Oct. 7, 2001

Snowflakes; Knowledge

by Howard Nemerov

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Poem: "Knowledge," and "Snowflakes," by Howard Nemerov from Trying Conclusions (University of Chicago Press).


Not living for each other's sake,
Mind and the world will rarely rime;
The raindrops aiming at the lake
Are right on target every time.


Not slowly wrought, nor treasured for their form
In heaven, but by the blind self of the storm
Spun off, each driven individual
Perfected in the moment of his fall.

It's the birthday of Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, born in Wauchope, New South Wales, Australia (1935). His grandfather had come to Australia from County Cork, Ireland. As a young man, Keneally entered a Catholic seminary in New South Wales with the intention of becoming a priest. He quit the seminary six months before his scheduled ordination and became a teacher at a Catholic high school. While he was teaching, he wrote his first novel, The Place at Whitton (1964). He achieved his greatest success with novels based upon historical events, including The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972), based on a revolt of Aborigines in 1900, and Schindler's List (1982), about a German industrialist who saved the Jews assigned to work in his factory during WWII. Schindler's List won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1982, despite some confusion over whether the book was, in fact, fiction. The book was based on extensive historical research and actual interviews with Holocaust survivors. Keneally said: "There are two kinds of eloquence. Non-fiction is trying to tell the truth, and fiction is trying to tell the truth by trying to make up divine lies. There is no question which is the premiere art form—definitely fiction."

It's the birthday of poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, born Everett LeRoy Jones, in Newark, New Jersey (1934). In the early 1960s he was one of the Beat poets on New York's Lower East Side. His first book of poetry was Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note (1961). As the '60s wore on, he moved away from Beat poetry and became more preoccupied with issues of race and politics. He had an off-Broadway success in 1964 with his play Dutchman, and in the following year he opened the influential Black Arts Repertory Theater and School. In 1968 he moved back to Newark and became active in promoting the cause of the African-American community. He also became a follower of the Kawaida faith, a combination of Islam and traditional African religion, and changed his name from Leroy Jones to Amiri Baraka, which means "blessed prince."

It's the birthday of Scottish-American suspense novelist Helen Clark MacInnes, born in Glasgow (1907). She was married to an Oxford classicist, Gilbert Highet, whose wartime work for British intelligence inspired her first novel, Above Suspicion (1941), about a husband and wife who are recruited to locate a missing British agent. It was the first of over 20 novels of espionage and suspense that she wrote over the next 40 years, including Decision at Delphi (1960) and The Salzburg Connection (1968). She wrote: "In my stories, suspense is not achieved by hiding things from the reader. The question is, when is the event going to take place and how can you stop it? A reader may know everything, but still be scared stiff by the situation."

It's the birthday of the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, born in Greenfield, Indiana (1849). As a young man, he had a passion for acting. He first acted in shows staged in a barn loft, then went on the road with a traveling medicine show. He recited poetry, told stories, and played the banjo and fiddle. He began to write poems in the Hoosier dialect, about ordinary people, about the Indiana countryside. Soon he was publishing as many as a hundred poems a year, most of them in dialect. He wrote "When the Frost is on the Punkin," "Little Orphant Annie," and "The Raggedy Man." His first book of poems, The Old Swimmin' Hole and 'Leven More Poems came out in 1883. At the turn of the century, he was the most popular poet in the United States.

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