Feb. 9, 2014

The Sirens

by Richard Wilbur

I never knew the road
From which the whole earth didn't call away,
With wild birds rounding the hill crowns,
Haling out of the heart an old dismay,
Or the shore somewhere pounding its slow code,
Or low-lighted towns
Seeming to tell me, stay.

Lands I have never seen
And shall not see, loves I will not forget
All I have missed, or slighted, or foregone
Call to me now. And weaken me. And yet
I would not walk a road without a scene.
I listen going on,
The richer for regret.

"The Sirens" by Richard Wilbur from Ceremony and Other Poems. © Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1950. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Amy Lowell (books by this author), born in Brookline, Massachusetts (1874), the daughter of a prominent Boston family. Her first poem, "Fixed Idea," wasn't published until she was 36, and she threw herself into studying the latest trends in poetry — imagism and unrhymed meter. She once said, "God made me a businesswoman and I made myself a poet." Her posthumous collection of poetry, What's O'Clock (1925), won the Pulitzer Prize.

It's the birthday of Irish playwright and novelist Brendan Behan (books by this author), born in Dublin (1923). He grew up in one of the poorest sections of Dublin. His father took part in the Irish rebellion in the early 1920s, and when Brendan was born, his father was being held in a British prison. When Brendan was nine years old, he joined a youth organization that had ties to the IRA. He later called the group "the Republican Boy Scouts." He rose through the ranks of the IRA, and by the time he was 16, he was being sent on missions to bomb British targets.

He spent most of the 1940s in prison. First he was thrown in jail for carrying a suitcase full of homemade explosives through the streets of Liverpool. After he got out, he was arrested for the attempted murder of two policemen. It was during his second stay in prison that he began to write. He wrote his first play, The Quare Fellow (1956), about the execution of a convict in a Dublin prison. When he got out of prison, it became a big hit in London and then New York. He followed that up with the novel Borstal Boy (1958) and The Hostage (1958), in which he wrote:
"Never throw stones at your mother, You'll be sorry for it when she's dead, Never throw stones at your mother, Throw bricks at your father instead."

It's the birthday of J.M. (John Maxwell) Coetzee (books by this author), born in Cape Town, South Africa (1940). He's the author of many novels, including Dusklands (1974), Life and Times of Michael K (1983), and Disgrace (1999). He's known for his intense self-discipline and dedication to writing. Someone who worked with him for more than a decade claimed that he only saw Coetzee laugh once. He's lived most of his adult life in England, America, and Australia, but much of his writing deals with South African apartheid. His breakthrough novel was Waiting for Barbarians, published in 1980. In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

On this date in 1943, the Battle of Guadalcanal ended. Code-named "Operation Watchtower," the battle marked a turning point in the Pacific theater. The United States had already won important battles at Coral Sea and Midway, but they had been on the defensive since the attack on Pearl Harbor; the Guadalcanal Campaign was the Allied Forces' first major offensive against the Japanese.

Guadalcanal lies in the Solomon Islands. Ninety miles long and averaging 25 miles wide, the island is made up of dormant volcanoes, thick rainforest, and steep ravines. Japanese troops had landed on the little South Pacific island in June 1942, intending to build an airfield and, from there, launch long-range bombers that would disrupt the supply and communication routes from the United States to New Zealand and Australia. Two months later, on August 7, Allied forces — mostly American — invaded to put a stop to the plan. Half the forces landed at Guadalcanal, and the other half invaded the nearby islands of Tulagi and Florida. Guadalcanal has no natural harbors, and its southern shores are protected by a coral reef. The Allies had no choice but to come ashore on the north central coast. They secured the airfield — which they renamed Henderson Field — by 4 o'clock the next afternoon. The Japanese waged war on land, sea, and air, and launched a major counterattack in November. Although heavy casualties were suffered on both sides, the Allies managed to hold them off.

The American troops were eager and enthusiastic, but inexperienced. Their enemy soon figured out that they were uncomfortable with night operations, so the Japanese planned attacks and major troop movements for the midnight hours. In addition to their human enemies, both the Allied and Japanese forces struggled with swarms of mosquitoes, tropical diseases, and an oppressively hot and humid climate. Disease carried off more American troops than the Japanese did in the first few months of the campaign. For every soldier that fell in battle, five fell to malaria or dysentery. The Japanese also suffered from malnutrition, many of them forced to live on coconuts alone.

By December, Japanese commanders were beginning to talk about withdrawing from the Solomon Islands. After six months, three major land battles, seven naval battles, and nearly continuous air battles, the Japanese began to evacuate their troops in the early morning hours of February 7. On February 9, the United States declared victory. Japan lost 25,000 experienced ground troops, compared with 6,300 U.S. Marines. Both sides lost many ships, but the Allies were in a better position to replace them than the Japanese were. Japan also lost most of its elite naval aviators. Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi, a commander in the Imperial Japanese Army, later said: "Guadalcanal is no longer merely a name of an island in Japanese military history. It is the name of the graveyard of the Japanese army."

Once the campaign was ended, Guadalcanal and Tulagi were developed into Allied bases to support their Pacific campaign. The Japanese forces, now on the defensive, never regained the upper hand, and eventually surrendered in August 1945.

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