A few days after Kooser’s birth, “Neville Chamberlain government announced that due to international events, a bill would be introduced in parliament introducing military conscription for all males aged 20 and 21.” “Hitler made a speech to the Reichstag renouncing the Anglo-German Naval Agreement and German–Polish Non-Aggression Pact” and “evoked laughter in the Reichstag by reciting, in exaggerated and sarcastic tones, the thirty-one countries that President Roosevelt had listed in his message of two weeks earlier asking, “Are you willing to give assurance that your armed forces will not attack or invade the territory or possessions of the following independent nations?" Benito Mussolini referred “to the letter in private as ‘absurd.’”
On September 1st of that year, World War II would fully erupt and its misery and terror would last, by most calculations, until V-J Day, August 14, 1945. Of course the physical and psychological repercussions would last much longer. The existential angst of having unleashed nuclear warfare had much to do with the anxiety of the 1950s and 1960s, McCarthyism, and more. The residue of pain and disenfranchisement felt by those Japanese-Americans who—two months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor—FDR ordered rounded up and relocated from the West Coast continues to be felt today. In the Middle East, the Arab rejection of the ridiculously bungled United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine and the creation of Israel brought with it the ongoing tension and violence we now see embodied in ISIS and other terrorist groups. I could go on. I could go on a long time.
Many of the things that were happening in the days surrounding Ted Kooser’s birth are among the most awful events of human history, yet today, I think, finds us not only in the same sort of divided world with the most evil among us in key positions of authority, it finds this evil closer to us in the United States than ever before. It lives in the White House; perhaps, it has always lived there. One can point to many things Americans have done that qualify as exceptional, and acts of exceptional cruelty and disregard are certainly among them.
The events that occurred before and after Ted Kooser’s birth in 1939 aren’t all of the horror show variety. Not by a long shot. Seamus Heaney was born, and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was published. Black Americans could take some solace in Joe Louis retaining the world heavyweight boxing title by knocking out Jack Roper, a white man, in the first round in Los Angeles. Hugh Masekela and Marvin Gaye were born. The Kenyon Review published its first issue. The first published short stories by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein appeared. Jorge Luis Borges' first short story in his later characteristic style, "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote", was published, as was James Joyce's last work, Finnegans Wake. Margaret Atwood and Toni Cade Bambara were born.
In the face of the worst things imaginable, art and individual efforts against them carried on and did what art does: document and engage. There has been a lot of hand wringing and moaning going on in the community of artists. Facebook has become a depressing place if your friends are, like mine, largely writers, musicians and other members of the creative community. It’s easy to get caught up in this despair.
My friend and former employer, Toni Morrison, reminds us, however, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” In my opinion, one doesn’t even have to create art that is overtly political; the act of making art is political in and of itself and a slap in the face to those who feel threatened by such audacious freedom.
When I read the work of Ted Kooser, Toni Morrison, and other writers who have become the elder statespersons of our clan, when I read their words in interviews, I can’t help but think—here at age 56—what the world will seem like for me in my eighties, if I make it that long. I wonder what sort of world it will be for my stepson who will be, on the day of my potential 80th birthday, 38 years old. I suspect it will be a lot like the world we live in now. It will be full of horror and full of what we can erect in opposition to that horror. It will be full of poets and other artists who, as Kooser puts it, will be “calling attention to the ordinary world,” and the “ordinary world” will always be full of inhumane and delusional forces against which we might organize and make art. It will be full of hope and love and compassion, too.
Less than ten years after Ted Kooser was born, June 14, 1946, about a year after WW II ended, Donald John Trump, the 45th president of the United States, was born in Queens, NY— a couple of miles from the place I would be born 14 years later.
“Strange Fruit” continues to be an important anthem, a national anthem, covered by dozens of performers. In 1978, Holiday's version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Recently, British Singer Rebecca Ferguson, publicly declined an invitation from president-elect Donald Trump to sing at his inauguration saying that she would perform only if she could sing Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Her offer was declined.