Apr. 8, 2014


by Marjory Wentworth

After the rain, outside
the barred windows
of the classroom
tiny black birds
are bathing in puddles
beneath the oak trees.
Dipping into the icy water,
they shake their feathers
with such joy that their song
pulls us from our seats—
out onto the steps
where my students and I
walk into the first sunlight
we've felt for days
to watch them dance.

The birds remind me
of the Chinese peasants
I read about in college.
Sitting in the sunshine
on the first day of spring,
after cutting the quilted
clothes they were sewn
into for the long winter,
they gathered outside
to pick fleas from the sour
cotton lining of their jackets
and flick them at each other;
ducking and laughing
in the bright air,
while their children
ran naked into a pond
filled with melting snow.

"Spring" by Marjory Wentworth from New and Selected Poems. © The University of South Carolina Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of lyricist Yip Harburg, born in New York City (1896), who wrote "April in Paris," "It's Only a Paper Moon," and many more songs. He wrote, "The Lord made Adam, the Lord made Eve, he made 'em both a little bit naive."

It's the birthday of editor and publisher Robert Giroux, born in New Jersey (1914). He published Jean Stafford, Carl Sandburg, Jack Kerouac, Susan Sontag, and T.S. Eliot.

It's the birthday of Barbara Kingsolver (books by this author), born in Annapolis, Maryland (1955). She started writing fiction when she was pregnant and had horrible insomnia. She wrote every night, but she didn't want to disturb her husband, so she worked on her novel in a closet. It was the story of a young woman who decides she needs to get out of her small town in Kentucky, and drives across the country to Arizona. Along the way, she changes her name from Marietta to Taylor, and she reluctantly takes in a three-year-old child named Turtle. That novel was The Bean Trees (1988), and it made Kingsolver's name. Since then, she has written poetry, essays, and novels like The Poisonwood Bible (1998) and Prodigal Summer (2001). In 2007, she published Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a book about her family's year of eating only food that was grown within 100 miles of their house. It was a huge best-seller. Her most recent book is Flight Behavior (2012).

She said: "It is harrowing for me to try to teach 20-year-old students, who earnestly want to improve their writing. The best I can think to tell them is: Quit smoking, and observe posted speed limits. This will improve your odds of getting old enough to be wise."

It's the birthday of the investigative journalist who broke the story of the My Lai Massacre to the American public: Seymour Hersh, born in Chicago (1937).

It was on this day in 1935 that Congress approved funding for President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, known as the WPA, a program designed to put unemployed Americans back to work. The WPA was run by Roosevelt's right-hand man, Harry Hopkins, a former social worker and public health administrator. Hopkins was a firm believer in the benefits of good work, even though employment was more expensive for the government than giving direct handouts. He said, "Give a man a dole and you save his body and destroy his spirit; give him a job and pay him an assured wage, and you save both the body and the spirit." A worker's average salary was $41.57 per month. By the time the WPA was dissolved in 1943, it had employed more than 8.5 million people, working on 1.4 million projects.

The WPA's main focus was on public works, especially infrastructure projects. The WPA was funded for eight years, and during that time workers built or repaired 650,000 miles of roads, 124,00 bridges, 8,000 parks, 39,000 schools, and 85,000 other public buildings. They also worked on airports, dams, sidewalks, swimming pools, sewers, utility plants, and playgrounds. They served more than a billion school lunches, operated 1,500 nursery schools, and sewed half a billion garments.

Most of the WPA workers were men — more than 85 percent. In an attempt to distribute jobs as broadly as possible, only the "head of household" of each family was allowed to work for the WPA. Of the women who were employed, many worked in sewing rooms, producing millions of clothes, diapers, quilts, toys, and other items, which were distributed to public institutions or needy families (sometimes right back to the women themselves). The women tried to make the items fashionable and unique so that the people who wore them wouldn't be marked as welfare recipients.

Another branch of the WPA was its arts programs, collectively known as "Federal One," which included the Federal Writers' Project and the Federal Theater Project. At first, Harry Hopkins was criticized for including artists — some people argued that they never had steady jobs to begin with, so shouldn't be considered unemployed. Hopkins responded: "Hell! They've got to eat just like other people." Of more than 8 million people who worked for the WPA, only 40,000 were employed by Federal One, but the list included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Saul Bellow, Kenneth Rexroth, Arthur Miller, and Orson Welles.

Artists working for the Federal Art Project collectively created more than 18,000 sculptures and 100,000 paintings and murals. The "easel artists" — who worked in offices or studios, as opposed to mural artists — were required to clock in at 8 a.m. and back out at 4 p.m. if they wanted to receive their day's pay. Jackson Pollock sometimes showed up in his pajamas in order to make the morning cutoff. But besides the strict hours, the "easel artists" were given a lot of leeway — they were unsupervised, and they were allowed to choose their subjects and styles, unlike the mural painters, who were usually instructed to paint American motifs. Mark Rothko was asked to submit an oil painting every four to six weeks, which would be given to a public building.

The flagship project for the Federal Writers' Project was a series of state-by-state guidebooks, but writers also collected folklore, indexed newspapers, recorded slave narratives and other oral histories, and wrote essays about great American literature. John Steinbeck wrote of the WPA guidebook series: "It was compiled during the Depression by the best writers in America, who were, if that is possible, more depressed than any other group while maintaining their inalienable instinct for eating." W.H. Auden wrote: "The Arts Project of WPA was, perhaps, one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by any state."

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