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From the Writer’s Almanac

Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s the birthday of poet Theodore Roethke (books by this author), born in Saginaw, Michigan (1908). His father, Otto, and his uncle Charles ran a floral company that their own father had started. The brothers had large greenhouses in their backyards, and young Theodore spent his days weeding and harvesting moss for floral baskets. Many years later, he wrote to a friend: “The greenhouse — my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.”

Roethke graduated from high school and college and went on to graduate school at Harvard. He had always loved to write, and now he started writing poetry. One night while walking through Harvard yard, he spotted a respected professor and approached him with his work. The professor invited Roethke to his office the next day, and after reading his poems, exclaimed, “Any editor who wouldn’t buy this is a fool!” Roethke was overwhelmed: “I felt I had come to the end […] of a trail. I had learned how to get high grades, but that seemed meaningless. Now I didn’t have to go into advertising […] or the law. I wasn’t just a spoiled sad snob. I could write and people I respected printed the stuff.”

The Great Depression took its toll, and Roethke dropped out of Harvard to teach at Lafayette College, and finally the University of Washington. In recommending him for the University of Washington, the president of Bennington wrote: “He is an extremely complex, temperamental and somewhat eccentric person. If the University of Washington can take his eccentric personality, it will acquire one of the best teachers I have ever seen.”

Roethke was a big man, 225 pounds. He was fascinated by gangsters, and he even talked like one — he had a deep voice, a growl. He was manic-depressive, and he often drank too much. He wore fur coats and drove big cars. As a teacher, he was persuasive and emotional. When he wanted his students to write a description of a physical action, he told them to describe what he was about to do, then climbed out the window onto a narrow ledge and inched his way around the whole classroom, making faces at every window. He insisted students memorize poems so that they would have something to call on when they were going through a tough period in life. He continued teaching throughout his career.

His books of poetry include The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), The Waking (1953), and The Far Field (1964).

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2012 in American Lit, poetry, writers, Writers' Almanac

 

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From the Writer’s Almanac

On one of my favorite poets:

It’s the birthday of poet and essayist Charles Simic (books by this author), born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (1938). His family survived the bombing of Belgrade during World War II and fled Eastern Europe after the war was over, moving first to New York, which Simic said “looked like painted sets at a sideshow in a carnival,” and then to Chicago, which he described as “a coffee-table edition of the Communist Manifesto, with glossy pictures of lakefront mansions and inner-city slums.” Eventually, the family wound up in Oak Park, Illinois, and Simic went to the same high school Ernest Hemingway had gone to. His first ambition was to be a painter; he didn’t start writing poetry until his last year of high school, publishing his first poems in 1959, when he was 21. Since that time he has published nearly three dozen books of poetry, many translations and works of prose, and served as the poet laureate of the United States.

Secret History

Of the light in my room:
Its mood swings,
Dark-morning glooms,
Summer ecstasies.

Spider on the wall,
Lamp burning late,
Shoes left by the bed,
I’m your humble scribe.

Dust balls, simple souls
Conferring in the corner.
The pearl earring she lost,
Still to be found.

Silence of falling snow,
Night vanishing without trace,
Only to return.
I’m your humble scribe.

In the Library

There’s a book called
“A Dictionary of Angels.”
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2012 in American Lit, poetry, Writers' Almanac

 

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From the Writer’s Almanac

From the Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of the writer who said, “My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.” Thornton Wilder (books by this author), born in Madison, Wisconsin (1897). His father was a diplomat, so Wilder and his four brothers and sisters moved back and forth between Asia and the United States. His parents were supportive, but sometimes overbearing. They dictated what Wilder did with his time, and made him work on farms in the summer so that he would be more well-rounded. They decided where he would go to college: to Oberlin, in Ohio, and then to Yale.

After some time in Rome, Wilder got a job teaching French at a boys’ boarding school. In 1926, Wilder spent the summer at MacDowell Colony, a writers’ retreat in New Hampshire, and he started work on his second novel. It was set in the Spanish colonial era of the 18th century — the story of a bridge that collapses in Lima, Peru, while five people are crossing it. The collapse is witnessed by a Franciscan monk, who becomes obsessed by the tragedy and tries to figure out why those five people had to die. Wilder finished it less than a year later and sent it off to his publisher, who almost turned it down, complaining that it was written “for a small over-cultivated circle of readers.” But when The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) was published, it was an immediate success. It won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize, and by that time, it had sold nearly 300,000 copies and been through 17 printings.

Wilder earned enough from The Bridge of San Luis Rey to quit his job and build a house for himself, his parents, and his sisters in Hamden, Connecticut. He called it “the house the bridge built.” That house was his official residence for the rest of his life.

In 1962, Wilder was 65 years old, a famous writer. He was best known for his plays, like his Pulitzer-winning Our Town (1938) and The Matchmaker (1955), which was adapted into the musical Hello, Dolly!. He had not written a novel for almost 20 years. He was tired of being in the limelight, and he wanted to escape his comfortable life in Connecticut, so Wilder got in his Thunderbird convertible and headed southwest. The car broke down just outside of Douglas, Arizona, a town on the Mexican border, and that’s where Wilder stayed for a year and a half. He was happy to be somewhere where nobody knew much about him or his writing. He rented an apartment with one bed for himself and one for all his papers. During the days he wrote, read, and took walks, and in the evenings he hung around the bar asking questions — so many questions that everyone called him “Doc” or “Professor.” When he left Douglas at the end of 1963, he had a good start on a novel. In 1967 he published it as The Eighth Day, and it won a National Book Award.

He said, “There’s nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head.”

And: “The test of an adventure is that when you’re in the middle of it, you say to yourself, ‘Oh, now I’ve got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home.’ And the sign that something’s wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure.”

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2012 in American Lit, Writers' Almanac

 

From The Writer’s Almanac

Old washing machine in Bunratty, Ireland

Old washing machine in Bunratty, Ireland (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Beware!

I can’t fathom someone railing against refrigeration or washing machines. I get the preference for fresh food, but what about dairy? Must we get milk and cheese daily?

Today is the birthday of the poet R.S. Thomas, born Ronald Stuart Thomas in Cardiff, Wales (1913). Most of his poems were about the Welsh landscape and its people. He was an Anglican clergyman, as well as a poet, until 1978, when he retired and devoted himself to the cause of Welsh nationalism. He often grew frustrated with his fellow countrymen, though, blaming them for letting their culture fade away into history. In his poem “Welsh Landscape,” he called them “an impotent people, sick with inbreeding / worrying the carcass of an old song.” He didn’t learn the Welsh language until he was 30, and though he wrote his poetry in English, he wrote his autobiography in Welsh. He called it Neb (1985), meaning “nobody.”

He was a Luddite, viewing modern conveniences as distractions that cause us to neglect our spiritual health. He and his wife Elsi lived in a small and almost primitive stone cottage for much of their marriage, and their son, Gwydion, remembered his father preaching against the evils of the refrigerator and the washing machine from his pulpit. His poems were as austere as his lifestyle, and he once wrote: “A recurring ideal, I find, is that of simplicity. At times there comes the desire to write with great precision and clarity, words so simple and moving that they bring tears to the eyes.”

That must have been some church. Was using a washing machine sinful? Or just dirty?

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2012 in World Lit, writers, Writers' Almanac

 

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From The Writer’s Almanac

Lewis-Sinclair-LOC

Image via Wikipedia

I really liked this piece on Sinclair Lewis. Makes me want to read more of his books. (I did read Main Street.)

It’s the birthday of Sinclair Lewis (books by this author), born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (1885), author of Main Street(1920)and Babbitt (1922), and the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature.

He left his hometown in Minnesota as soon as he could. He worked for newspapers and for publishing companies, wrote short stories for magazines, and wrote some potboiler novels and even a few serious novels, but none of his books did very well.

In 1920, H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, who were editing the satirical magazine American Mercury, met up with 35-year-old “tall, skinny, paprika-headed” Sinclair Lewis, who was unknown in the writing world, at a mutual friend’s apartment. Lewis walked up to Mencken and Nathan, put his arms around their shoulders and tightly around their necks, and began yelling at the top of his voice that he was the best writer in the country and that he’d just written the best book in the country, to be published in a week — and being critics, the two of them should duly take note of this. He went on like this at high volume for about half an hour, and when Mencken and Nathan finally escaped, they went to a pub to decompress and concluded that he was an idiot. But Mencken read the book anyway, and was bowled over by it.

The book was Main Street (1920), about a fictional small town in Minnesota called Gopher Prairie, a place inhabited by “a savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world.”

Main Street was a huge sensation. No one had ever written such a scathing satire of small-town American life. Within nine months, it sold about 200,000 copies, and within a few years, the book had sold 2 million copies and he’d become a millionaire. In 1922, he published  Babbitt, which was also highly successful. He turned down the Pulitzer Prize that they tried to award him for his 1925 novelArrowsmith, and when the Swedish Academy called to inform him he was being awarded the 1930 Nobel Prize in literature, he thought the phone call was a prank.

Though Sinclair Lewis left Minnesota as a teenager and spent most of his life traveling or living in Washington, D.C., 16 of his 22 novels involved Midwestern towns or Midwestern protagonists. He said he found creative inspiration while “sitting in Pullman smoking cars, in a Minnesota village, on a Vermont farm, in a hotel in Kansas City or Savannah, listening to the normal daily drone of what are to me the most fascinating and exotic people in the world — the Average Citizens of the United States.”

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2012 in American Lit, Writers' Almanac

 

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From the Writer’s Almanac

It’s the birthday of Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky (1940) born Iosip Aleksandrovich Brodsky in Leningrad. He left school at 15, worked a series of odd jobs, and began writing poetry. In the 1960s, he taught himself Polish and English, and he began to translate poems from these languages into the Russian tongue. He even translated the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” into Russian. His irregular work record led to his arrest in 1964 for being a “social parasite,” and the fact that he was a Jew didn’t help him either. He was sent to a mental institution and then was sentenced to five years in an Arctic labor camp. His sentence was commuted after protests by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and poet Anna Akhmatova.

He was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, and he moved to the States, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1975. In 1993, he co-founded the American Poetry and Literacy Project. His goal was to place poetry in public places like airports and supermarkets, to make poetry “as ubiquitous as the nature that surrounds us … or as ubiquitous as gas stations, if not as cars themselves,” as he put it. Poetry, he said, “is the only insurance against the vulgarity of the human heart. Therefore it should be available to everyone in this country, and at a low cost.” One of the organization’s first projects was handing out free copies of the book Six American Poets in hospitals, hotels, and homeless shelters around the United States.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987, and in his acceptance speech he said:

“I who write these lines will cease to be; so will you who read them. But the language in which they are written and in which you read them will remain not merely because language is more lasting than man, but because it is more capable of mutation.”

 
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Posted by on May 24, 2011 in history, writers, Writers' Almanac