Wednesday July 29, 2015

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Meadowlarks and Hawks

A farm road
in the San Joaquin
heading into the red dirt
of the gold country
miles and miles
of fencerows
with meadowlarks
singing on the wires
the song of one
entering the song
of another
all down the road
window open
I hear song
trailing
into song
the road continuing
as far as I can see
and every mile or so
on top
of a telephone pole
sits
a red-tailed hawk
shoulders hunched
turning his slow
iron gaze
over all he claims
of the singing world

"Meadowlarks and Hawks” by Joseph Stroud from Of This World. © Copper Canyon Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of newspaper columnist Don Marquis (books by this author), born in Walnut, Illinois (1878), who created the characters Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the alley cat. Archy was a former free verse poet who "sees life from the underside now." He wasn't able to reach the shift key so everything he wrote was in lower case. And Mehitabel was an alley cat with questionable morals who insisted that she was Cleopatra in one of her former lives.

Marquis was a champion of the underdog and not a fan of pretension. His columns were humorous, but had political undertones. His character Archy said once, "a louse i used to know told me that millionaires and bums tasted about alike to him." And, "what is all this mystery about the sphinx that has troubled so many illustrious men no doubt the very same thoughts she thinks are thought every day by some obscure hen."

After using Archy and Mehitabel in columns for 10 years, Marquis made books out of their writing, beginning with archy and mehitabel (1927).

It's the birthday of writer Alexis de Tocqueville (books by this author), born in Paris (1805). He was 25 years old when the French government sent him to America to study the prison system. He spent nine months touring towns and cities and taking notes. A few years later, he published his famous book, Democracy in America (1835).

During his tour, the aristocratic Tocqueville was impressed by the fact that American Democracy actually worked. He wrote: "There is one thing which America demonstrates invincibly, and of which I had been in doubt up till now: it is that the middle classes can govern a state. I do not know if they would come out with credit from thoroughly difficult political situations. But they are adequate for the ordinary run of society. In spite of their petty passions, their incomplete education and their vulgar manners, they clearly can provide practical intelligence, and that is found to be enough."

It's the birthday of poet Stanley Kunitz (books by this author), born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1905). His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father committed suicide in a public park before Kunitz was born, and his mother, Yetta, erased all traces of Stanley's father from the house, and refused to speak about him. She opened up a dry-goods store and sewed clothes in the back room, working overtime to pay off the debts that her husband had left behind, even though legally she was not obligated to pay them.

One thing his mother did not destroy were the books his father had left behind, books by Tolstoy and Dickens. One of Kunitz's favorite books was the dictionary. He said: "I used to sit in that green Morris chair and open the heavy dictionary on my lap, and find a new word every day. It was a big word, a word like eleemosynary or phantasmagoria — some word that, on the tongue, sounded great to me, and I would go out into the fields and I would shout those words, because it was so important that they sounded so great to me. And then eventually I began incorporating them into verses, into poems. But certainly my thought in the beginning was that there was so much joy playing with language that I couldn't consider living without it."

His first job as a boy was riding his horse down the streets of Worcester and lighting the gas lamps at night. He became a reporter for the Worcester Telegram, went to Harvard, and stayed for his master's degree. He wanted to pursue his Ph.D., but the head of the English department at Harvard told him that Anglo-Saxon students would resent being taught by a Jew.

So he moved to a big farm in Connecticut, and worked as a reporter and farmer. He sold fresh herbs to markets in Hartford. Kunitz was drafted into World War II, and when he came back, he was offered a teaching position at Bennington College. In 1949, the college tried to expel one of his students — Groucho Marx's daughter Miriam — right before her graduation because she had violated a curfew. Kunitz helped organize a protest of the decision, and the president of Bennington showed up at his house and told him to stop immediately. Kunitz took the plant that he was potting and threw it in the president's face, then quit.

He published a second book, but it was barely noticed. He was so unknown that his third book, Selected Poems (1958), was rejected by eight publishers — three of them refused to even read it. When it was finally published, it won the Pulitzer Prize. When someone asked W.H. Auden why nobody knew about Stanley Kunitz, Auden said: "It's strange, but give him time. A hundred years or so. He's a patient man."

It was more than 10 years before he published his next book, The Testing Tree (1971), and slowly but surely, people began to take notice. He was appointed the poet laureate when he was 95 years old. He died at the age of 100.

He said: "It is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self."

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

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