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For people living in Massachusetts April 19th is more than the day of the Boston Marathon, it’s Patriots Day — the day and date in 1775 when the British army, stationed in Boston, sent a force across the Charles River in the dark of night, planning a surprise march to Lexington to capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and from there to Concord to seize gunpowder and other supplies stored by the disaffected citizenry.
The rebellious farmers had established a militia, the Minute Men, and now aroused by the warnings of Paul Revere and William Dawes — “The British are coming!” — the armed men gathered at dawn on the Lexington Common. The advancing British ordered them to disperse, the Minute Men refused, a shot was fired, the political revolution became an armed insurrection. John Hancock and Samuel Adams, half a mile away, escaped even as the firing of musketry on the Common began. But the locals were no match for the British Regulars who continued their march to Concord where another group of Minute Men had gathered on a rise overlooking at a bridge over the Concord River. The British occupied the town center and left a small detachment to guard the bridge while others searched for the rebels’ military supplies. The Minute Men, seeing smoke rising from town, thought the British had set fires, so they marched down to the bridge and to engage and overwhelm the outnumbered British troops.
Here’s a stanza from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s elegiac commemorative poem written for the monument erected by the bridge:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
As the British Redcoats marched back to Boston they were harassed continuously by the Minute Men. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wonderful narrative poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” contains these lines about those events:
You know the rest. In the books you have read,
How the British Regulars fired and fled, —
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farm-yard wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.
In Concord, inscribed over the grave of two British soldiers who were killed in the Concord skirmish, is a stanza of a poem called “Lines” by James Russell Lowell:
They came three-thousand miles and died
To keep the past upon its throne
Unheard beyond the ocean tide
Their English mother made her moan.
(If you’re interested in poetry, we can recommend the elegy by Emerson, and we do enjoy the stirring poem by Longfellow, but we’re happy to avoid Lowell’s knotted and at times incomprehensible verses.)
Nowadays, April 19th is celebrated on the third Monday in April. In Lexington, early in the morning of every 19th of April, no matter when it’s celebrated, the Minute Men gather on the Green under the leadership of Captain John Parker, and the Red Coats come marching in neat rows under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith. The armed farmers are told to disperse, but they refuse. A shot is fired, then a fusillade of British musketry, and when the smoke clears, some of the Minute Men have fallen, and the British regulars continue their March toward Concord.
Have you ever listened to radio programs that broadcast late at night, very late at night? At that hour your mind is open to all sorts of strange thoughts, and some pretty strange thoughts get broadcast in those small hours. Once, when Marilyn Robertson couldn’t get to sleep, she tuned in and heard an interesting story which she reports to us in her poem, “Alien”
Last night, a man on the radio was reminiscing
about the time he was touched by an alien.
He was sitting in his carport, shooting the breeze
with an ex-Marine buddy,
when a woman passed by the house.
She was making a kind of humming sound
and she stopped and asked him for a cigarette.
Well, he gave her one and when their fingers touched,
that’s when he felt the electric current in his stomach.
That’s how he knew.
She told him her name was Tomorrow.
Elsewhere on the dial, the usual mayhem:
hurricanes, robberies, runaway trucks, a warning
not to eat certain vegetables…but nothing more
about the humming woman from another galaxy,
bumming cigarettes along a country road.
April is National Poetry Month and National Financial Literacy Month, too. If you knew about the one, you probably didn’t know about the other, so we’re spreading the word about these national observances.
National Poetry Month was started by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. It’s relatively well established, kept alive and vigorous by booksellers, publishers, libraries, schools and poets. According to the Academy of American Poets, “Thousands of businesses and non-profit organizations participate through readings, festivals, book displays, workshops, and other events.” And if you go to the Academy’s website you can find a good list to this year’s programs.
National Financial Literacy Month was born as Financial Literacy for Youth Month in 2000, inaugurated by the The Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy. In 2003 it received the imprimatur of the US Senate, and in 2004 the Senate dropped the youth part and passed a Resolution naming April as our National Financial Literacy Month. Apparently, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) has become the leading organization to celebrate and promote Financial Literacy Month.
We thought it would be nice to merge Poetry and Financial Literacy and we’ve come up with two quite different songs. The first is “The Banks Are Made of Marble,” sung by The Weavers, with that rousing chorus:
But the banks are made of marble
with a guard at every door
and the vaults are stuffed with silver
that the farmer sweated for.
Unfortunately, though you’ll hear a great song by the Weavers, there are no visuals to accompany it. By the way, you’ll hear Pete Seeger singing the first stanzas. It’s a great little song and always comes back during hard times. Take a listen.
The other song, quite different in sentiment, is “The Fear,” sung by Lily Allen. Lily Allen’s songs are generally characterized as “explicit,” as is this one. We warn you of that, and warn you also that the video is one of the silliest we’ve ever seen. The song begins with:
I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny
I want loads of clothes and fuckloads of diamonds
I heard people die while they are trying to find them.
You see how it goes. We like Lily Allen for her cheerful vulgarity and we don’t know what she’s doing dancing around in that stupid dress in this lame pastel video.
Book buyers like to shop Amazon.Com. You could even go so far as to say they love it. Consumers don’t know much about Amazon’s top man, Jeff Bezos, but they do know that Amazon is the world’s largest bookstore. Best of all, you can buy a book with a few clocks of your computer mouse. And if you don’t want to buy it at full price, you can see right there beside it some second hand copies for sale at a lower price. (That might be hard on the writer but, hey, we’re poor readers, not starving writers.)
Furthermore, the book will arrive at your home the very next day, or in a few days if you’re not in a rush. And if you’re in a big hurry and want something right now you can download a book to your Amazon Kindle reader. But maybe you don’t want a book. Maybe you’d like a movie. Amazon has lots of those. And lots of music, too. As Amazon says: “20 million movies, TV shows, songs, magazines, and books.” And dresses. And shoes. And crockpots and shovels and tomato sauce and banjos. Amazon is amazing!
So it’s interesting that writers and publishers loath Amazon, the world’s largest bookstore. How can that be? (OK, we’ve already given you a hint. But please keep reading anyway.) Publishers don’t sell books to directly readers, they sell them to booksellers who then sell them to readers. Now online shoppers in the United States will spend $327 billion in 2016, up 45% from $226 billion this year and 62% from $202 billion in 2011, according to a projection by Forrester Research, Inc. And Amazon dominates the online book selling world.
Here’s what you do when you dominate the market, if you’re Jeff Bezos. A couple of years ago Amazon decided to sell MacMillan’s e-books, and e-book of every publisher, for $9.99 or less. (Great for customers, right?) That meant Amazon would lose money on every sale, but Jeff Bezos has money to burn and selling at a loss would knock out other e-book sellers, such as Barnes & Noble, whereupon Jeff and Amazon could monopolize the market.
But MacMillan objected to Amazon’s pricing and said that only MacMillan had the right to determine pricing for MacMillan’s books. So Amazon simply turned off the little buttons that permit you to buy MacMillan books at Amazon, thereby shutting the publisher out of the biggest online market. (more…)
Marilyn Robertson lives in California where, in addition to writing poems, she also composes songs, plays the piano (ragtime) and the guitar, and sings. Maybe she also teaches in a grammar school. Here are two of her poems about the imagination.
After Reading Rilke to the Class
It’ is still possible, I tell my students as I collect their essays,
for you to find the place that Rilke talks about:
the repository of unlived lives.
Don’t let these desks limit your imagination.
For example, I say, and I bang my pointer
against the wall map for dramatic effect,
you could be here — in Spain — tossing dogs in blankets
as the wool gatherers do in Cordoba at Shrovetide.
They look blank. But just before the bell,
a cocker spaniel sails up out of a blue bedspread.
gyrating slowly in the stuffy air, barely missing
the light fixture on its chain in the middle of the ceiling.
A different drummer was seen in Portland this week.
He was marching by an elementary school when
a boy, sitting at the kindergarten art table,
happened to look up as he passed.
After that, the boy could no longer follow
the teacher’s instructions: to make
a collage of colored squares on white paper.
Instead, he made a long chain of squares,
adding red to green to blue to yellow —
and gluing that chain to the very edge of his paper.
Imagine the joy of it.
The sound of the drum growing louder.
The way the man in the bright coat
swung his arms high in the air with each beat.
And the quick smile he gave the boy at the window,
as if he knew him from another time…
long before kindergarten.
Most readers believe there are a variety of well established and independent book publishers in the United States. Certainly, it would increase artistic and intellectual diversity if there were a lot of different publishers. Actually, there are only six. While it’s true there are many very small publishing companies, six big ones dominate the US and in the publishing industry they are known as The Big Six.
Readers often think that the “imprint” under which a book is published is the name of a thriving, independent publisher. Alas, the imprint is usually the name of a vanished publishing house — a publishing house that was bought up by an international corporation — and the name of the global corporation, which owns many such imprints, may or may not appear anywhere in the book.
The names of The Big Six may be familiar to you as distinguished old publishing houses. They are Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House, Macmillan, The Penguin Group, and Hachette. Only two of The Big Six are US companies: Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins. The others are foreign: two are German, one is British and the other is French.
Simon and Schuster, for example, was established in 1924 in New York City by a man named Richard Simon and another named “Max” Schuster and it was one of many such unique, stand-alone publishing houses. Now the name is owned by CBS Corporation which under the Simon and Schuster name publishes over two thousand different books a year. Those books come out under 35 different “imprints.” Those imprints are what most people believe are the names of separate and independent publishing companies — which they may have been long ago.
HarperCollins looks, from its name, as if it were simply two well-known publishing houses side by side, a nice Anglo-American merger. Harper was founded in New York City way back in 1817 by the brothers James and John Harper. They prospered and in 1962, the company then known as Harper & Brothers merged with Row, Peterson & Company, and became Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. After Harper & Row went on a buying spree and acquired the publishing houses of Crowell, and Lippincott and Zondervan and Scott, Foresman, the Harper company was itself bought by Rupert Murdoch’s gigantic conglomerate, News Corporation Limited. Eventually, the company acquired the old British publishing house William Collins & Sons which was founded in 1819 by William Collins. The distinguished old name Harper was typographically joined to the equally distinguished old name Collins to make HarperCollins, a huge subsidiary of News Corp, the largest media company in the world. (more…)
Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2011, and at the same time brought popular attention to another book, the two-thousand-year-old On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. Greenblatt’s book is an engaging account of Poggio Bracciolini’s discovery of one of the few surviving copies of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius’ philosophical poem, and that discovery, at least in Greenblatt’s view, altered the course of intellectual history in Europe and “made the world modern.”
To the contemporary reader, the most astonishing thing about Lucretius’ philosophy is that it is based on an atomic theory of physics. Certainly it’s a marvel that a Roman poet writing around 50 B.C. should understand the natural physical world as being the result of atomic interactions, but Lucretius was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, himself an inheritor of the atomic theories of Leucippus and Democritus, all of them believers that the basic unit of the material world was the atom — meaning “un-cutable” in Greek.
Whereas our contemporary atomic theory is based on experimental evidence, the Greek and Roman philosophers arrived at their theories entirely through reason and speculation. Seeing the world as composed of complex structures built up by aggregates of simpler elements (look around you; you’ll see the same) those thinkers worked down to a theoretical solitary building block and down below that to nothingness. That’s where Lucretius begins: there’s the void and atoms falling endlessly through it, occasionally swerving to hit other atoms, and over time those atoms hook together to build up the material world we live in. Furthermore, says Lucretius, the void is so large and atoms so numerous that other worlds have also arisen, many other worlds, in addition to our own.
And that is all there is to life, to this world, to the cosmos, to anything. Lucretius’s materialistic vision was intended, he wrote, to rescue people from belief in the intervention of gods and the fear of death. Gods exist in De Rerum Natura, but they exist off at some distance, rather diaphanous beings, with no interest in the world they didn’t create and the humans who inhabit it. As for death, don’t fear an after life, says Lucretius; you are only your constituent atoms and death merely frees those atoms to regroup, perhaps, in some other form. Not everyone will find freedom from fear or any comfort in Lucretius.
De Rerum Natura is a long, long poem of some 7,400 lines. Even though it’s apparently unfinished, Lucretius gets around to explaining everything from how sound manages to get through walls to how it is that adolescent boys have wet dreams. Nothing is beyond his interest, from the grandest, such as the evolutions of human society, to the smallest, the infinitesimal wearing down of a statue by the touch of innumerable hands. Lucretius himself comes through the lines as a man interested in just about everything, a man who apparently loved the things of this world and loved writing about them. The work is, after all, a vivid digressive poem about this world.
Teachers of Latin and their more advanced students are well aware of Lucretius’s book – six books as Lucretius assembles it — and they’re also aware that much of it is difficult Latin. If you had Latin in high school only, you’ll find Lucretius somewhere between exceedingly difficult and impossible. Say Catullus is easy and Ovid is easy, admit Quintillian is not easy and Horace is hard. If so, Lucretius is hard. Happily, there are translations.
Unhappily, translations of Latin poems aren’t wonderful. Yes, Arthur Golding’s translation in 1567 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is admired and is probably the best translation of that work, even after four centuries, but we nowadays read it not to get a sense of Ovid but to relish the wonderful rush and verve of the brash translator’s Renaissance English, a marvelous vulgate.
The most recent translation of Lucretius’s hexameters is by A. E. Stallings and she, like Golding, uses “fourteeners” — lines of fourteen syllables, usually seven iambics — linked in couplets. Indeed, her translation gives De Rerum Natura a certain liveliness and bounce – and possibly a classicist finds the same spirited animation in the original. None of us here at Critical Pages can read Latin like a classicist, but maybe you guessed that already. We favor the Loeb edition of De Rerum Natura published by Harvard University Press with the Latin on the left-hand page and the plain English on the right. But we admire A. (Alicia) E. Stallings translation. She’s a remarkable poet all on her own, as her many prizes attest.
[The original posting of this article had a number of typographical and spelling errors for which we apologize.]
This is a good a time to take a look at the wonderfully descriptive opening lines of “Snowbound” by John Greenleaf Whittier. (We do this every winter.) Here they are.
The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite, shut out,
A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
The coming of the snow-storm told.
Yes, it’s only simple couplets. And each line has only four beats, which means it isn’t like virtually all the great poems in English. Instead, it uses the rhymes and rhythms of children’s verse. Here’s a poet who has fallen far from the high esteem and great popularity he once enjoyed. No one reads Whittier’s poems now. But “Snowbound” was an astonishing success. It blessed the author with more money than he had ever had, giving him the ability to provide his beloved niece with a suitable education and allowing him to expand his old house and to live the rest of his life without financial worries.
The long poem — and it’s very long — was first published in book form in February of 1866, became an amazing success, sold out the first printing by spring and by summer 20,000 copies were gone. It continued to be read and enjoyed for about fifty years, its jingling couplets easy to remember. The opening stanzas give us a wonderfully accurate and detailed picture of the snowstorm, the excitement as it whips around the house for two days, the changted landscape afterward, and the pleasant work of digging out. Whittier dedicated the poem To the Memory of the Household It Describes, the household he remembered from his rural childhood. That rural lifestyle, so lovingly described in the poem, was rapidly disappearing and certainly one of the reasons the poem was so popular was that it brought to life a lost time that many readers fondly remembered. The people described in the poem were drawn from people Whittier knew and many of them, like the life described, had passed beyond recall.
“Snowbound” is far to long to quote here, but if you’d like to take a look at the entire poem there are other pages on the Web which have it whole. Now take a look at those opening lines again. Recite them once and you’ll discover how easy they are to memorize. Commit them to memory and you’ll have them forever, even if you don’t have your computer, your i-pad or your phone with you.
If you read Critical Pages you have an independent mind. We hope so, anyway. That’s why we suggest you go to your local, independently owned book store and buy a book. Independent book stores welcome independent readers. You’ll be appreciated. And — who knows? — you might meet somebody interesting in the book store. Somebody like yourself, a lively person with a wealth of pent-up affection and an unfulfilled desire to find just the right book. Books can be a real turn on.
Now that a hard November wind is whirling the leaves about, it’s time for Shelley and his Ode to the West Wind. Percy Bysshe Shelley had a brief life, but it was so vivid with poetry, so politically radical, so sexually unrestrained, so romantic and Romantic, that he still arouses controversy among readers who know even a little about him.
He was born in England on August 4, 1892 and drowned in a stormy sea off the coast of Italy on July 8, 1822, not having quite reached age 30. Shelley ran afoul of law and convention a number of times. He wrote some great poems, many political and social pamphlets, and a number of papers which advocated atheism. He also indulged in sexual shenanigans, inspired loyal friendships, and left a few ruined lives in his wake.
Technically, Ode to the West Wind is composed of five cantos in iambic pentameter and the overall rhyme scheme is terza rima – a beautiful method of linking three-line stanzas with aba, bcb, cdc, and so forth. Terza rima had been rarely used in English. It was most famously used by Dante in his Divine Comedy, that poem of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, where the number three recurs in a multitude of ways. Terza rima isn’t easy to work, and nobody has succeeded in doing a good job of translating Dante into English using his rhyme scheme. As for the meaning of Shelley’s Ode, that’s impossible to cram into a brief paragraph — yes, it’s about the weather, but much, much more as well. Don’t sweat it. You can read a bit now and come back to it later. OK, here’s the poem:
Ode to the West Wind
O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou 5
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill 10
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill;
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear! (more…)