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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Number 271: Stanley Kunitz "Halley's Comet"

Halley's Comet

Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family’s asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.
Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street—
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.

-- Stanley Kunitz

Hap Notes: In May of 1910, when Kunitz was 5 or 6 years old, the impending visit of Halley's comet stirred up some little panic. Astronomers, with new (at the time) technology at their disposal, learned that comets contained cyanogen, a poisonous gas and that earth would pass through the tail of the comet. Of course, some goofs in the media (uh, just like now) grabbed onto this and scared the bejesus out of folks. There were actually shysters selling "comet pills" to protect people from the impending poisonous doom. Some people around the world had comet parties, notably the French, who held "comet balls" and "comet dinners" ( this fact, alone, redeems the French for me in many ways.) Here in America, in addition to a lot of ballyhoo, there were prophets of doom, end of the world blah blah blah. You know the drill.

The comet was a craze. There were comet buttons, Edmund Halley cigars, and a variety of souvenirs. Scientists wrote essays and spoke to the public in lectures about the earth's complete safety throughout the event, trying to dispel the rumors of danger. Postcards were made depicting it and songs were written about it (the Halley's Comet Rag") President William Howard Taft viewed the comet at the U.S. Naval Observatory. The pope at the time (Pius X) thought the whole thing was malarkey.

However, if you were six years old and in first grade and heard about the comet, as Kunitz was, it certainly would remain a vivid memory. Particularly amusing is his observation that if "wandered off its course/and smashed into the earth/ there’d be no school tomorrow."

Remember that Kunitz's father committed suicide before the poet before so there are two "fathers" he may be talking about when he implores him to find him on the roof. (everybody wore nightshirts back then. Pajamas (originally from South and Western Asia, worn as clothing) were not used as nightwear until the late 1870s. Pajamas for nightwear would have been "trendy" and "different" in Shapiro's youth.)

The earth did pass through the 24 million mile-long tail of Halley's comet in 1910 on May 19. It took six hours. There were spectacular sunsets that month and the comet was visible to the naked eye. The comet put on a particularly bright show that year throughout the world from April through May.

Halley's comet (pronounced to rhyme with "valley" not Haley like Haley Mills) was actually sited and depicted in tapestries in 1066 during the battle of Hastings. And of course, Mark Twain, possibly the comet's most famous birth/death, was born the month and year it passed in 1835 and died the day after it passed in 1910.

Let's go back to the poem, though. Do you remember the excitement and maybe even foreboding that we felt at the turn of the millennium and the whole Y2K hysteria? Even if you thought it was hogwash, there is always that slight anticipation that maybe something is going to destroy us. It would be interesting to find out what 6 year olds thought about that now, wouldn't it? In Kunitz's poem, it's the natural world that is destroying us so there's an added mysterious factor to it.

Here's where we've talked about Kunitz before:

and here:

and here:

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