer ball and asked the janitor for boxes to use as goals. The janitor didn't have boxes but he had peach baskets in the storeroom, so Naismith nailed those on the walls.

The game was such a success that his students didn't want to quit playing at the end of class time. Soon everyone wanted to play, not just the troublemakers in Naismith's class. In a couple of weeks, spectators were packing into the gym to watch, including a group of female teachers from a nearby school, who soon put together the first women's team. One of Naismith's students suggested that they name the game "Naismith ball," but Naismith refused. So the student proposed "basket ball," which was written as two words until the 1920s. Naismith introduced basketball to his students on December 21st, 1891. A few weeks later, on this day in 1892, the first official game was played at the YMCA in Albany, New York — it was the first time it had been played outside of the Training School where it was invented.

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