Friday, April 24, 2009

Poetry Friday: From Bombs to Books - This Day in History

Construction of the Library of Congress

Destruction of Hiroshima

I'm a bit addicted to the "This Day in History" websites - I check them on a regular basis with my morning cup of coffee in hand, and the ghosts of who/what came before haunt me for the day. It is especially eerie to have two very different events occur on the same day, years apart, as is true today:

1. On April 24th, 1800, the Library of Congress was founded. The first purchase order was for 740 books and 3 maps. As of 2008, the collection totaled more than 135 million items. It is a glorious online research tool for fiction and non-fiction writers alike, especially the AMERICAN MEMORY portion of it. When you visit the site, you will be amazed at the material available to you online. If you haven't been there for awhile, definitely check it out again. What has been added in the last couple of years is breath-taking.

2. On April 24th, 1945, Harry Truman was briefed by FDR's former Secretary of War Harold Stimson about the existence of the Manhattan Project, a secret government plan to develop the atomic bomb. Truman wrote in his journal that America would have a weapon "great enough to destroy the whole world." And he still authorized it.

Thinking about that today, I realize how glad I am to have contributed a poem to this Peace Poem project. You can see that the invitation is not exclusive - it's open to any poet of any age, and I encourage you to send something to them by the deadline for submissions, April 30th. Here are three reasons to do it today:

a) When the atomic bomb was first tested in the desert near Los Alamos, New Mexico, the heat generated by the explosion turned the silica sand to green glass ten feet deep and eleven-hundred feet across. The photo below is taken from 10 miles away, 0.0016 of a second after detonation.

b) The objects in the photos below were found in the debris after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The lunchbox belonged to a girl named Reiko Watanabe, age 15 at the time - she carried a lunch of peas and rice; when the lunchbox was found, the food had been completely carbonized by the blast. Reiko's body was never found. The second photo is a pocket watch stopped at the exact moment of the explosion.

c) Mitakuye Oyasin. That's the title of a Dakota Sioux prayer for harmony. It means, essentially, "We are all related."

So I encourage you to send an original poem about peace to this worthy cause. Proceeds from the sale of the book produced will go towards the building of a hospital in West Virginia which treats people free of charge "using the most modern medical technology and alternative methods including humor, drama, art, music, playful architecture and old-fashioned family doctoring. There will be no insurance required or accepted."

Good deed, good people.

From bombs to books today. I prefer books, thanks! Happy Birthday, Library of Congress! And Harry Truman et al, if one of the reasons you were willing to participate in that kind of genocide (yes, I think it qualifies) was to impress Stalin and keep him out of Eastern Europe (historians say that was as big a reason as ending the war), it didn't work. Violence usually doesn't.

Poetry Friday is being hosted this week by Lisa Chellman over at Under the Covers. Thanks, Lisa!


  1. I am so glad you posted about this! I sent in my poem already. It is a wonderful project and I can't wait to see the final book!

  2. Julie,

    Did you ever read John Hersey's HIROSHIMA? It was fascinating and chilling at the same time. I wrote a research paper on the subject when I was in college.

    One of my favorite anti-war poems was written by Eve Merriam called "Fantasia." It's just one sentence--but says so much. Another is Wislawa Szymborska's "The End and the Beginning." Szymborska is a poet whose poems I can read over and over again--and they never lose their punch.

  3. Elaine - yes, I read HIROSHIMA in college, too - and found it heartbreaking. Hersey really brought it down to real people and their stories...gosh, I think I'll re-read it.

    And I'll look for the Merriam poem, it's unfamiliar to me. Thanks. I love Szymborska but don't know that particular poem so will look for it. Do you know Yusef Kumanyakaa's work? This poem in particular:

    We Never Know

    He danced with tall grass
    for a moment, like he was swaying
    with a woman. Our gun barrels
    glowed white-hot.
    When I got to him,
    a blue halo
    of flies had already claimed him.
    I pulled the crumbled photograph
    from his fingers.
    There’s no other way
    to say this: I fell in love.
    The morning cleared again,
    except for a distant mortar
    & somewhere choppers taking off.
    I slid the wallet into his pocket
    & turned him over, so he wouldn’t be
    kissing the ground.

    —Yusef Komunyakaa

  4. Great reminder about the project. I sent mine in on March and hope many are sending poems in!

  5. Julie,
    You have inspired me. Today I will write about peace.

    Just so you know, yesterday you inspired one of my fourth graders. All year long, we've been stopping everything for the last hour on Friday to read poetry. IMAGINARY MENAGERIE has been in my collection all year long, but just yesterday it got the attention it deserved. Two of my best readers performed "Gargoyle" without telling us the title to see if we could guess what the poem described. (we could!) Then they read the one about the sphinx. Snigdha turned to me and said, "I think I'm getting an idea to write my OWN poems about mythological creatures!" Your book went from invisible to mentor text in the course of about 10 minutes! Thank you for joining me in the classroom yesterday and in the days to come!

  6. Julie,

    I had never read that poem by Komunyakaa before. Thanks for leaving it in the comments.

    I was introduced to his poetry when I paticipated in the Favorite Poem Project's first summer poetry institute for teachers in 2001. One of the videos they showed us that touched me most was of a Vietnam veteran reading Komunyakaa's poem "Facing It" at the Vietnam War Memorial. It really brought back memories of the 1960s and 1970s. I lost a very dear friend in that terrible war.

  7. work in such isolation, and it's heartening to hear how our work goes out into the world. Oh, the idea of a kid being inspired to write a poem because of something of mine that he's read - is there ANYTHING lovelier in the world than that? Well, maybe my two-year-old grandson picking a dandelion bouquet for me. Still, it's very very nice. Thanks.

    And by the way, just about everyone in my family is a teacher - my mom taught fifth grade for years and years. I don't think there's anything that takes more heart and soul. Several of you are teachers - library media specialists, elementary school teachers, working, retired - I raise a glass to you! I think you're heroes.