Jul. 29, 2000

Portrait, The

by Stanley Kunitz

Broadcast date: SATURDAY, 29 July 2000

"The Portrait," by Stanley Kunitz, from Passing Through: The Later Poems (W.W. Norton).

Today is Saint Olaf Day in Norway, to honor Olaf Haraldsson the Second, born in 995. After converting to Christianity, in France, he returned to Norway, took over the throne, and worked to complete the conversion of his country to the new faith, begun by Olaf the First. He died on this date, July 29, in the Battle of Stiklestad. He was proclaimed a national hero and the patron saint of Norway.

On this day in 1945, after delivering an atomic bomb to Tinian Island, in the northern Mariana Islands, the American cruiser Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine. It was the U.S. Navy's worst loss at sea, ever. Of the nearly two thousand crew members, 400 died in the explosion or went down with the ship. Since there were no rescue craft in the area, survivors spent the next 3 days bobbing in the ocean. By the time they were spotted from the air on August 2nd, only 318 sailors were still alive; all the others had drowned or been eaten by sharks.

It's the birthday of novelist Chester Himes, born in Jefferson City, Missouri (1909). He wrote his first stories while serving a 7-year jail sentence for armed robbery as a teenager. His first books, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) and Lonely Crusade (1947), are filled with the pain of being black in America. After leaving the United States to live in Mexico, France, and Spain, he wrote crime novels starring his black detectives Grave-Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson.

It's the birthday of poet Stanley (Jasspon) Kunitz, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1905), shortly after the suicide of his father, a dress manufacturer who had gone bankrupt. As valedictorian of his high school class, Stanley won a scholarship to Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude. He became an editor, and then a poet. His Selected Poems won a Pulitzer Prize in 1959. In his collection The Testing-Tree (1971), he abandoned the formal structure of his earlier verse for looser, more emotional poems.

"In my youth, as might be expected, I had little knowledge of the world to draw on. But I had fallen in love with language and was excited by ideas, including the idea of being a poet. Early poetry is much more likely to be abstract because of the poverty of experience. One of the problems with so much of what was called, in the '60s, confessional poetry was that it relied excessively on the exploitation of self, on the shock effect of raw experience. My conviction is that poetry is a legendary, not an anecdotal, art."

On this day in 1883, painter Vincent van Vogh died, two days after shooting himself in the chest, in the field where he had made his last painting-"Cornfield with Flight of Birds." He was 37.

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