Apr. 17, 2000

An Old Man

by Constantine Cavafy

Broadcast Date: MONDAY: April 17, 2000

Poem: "An Old Man," by Constantine P. Cavafy, translated by Rae Dalven, from The Complete Poems of Cavafy (Harcourt Brace).

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist CYNTHIA OZICK, born in New York City (1928). She was heavily under the influence of Henry James when she started writing her first novel, a book that took seven years to finish. She said, "I began as an American novelist, and ended as a Jewish novelist. I Judaized myself as I wrote it." Her short story "The Shawl" (1989) might be her most famous piece. It's about the march to a death camp and the murder of an infant.

It's the birthday of playwright and novelist THORNTON WILDER, born in Madison, Wisconsin (1897). He spent part of his childhood in China, and he served in the Air Force Intelligence Corps during World War II. He won Pulitzer Prizes for his novel, The Bridge Over San Luis Ray (1927), and the plays were Our Town (1937) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). Although he's often celebrated for his homey, traditional values, Wilder was a modernist, taking inspiration from avant-garde writers like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, as well as from ancient Greek and Roman writers. Even the folksy Our Town was experimental: he set all the action on a bare stage and kept all the actors visible, even when they weren't active in a scene.

It's the birthday of short story writer and memoirist Karen Blixen, known by the pen name of ISAK DINESEN, who was born in Rungstedlund, Denmark (1885). In 1914, she married a man who took her to Kenya to run a coffee farm. Within a year, he gave her syphilis, which was treated with doses of mercury and arsenic. She divorced him nine years later, and managed the plantation alone for seven more years after that. Her memoirs Out of Africa (1937) and Shadows on the Grass (1960) look back on her years in Africa as the richest time in her life: going on safaris, working with the native Kikuyu, and helping in the war effort. She told of how she delighted the Kikuyu by speaking in rhyme, which they had never heard before. But by 1931, the farm had failed, and she returned to Denmark at the age of 46. She wrote first book, in English, under the name Isak Dinesen. Before she died in 1962, she had become a ghostly white, emaciated woman, worn down to only 80 pounds. But she made a triumphant tour of America when she was 74, and met the person she most wanted to meet, Marilyn Monroe.

It's the birthday of Greek poet CONSTANTINE CAVAFY, born Konstantionos P. Kabaphes in Alexandria, Egypt (1863). Although he's now considered the greatest of the modern Greek poets, Cavafy visited Greece only twice, briefly. He didn't publish his first 14 poems until he was 41, and that was done privately, for friends. Because of his late start, he called himself a poet of old age. None of his poems was ever published except privately, and one-third of them were never published during his lifetime at all. He spent nearly his whole life in the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, and died there on his birthday, in 1933.

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