Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April Delight

When I awoke April 24, 2014, I had two appointments on my mind.  First, I needed to find the time during my busy day to post "Habits of the Past," the blog I had planned for that week because Isaac Werner loved Shakespeare and the previous day had been Shakespeare's birthday.  Second, my friend Shirley had invited me to join her at a poetry reading by Kansas Poet Laureate Wyatt Townley at the Kinsley Public Library.  At that time, I did not remember that April was the National Poetry Month, although my intended blog fit that celebration perfectly!  

Although Shakespeare was apparently Isaac's favorite writer, he was very interested in the lives of other famous writers.  Among the books in his library were Wharton's History of English Poetry, Authors' Classical Dictionary, Allibone's Dictionary of American & British Author's (2 Vols.), Fiske's Manuel of Classical Literature, Abbott's Shakespearean Grammar, Clark's Shakespearean Concordance, Lippencott's Biographical Dictionary, and Harbauch's Poems.  His engravings, stereoscope collection, and photograph cards also included images of poets and writers.  Isaac was on my mind as I entered the Kinsley Public Library for the reading.

Wyatt Townley, KS Poet Laureate 
We arrived at the library early and enjoyed the opportunity to meet the poet, Wyatt Townley, purchase books, and meet her husband, Roderick Townley who is also a poet and author.  Not all poets have the gift of both writing beautiful poetry and reading beautifully; however, Wyatt certainly possesses both talents, as well as a gift for public speaking, weaving together her poems, the stories behind her poems, and bits of poetry from other poets.  I was surprised when she quoted the same lines from William Carlos Williams that I had included in my blog!  (See "Habits of the Past, 4-24-2014.) 

A former dancer, Wyatt has transformed that sense of grace and motion into her dual roles of poet and yoga instructor.  Add to that a cunning sense of humor, and you have the ingredients for a compelling hour of poetry.  I was very proud to see that our current Kansas Poet Laureate represents the face of poetry to those within and beyond our state so well. 

Langston Hughes
What I did not know was that the evening of April 24, 2014, the celebration of poetry continued at Lincoln Center in NYC as the Academy of American Poets presented an evening of poetry, recited by a luminary group of actors and musicians, reading poems written by a wide variety of poets--what AP writer Hillel Italie called "a mini-survey of American verse."  As examples, musician Esperanza Spalding read "Life is Fine" by Langston Hughes, (1902-1967), with the defiant closing stanza:
Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry--
I'll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.
Life is fine!     Fine as wine!     Life is fine!

Maya Angelou with President Obama
Meryl Streep read poets Richard Wilbur and Sylvia Plath, while Kevin Kline read a poem by the popular Billy Collins called "To my favorite 17-year-old high school girl," and Tina Fey read James Tate.

Rosie Perez read 2013 Medal of Honor recipient Maya Angelou's triumphant poem "Still I Rise."
     You may trod on me in the very dirt
     But still, like dust, I'll rise. 
Edna St. Vincent Millay
photo credit Carl Van Vechten

Actor Patrick Stewart read Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem, "God's World," which he indicated was a personal favorite, sharing the story of having experienced the incredible beauty of a New England autumn that left him in tears and having been given Millay's poem that same weekend.
     O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
     Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
     And all but cry with color!
                    Lord, I do fear
     Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year;
     My soul is all but out of me,--let fall
     No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

What an incredible day of poetry April 24th turned out to be for me, and since I had remembered Isaac by sharing some of the poetry he may have admired, it seemed appropriate for me to use this week's post to share some more recent American poetry.  The e-mails and comments you sent in response to last week's post indicate that while not everyone who reads this blog particularly appreciates poetry, many of you do, and I hope others will read these blogs and consider picking up a book of poetry at the library, or perhaps some old textbook from high school or college long ignored.  Or, next time you are in a bookstore, you might find the poetry aisle and see if some modern poet is to your taste.  I will close with a poem that my unexpected day of poetry inspired me to write.  (The three lines that open the poem were spoken to my husband when he found me reading aloud from the book "The Afterlives of Trees" by Wyatt Townley, which I had bought at her reading the previous day.  The lines were offered to explain why I was reading aloud to only myself, and this poem grew from that short explanation.)

Poems only live when spoken.
When you read in silence,
they just lie there on the page--
Stillborn from the poet's pen,
awaiting a voice
to coax the breath of life
into the lovely words.
                                    (c) Lyn Fenwick 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Habits of the Past

Edgar Allan Poe
One day Isaac Werner was in St. John on business when he noticed a bill posted to advertise the appearance of a well known elocutionist at the new high school building scheduled for that same evening.  Although it meant traveling home in darkness, Isaac decided to attend.  A poet popular with elocutionists of that era, and of this elocutionist in particular, was Edgar Allan Poe, so perhaps Isaac heard his recitation of Annabel Lee:
It was many and many a year ago
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee... 
Perhaps Isaac even knew that poem by heart, for in that time it was common for people to commit poetry to memory.  Isaac was a great believer in the importance of elocution, for he thought that speaking well not only impacted the speaking voice but also improved a person's reasoning ability.

John Donne
Many people of a generation or two ago could recite favorite poems, and some of those poems from Isaac's era are still read today.  The poems of John Donne remain staples for funeral oration.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for thou are not so...
...Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls, 
It tolls for thee.

Robert W. Service
While memorizing poetry is not so popular today, we had a friend who enjoyed nothing more than entertaining us with poetry.  One of his special favorites was "The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert W. Service.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold...
Although Service was born during Isaac's lifetime, he was not publishing poetry until too late for Isaac to have heard one of his long, narrative poems, but perhaps someone in your own family loved reciting this poem or another poem by Service, as he was a popular poet of his time.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Young lovers today may know more rap lyrics than love poems to recite to their sweethearts, but their grandfathers might have recited Elizabeth Barrett Browning's...
How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach...
While if Isaac Werner ever chose to recite poetry to a lady, he was more likely to have chosen Shakespeare, perhaps Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate...

Today the habit of reciting poetry has waned, and the more formal rhyming style of the past has been altered by modern poets.  Yet, poetry survives, in styles as different as rap music and unrhymed verse.  William Carlos Williams wrote:
     It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                         yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
In an essay written for Poetry. philosopher Richard Rorty said, "individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses."  Surely Isaac would have agreed!

Perhaps reviving the old habit of memorizing poetry might be worth considering.  If so, Rudyard Kipling's advice to his son in the poem, "If," might be a good poem to select.

Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all around you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,...

If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;...

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much...'ll be a Man, my son!  

(All of the poets pictured were living before or during Isaac's lifetime, although not all had begun publishing their poetry prior to his death.)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Isaac and the Weather

An almanac Isaac used
As a Kansas homesteader learning to farm in the sandy loam soil of the prairie with weather different from the Pennsylvania farms and weather of his youth, Isaac Werner depended on both almanacs and folklore to help predict the seasonal weather patterns.  In locating books that Isaac owned in his personal library, I was eager to include the specific almanacs Isaac owned and used frequently.  You can only imagine how excited I was to find a 1892 McLean's Almanac with the Storm Calendar and Weather Forecasts of Rev. Irl Hicks--an example of the very publication Isaac was almost certain to have owned!  I could hardly wait for it to arrive so I could read the forecasts Isaac would have relied upon, and when it came, it was in perfect condition, its cover pictured at right.

The joke was on me, however, for although that cover is in English, if you look carefully at the lower right-hand corner, you will see the word "GERMAN."  All of the pages inside the almanac are published in German!  Isaac was raised in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, and in the early pages of his journal, written in 1870-1871, he occasionally writes short passages in German, so it might be possible that Isaac owned a German language almanac.  However, I'm sure that the almanacs he picked up in St. John to pass around at the Farmers' Alliance meeting would have been in English.

Not everyone trusted the storm predictions of Rev. Hicks, but the almanacs also illustrated phases of the moon, predicted eclipses, and other information, and Isaac continued to rely on the weather predictions in his almanacs as one source to consider.

In April of 1889, he recorded in his journal that nine of his roosters had begun crowing the previous evening, which he interpreted as a sign of changing weather.  This is consistent with the folklore that "When a rooster crows at night there will be rain by morning."  Isaac also saw a good season for hatching toads as a prediction of a change in the weather, and he wrote in his journal about a trip to St. John with his early harvested potatoes loaded in his wagon, during which there were so many toads hopping in the wagon tracks ahead of his horses that he could not avoid crushing some of them.  He was perplexed as to why they chose the road for their exercise, but he did feel that the abundant crop of toads predicted a weather change.

However, during a droughty period he wrote that the usually dependable signs of rain, like frogs croaking in the evenings and gnats and mosquitoes being particularly bad, had not brought the rainfall that was needed.  Perhaps this quote from Alice Hoffman would have been better suited to Isaac on both accounts:  "When all is said and done, the weather and love are the two elements about which one can never be sure."

If you missed the blog about folklore weather predictions posted 4-3-2014, you may want to read it now. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Learning History from Books

From my first blog post I made it clear how important I believe it is for intelligent people, and especially decision makers, to have a well-informed awareness of history.  (See "I Love History," 1-3-2012 reposting in archives.)  I hope my subsequent posts have shared some historic wisdom with all of you who follow my blog.
Titles from Isaac Werner's Library

What is essential, obviously, is the accuracy of the sources from which we acquire our information.  My admiration for Isaac began early in reading his journal, as he described the books he acquired for his personal library.  The quality of his selections was apparent.  (See "Isaac's Library," 2-2-2012.)  Later in his life he engaged in a practice we all must avoid if we are to be fully informed.  He began to narrow his reading to those authors with whom he already agreed.  As I quoted pollster Frank Luntz in "Isaac & the Political Press," (archives 10-24-2012), "We [Americans] don't collect news to inform us.  We collect news to affirm us."  If we restrict ourselves to biased information, our opinions are inevitably biased.

I have always had an awareness of World War II, but most of what I had read was written from an American perspective.  Only recently have I happened to select books with a European perspective, and I thought I would share some of these books for your consideration.

My first recommndation is a book written by a German author, Hans Falada, called Every Man Dies Alone.  It was written in Germany just after W.W. II and was not available in an English translation until 2009, when I first learned of the book based on the true story of a German couple whose  drafted son died fighting a war of which he disapproved.  His death gave them the courage to begin their personal protest of the war.  The book opened my eyes wider to the universal potential of war to corrupt the citizenry through greed, jealousy, fear, ambition and other dangerous motives to turn on one another, as well as the personal courage of ordinary people to do small things that make a difference.

More recently I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, with a young girl living outside Munich as the central character.  Now having been made into a wonderful movie, the book is described as being for young adults, but it has ample interest and wisdom in its pages for adult readers.  I definitely recommend both the book and the movie (now on DVD).

Madeleine Albright
I just finished Prague Winter, A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, by former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.  Sec. Albright, born in Czechoslovakia, was not yet two years old when her homeland was invaded following an attempt by British and French leaders to appease Hitler by compromising away part of Czech lands.  She was still a toddler, living in England with her parents, when she was baptized into the Catholic Church, and she did not know of her Jewish heritage until a reporter disclosed that information through his own research when she was 59 years old, after both of her parents were dead.  With the news of her ancestral heritage came the discovery that more than 2-dozen of her close relatives had died in the Holocaust.  

Her father had been a diplomat and the head of broadcasting for the Czechoslovak government in exile in England during the war, so his records of the war play a significant role in the research for this book, but she had to look elsewhere for information about her family's Jewish roots.  The result is a very personal account, sharing her childhood memories, her father's documented role in the Czechoslovak pre- and post war activities and government in exile's activities during the war, as well as her search for information about her own discovered relatives and their suffering as Jews during that tragically inhuman persecution.  She brings not only the personal tragedy and the political insider's perspective of her father and his circle of acquaintances but also the wisdom and professionalism of her own training and experiences.  It is an amazing book, and I highly recommend it.

While this is a bit different from my typical blog, it is certainly consistent with my theme of using history to avoid mistakes of the past in our present decisions.  As I was reading Sec. Albright's book, Putin's soldiers were marching into Crimea, and a part of one nation's citizens were voting whether to secede from their own country.  America and other nations were watching and seeking ways to intervene appropriately.  I could not help but consider the similarities to events before W.W. II, when some ethnic Germans living inside Czechoslovakia welcomed a takeover by Germany of that part of Czech lands and European leaders sought to appease Hitler by doing nothing about his land grabbing.  Our own country has its own bloody example of one region deciding to secede from this nation.  

Perhaps if we look to the wisdom of history, the decisions made in the present will be better informed.  

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Folklore Forecasts of the Weather

Red sky at morning,  sailor take warning...
In an era when there was no NOWA to alert us to the approach of severe weather, no constant weather channel to share weather conditions across the nation, and no television weatherman (or woman) to artfully point to temperatures and predictions on a local weather map, people relied on almanacs and folklore to predict the weather.  Isaac Werner's journal contains his observations and predictions about the weather, and every daily entry included the temperature, moisture, and wind conditions.  

My father often mentioned weather sayings, paying particular attention to the evening sky to predict the coming weather.  I believe observing a ring around the moon as a prediction of bad weather was one of his comments.  There is some scientific basis for that bit of folklore, since the ring is caused by a refraction of reflected sunlight from the moon onto ice crystals in the upper atmosphere.  Thin cirrus clouds normally precede a warm front by 1 or 2 days, and a warm front is often associated with a storm.  Some people believe the number of stars inside the ring indicate the number of days until the bad weather.

Nearly all of us know the saying, "If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb."  Given the recent severe cold across the nation, surely most of us are hoping for the appearance of a lamb that doesn't disappear during the following days!  Another familiar quote to many of us is "Red sky at Morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, a sailor's delight."  One prediction utilized by my father was "Rain before seven, fine before eleven," although I don't think he used the rhyme.  If you would enjoy reading more examples of weather folklore, you may want to visit  

...Red sky at night, a sailor's delight!
Having been raised in a farming community, I could certainly identify with what Kim Hubbard had to say:  "Don't knock the weather.  If it didn't change once in a while, nine out of ten people couldn't start a conversation."  Farm families depend on suitable weather for their growing crops, and although merchants and service providers in agricultural communities should also realize the significance of weather conditions to their customers and clients, apparently not everyone does.  I was shocked by a woman dashing into Wal-Mart one day, complaining loudly to everyone within earshot about the rain spoiling her hair.  Those of us with crops desperate for rain after a lengthy dry spell weren't too sympathetic about her spoiled hair-do!  As Benjamin Franklin observed, "Some are weatherwise, some are otherwise."

A later blog will share Isaac Werner's methods for predicting the weather!