“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by David Kirby

David Kirby


“Everyone’s good in a crisis,” says my brother-in-law’s wife
to my brother-in-law, who seems less than pleased to have
this information, he having just said, “I’m good in a crisis”
in response to her assertion that he’s not really good at anything:
picking up after himself, taking turns with the kids,
cleaning the kitchen after a big meal that she has shopped for
and prepared. Bravado, the marvelous, the startling:
these aren’t as impressive as that which is steady, consistent,
reliable. Not Faustus but Penelope. Jack Gilbert says as much
in his poem “The Abnormal is Not Courage,” which
describes a 1939 Polish cavalry charge against German tanks,
their sabers flashing as cannon fire cuts them to pieces,
although the best thing about this story is that
it never happened: the cavalry came across lightly-armed
German infantry and dispersed them, though
the Poles themselves were routed when German reinforcements
arrived and fired on them with machine guns.
The tanks appeared only after the battle was over,
as did journalists who saw the tanks and the dead men
and the horses and drew the wrong conclusion, although
in a way the cavalry charge actually worked, since it halted
the German advance long enough for a Polish battalion
of foot soldiers to retreat to safety. But isn’t
the story better the way Gilbert tells it? Who wants to hear
about a mistake? If you’re going to tell a story,
make it a good one. Be patient. When 18-year-old
John James Audubon came to America, he found
some Eastern Phoebes nesting in a cave and, having heard
that they returned to the same spot to nest every year,
he decided to test that idea, so for days he sat in the cave
with them and read a book until they were used
to him and let him tie string to their legs to identify them,
and, sure enough, the next year the same birds were back.
Don’t try too hard, in other words. “Human speech is like
a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears
to dance to,” says Flaubert, “when we long to move the stars
to pity.” Really? The stars don’t need us.
The stars are fine. It’s the bears who need dance music.
On your feet, Smokey! Here’s one you’ll like—
I wrote it just for you. Besides, every hundredth time
we sit down to write a bear song, we write one
that leaves the stars shaking with sorrow, their tears
raining down in torrents and then evaporating in the atmosphere
before they reach us. Beauty can’t be targeted—that was
Ezra Pound’s mistake, says Brodsky, a surprising one
for somebody who lived in Italy so long. Beauty is a by-product.
Beauty is the stepchild of doing one’s job, as when Cyrano
de Bergerac suffered a neck wound in battle and decided
to study astronomy while he recovered, eventually writing
a satirical novel about a voyage to the moon, thus influencing
future science fiction writers but also being
discovered three hundred and fifty years later by the Edmond Rostand
who made him famous in a play called Cyrano de Bergerac
in which his love for the beautiful Roxane is thwarted
because Rostand gave him a large and unsightly nose,
an assertion as exaggerated as the false Polish cavalry charge
and thus, like that invention, a key element in turning
a good story into a great one. Gordon Lightfoot’s
hit song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
was riddled with so many inaccuracies that the singer-songwriter
agonized over his sending the doomed freighter to Cleveland,
for example, when it was really headed for Zug Island
when it sank on Lake Superior in 1975, and the families
of the twenty-nine men who perished in the wreck
met to mourn in the Mariners’ Church of Detroit
and not, in Lightfoot’s re-phrasing, the Maritime
Sailors’ Cathedral, but his producer and long-time
friend Lenny Waronker told him not to worry about
the facts, to play to his artistic strengths and “just tell
a story.” The Poles weren’t stupid. At the time
of the 1939 cavalry charge, their cavalry
was already being organized into motorized brigades.
After all, who won the war? Audubon’s tying
strings onto the legs of the Eastern Phoebes
is the first known incident of banding birds.
Cyrano didn’t have a big nose, but Rostand gave him one.
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” charted at #1,
and before long shipping regulations were changed
to include survival suits, positioning systems,
depth finders, increased freeboard, more frequent inspection of vessels.
None of this would have happened if Gordon Lightfoot
had made sure all his facts were correct and the song
had turned out to be a dud. Writing isn’t hard.
You just have to be patient. You just have to get everything right.

from Poets Respond
May 7, 2023


David Kirby: “When I heard this week that Gordon Lightfoot had died, the first song of his that came to mind was ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.’ It’s one of those songs that’s both awful and fabulous at the same time: it’s the song you put on repeat to drive out those last drunk guests who won’t leave your party, but it’s also one that can move you to sudden, unexpected tears. The story of its composition addresses every artist’s fundamental challenge: do I stick to the facts or do I try to create a work that will last? Me being me, I precede the story of the composition of ‘The Wreck’ with other similar instances, but I get around to it eventually.” (web)

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