February 02, 2016

“Only God can make a tree.” But Joyce Kilmer’s poem inspired many people to plant and preserve them…

On a chilly winter afternoon in 1913, at his home in New Jersey, poet Joyce Kilmer jotted down the first two lines of a new poem in his notebook, along with the date — February 2, 1913.

Those two lines went on to become among the most famous, most inspiring and most mocked bits of American verse in history:

       “I think that I shall never see
        A poem lovely as a tree.”

The rest of Kilmer’s well-known poem “Trees” was written on a following page of the notebook.

It was first published in the August 1913 issue Poetry Magazine. In 1914, it was included and featured in his second book of poetry, Trees and Other Poems.

Kilmer was already a successful poet, journalist and lecturer in 1914. But it was “Trees” that gave him broad and lasting fame.

Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see just how famous and impactful the poem would become.

When America entered World War I in 1917, Kilmer enlisted. On July 20, 1918, he was killed at age 31 by a German sniper during the Second Battle of the Marne on the Western Front.

In the decades since Kilmer’s death, “Trees” has been reprinted in countless collections of poetry. It became one of the standard poems taught to and recited by American school children.

In 1922, composer Oscar Rasbach turned it into a song that has been recorded by many popular singers and musicians, including Nelson Eddy, Robert Merrill, Paul Robeson, Mario Lanza and Julian Lloyd Webber.

More importantly, the poem helped inspire tree planting programs and forest preservation efforts in the U.S.

It has long been one of the primary pieces of literature that the Arbor Day Foundation uses to promote National Arbor Day, which is celebrated each year on the last Friday in April. (Many states observe Arbor Day on different dates depending on best tree planting times in their area.)

Each year on Arbor Day, the Foundation honors people who make notable efforts to plant and protect trees by giving them a “Joyce Kilmer Award.”

Kilmer was a devout Catholic and his spiritual nature is reflected in the last two lines of “Trees,” which are nearly as famous as the first two lines:

       “Poems are made by fools like me,
        But only God can make a tree.”

Scholars have noted that Kilmer may have unconsciously or knowingly plagiarized those final lines.

In 1908 and 1909, before becoming an established poet, Kilmer was a school teacher.

It’s likely that he had read or heard about a popular book about children published in 1907, Labour and Childhood, written by the pioneering British children’s health advocate Margaret McMillan.

McMillan encouraged outdoor activities for children. In her 1907 book, using the current British term for indoor school equipment, apparatus, she wrote: “Apparatus can be made by fools, but only God can make a tree.”

Of course, many critics have also lambasted “Trees” and Kilmer’s other poems for being simplistic, stylistically outdated, syrupy, sentimental and (punningly) sappy.

Since 1986, The Philolexian Society of Columbia University, a college literary society of which Kilmer was once vice president, has held an annual “Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest.”

Yet it’s hard to deny that the simple, but poignant and memorable, lines in Kilmer’s poem “Trees” have inspired millions of people to adopt a more reverent attitude toward trees and nature and helped encourage the planting and protection of millions of trees.

That’s not a bad legacy.

So, to Kilmer’s critics I say: What have YOU ever written that will be remembered, inspire millions of people and benefit the environment decades later?

Some links worth exploring:

• The complete text of Kilmer’s book Trees and Other Poems.

RisingDove.com, the website about Joyce Kilmer and his family, maintained by his granddaughter.

• The book A Cave of Candles: The Story Behind Notre Dame's Grotto by Dorothy V. Corson. In her research for the book, Corson tracked down the date when “Trees” was written and other interesting background facts about the poem by talking to Kilmer’s oldest son Kenton. (That excerpt is online here.)

• The Kilmer House website

• The more than 100 videos on YouTube inspired by Kilmer’s poem “Trees”

• Web page about the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina, a 17,000 acre tract of forest land preserved in Kilmer's memory in 1936.

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January 30, 2016

“A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing” for “the tree of liberty”…

Thomas Jefferson a little rebellion quote

In 1786, the new democratic government of the United States of America wasn’t quite working out like some Revolutionary War veterans had expected.

Many had not been paid for their military service in local state militias or the Continental Army as promised.

And, when they went back to their family farms, they found they were subject to heavy new state taxes imposed to help pay off government war debts owed to rich merchants.

Many farmers who couldn’t afford to pay their taxes and other debts had their farms seized and were sentenced to serve time a debtors’ prison.

In response, angry veterans in Massachusetts began joining together to take over and shut down local courts. One group of vets tried to take over the Springfield armory.

This mini-revolt — called “Shays’ Rebellion” after one of its leaders, Daniel Shays — was quickly and forcefully crushed by the Massachusetts state militia, under orders from Governor James Bowdoin.

In the confrontation at the Springfield armory, four Shaysites were killed and twenty wounded. The rest fled.

Eventually hundreds were rounded up and indicted.

Some were sent to prison. Eighteen were sentenced to be hanged, as recommended by Founding Father Samuel Adams.

Drawing a somewhat arbitrary distinction between governments with and without kings at the top, Adams said:

“Rebellion against a king may be pardoned, or lightly punished, but the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.”

Adams’ fellow Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, who was in Paris at the time, agreed that there was a distinction between a monarchy and America’s new system of government.

However, his view of the anti-tax uprising in Massachusetts was less harsh.

In fact, two of Jefferson’s most famous (and arguably most misused) quotations are from letters he wrote about Shays’ Rebellion.

One of those oft-cited quotes — “I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing” — was in a letter he wrote to James Madison on January 30, 1787.

Jefferson said in the letter that a democratic government like America’s “has a great deal of good in it. The mass of mankind under that enjoys a precious degree of liberty and happiness. It has its evils, too, the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing.”

He added:

“I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people, which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

Later that same year, Jefferson penned another famous quote that referred to Shays’ Rebellion:

In a letter to Col. William Smith, dated November 13, 1787, he said:

       “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Both of Jefferson’s famous quotes about Shays’ Rebellion are still frequently cited by people who are “mad as hell” about something the government has done.

Today, relatively few people actually believe that the sentiments Jefferson expressed should be interpreted and acted out literally, through a violent revolution. 

Some anti-gun control protesters who carry signs referring to Jefferson’s “tree of liberty” quote apparently do.

So, apparently, did the anti-government “rump militia” members who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

I wonder how many of them know what happened to the Shaysite rebels Jefferson was referring to when he wrote that line.

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January 21, 2016

The story behind the phrase “The Year of Living Dangerously”

The Year of Living Dangerously book & movie 01

Google has a cool tool for researchers of words and phrases (including quotations) called the Ngram Viewer.

It graphs the occurrence of a word or phrase in books published between the years 1500 and 2008.

If you do an Ngram search for the phrase “the year of living dangerously,” you’ll see a huge, continuing spike starting in the early 1980s.

That’s because it gained major worldwide popularity with the release of the ‘80s film The Year of Living Dangerously.

The movie, directed by Australian filmmaker Peter Weir, first debuted in Australia on December 17, 1982.

It was initially given a limited released in the United States on January 21, 1983, then released nationwide here on February 18, 1983.

The Year of Living Dangerously is one of my own favorite romantic adventure films.

It stars Mel Gibson (back when he was still cool and hot), Sigourney Weaver (who is still cool and hot) and Linda Hunt, in her breakthrough, Oscar-winning role as a man.

Depsite how much I liked it then and now, The Year of Living Dangerously was only a modest hit at the box office. (It grossed a mere $10.3 million during it’s run in U.S. theaters.)

However, the movie’s title became a huge linguistic hit as a catchphrase that has become embedded in our language and spawned many variations.

Indeed, if you Google “the year of living *” -dangerously (using Boolean search techniques to look for versions of the phrase that don’t include the word dangerously), you’ll see thousands of different variations.

A few examples include:

Although the movie made “the year of living dangerously a widely-known catchphrase, it’s not the origin.

Nor is the 1978 novel The Year of Living Dangerously by Christopher J. Koch, which the film version is based on.

The setting for the book and movie is Jakarta, Indonesia during the chaotic period that led to the overthrow of the country’s long-time dictator, President Sukarno.

Author Koch took his title from a speech Sukarno made in 1964.

The President had a custom of giving a special name to each year in his annual “National Day” speech.

In the National Day speech he gave on August 17, 1964, Sukarno named the upcoming year “the year of living dangerously.”

This reflected the challenges he knew he faced from his political enemies, who included both hard-line Communists and radical Muslims.

The multilingual leader’s name for the year was based partly on an old Italian phrase he was familiar with — “vivere pericoloso” (“living dangerously”).

Although Sukarno gave the speech in the Indonesian language, he inserted those Italian words after the Indonesian word for year, tahun, to create the name.

The year ahead, he said, would be the “Tahun vivere pericoloso.”

The Google Ngram for “the year of living dangerously” suggests that it first appeared in English-language books around the time Sukarno gave his 1964 National Day address.

Some sources credit him with coining it and, based on what I know at this point, I think he probably did.

Either way, his choice of the name for the coming year certainly turned out to be prophetic.

In September of 1965, a bloody coup began that led to his overthrow.

Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were killed in the power struggle. Sukarno survived and was allowed to live out the rest of his days under “house arrest,” until his death in Jakarta on June 21, 1970.

His phrase “the year of living dangerously” and its numerous linguistic offspring live on.

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January 20, 2016

How a political backlash turned “a grand old rag” into “a Grand Old Flag”...

On January 19, 1906, American composer, playwright and performer George M. Cohan copyrighted a new song he’d written titled “You’re a Grand Old Rag.”

It was one of the songs Cohan created for his upcoming Broadway musical George Washington, Jr.

The chorus of the song went like this:

      “You’re a grand old rag,
       You’re a high flying flag
       And forever in peace may you wave.
       You’re the emblem of
       The land I love. 
       The home of the free and the brave.
       Ev’ry heart beats true
       Under Red, White and Blue,
       Where there’s never a boast or brag.
       But should auld acquaintance be forgot,
       Keep your eye on the grand old rag.”

On February 6, 1906, “You’re a Grand Old Rag” was recorded as a 78 RPM single by the popular singer Billy Murray.

That same week, the musical premiered at The Herald Square Theater in New York City.

Cohan himself was the star and the highlight of the show was his rendition of “You’re a Grand Old Rag” as he marched up and down carrying an American flag.

Although George Washington Jr. and singer Billy Murray’s recording were both big hits, many critics, military veterans and groups complained to him that “You’re a Grand Old Rag” was disrespectful to the American flag. It should not, they said, be referred to as a “rag.”

This political backlash surprised and bothered Cohan.

He explained that patriotism was a main theme of the musical and that he actually got the phrase “grand old rag” from an old Army veteran.

However, he was sensitive to the criticism and ultimately decided to change the song’s name and lyrics.

Here’s how the story is explained by a page about the song on the Library of Congress website:

The original lyric for this perennial George M. Cohan favorite came, as Cohan later explained, from an encounter he had with a Civil War veteran who fought at Gettysburg. The two men found themselves next to each other and Cohan noticed the vet held a carefully folded but ragged old flag. The man reportedly then turned to Cohan and said, “She’s a grand old rag.” Cohan thought it was a great line and originally named his tune “You’re a Grand Old Rag.” So many groups and individuals objected to calling the flag a “rag,” however, that he “gave ‘em what they wanted” and switched words, renaming the song “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

On June 2, 1906, the song was copyrighted with its new name and the sheet music was reprinted, with “old flag” in place of “old rag” in the lyrics.

“You’re a Grand Old Flag” was hugely popular and became the first song from a musical to sell over a million copies of sheet music.

Ironically, at least one critic felt that Cohan’s George Washington Jr. and the songs in it were too patriotic.

Life magazine critic James Metcalf wrote that they exuded “mawkish appeals to the cheapest kind of patriotism.”

Presumably, as Liberace once quipped about negative reviews of his music, Cohan cried all the way to the bank.

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January 17, 2016

The origin of the slogan “Sisterhood is Powerful.”

In 1970, feminist leader and author Robin Morgan edited an anthology of articles about the growing woman’s liberation movement titled Sisterhood Is Powerful.

The book quickly became a bestseller and the title became a famous phrase and slogan. But it wasn’t created by Morgan.

According to many sources, “Sisterhood is Powerful” was coined in 1968 by another pioneering feminist leader, Kathie Sarachild, who was then known as Kathie Amatniek.

It was part of something Amatniek wrote for a leaflet distributed at an anti-Vietnam War event by the Jeanette Rankin Brigade (a coalition of women’s groups named after the first woman elected to Congress in 1917).

The event was held on January 15, 1968 in Washington D.C.

One of the best recollections of what happened that day was written by another well-known feminist and peace activist of the era, Shulamith Firestone.

In her account (published on the Marxist.org website), Firestone said:

A coalition of women’s groups united for a specific purpose: to confront Congress on its opening day, Jan. 15, 1968, with a strong show of female opposition to the Vietnam War...

Peg Dobbins wrote a long funeral dirge lamenting woman’s traditional role which encourages men to develop aggression and militarism to prove their masculinity. There were several related pamphlets, including one written by Kathie Amatniek which elaborated on the following Progression:


Finally, by way of a black-bordered invitation we “joyfully” invited many of the 5,000 women there to attend a burial that evening at Arlington “by torchlight” of Traditional Womanhood, “who passed with a sigh to her Great Reward this year of the Lord, 1968, after 3,000 years of bolstering the egos of Warmakers and aiding the cause of war...”

“Sisterhood is Powerful” went on to become a popular feminist catchphrase. 

Shulamith and Amatniek went on to found the famous/infamous “Redstockings” women’s lib group.

Amatniek, now known as Kathie Sarachild, is now the director of the Redstockings “Archives for Action.” 

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