[lit-ideas] Re: Sunday Poem

  • From: david ritchie <ritchierd@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sat, 21 Jan 2006 23:59:38 -0800

On the differences between is and ought

A student asked me this week if I am dismayed by the first meetings of classes,
in which I find that people know nothing about history.
I said that in middle life I am less interested in ought;
I deal with what is.
This is true re. students,
not so with deans.
I also said that when it comes to students two things annoy me from the outset:
quoting Webster's Dictionary as if that settled anything,
and quoting Santayana's comment about people being doomed to repeat history.
A more inane comment would be hard to imagine!
What are the consequences of not knowing where one came from?
Being lost.
Being ignorant of what others know.
Being stupid.
Having less understanding than or of others.
Not catching as much crab.


The radio today played a phone call from a German man who surrendered in 1941.
From 1942 to 1947 he was a POW in Australia.
In 1945 he heard that his mother had died in one of the bombing raids,
or maybe from artillery when the town was captured.
One way or another, explosives killed her,
or walls,
or fires,
or a flying piece of glass.
I don't know,
We don't know.
No one knows.


In his mourning, he found Mozart important.
That's what the radio was saying.
What I thought was--
here is history, as we might currently understand it;
here is something to know.
When you read that Germany was defeated,
it's about some poor sod who was drafted,
did his best,
surrendered,
ended up in Australia,
where he learned that his mother was dead.
Go through life not knowing this
and you may think that invading,
or blowing yourself up,
or paying yourself six hundred thousand dollars from charity funds,
are really good ideas.

In the middle reaches of the night,
I drift down the fat stream, which goes by James Bond's punt,
tied up in an idyllic hide.
I worry, as one does, whether Osama
has some kind of big boil on his posterior,
or something of that ilk,
a disease that historians will later seize upon,
when searching for causes.
How lame are our brains
when tired, or sorely exercised.
How easily we decide what is important;
how much better things are,
when we choose the fights that we ought.
Win or lose; the points are life.

David Ritchie
Portland, Oregon


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