Dec. 4, 2001

Left Open

by W. S. Merwin

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Poem: "Left Open," by W. S. Merwin from Travels: Poems by W. S. Merwin (Alfred A. Knopf).

Left Open

The shutters are rusted open on the north
kitchen window ivy has grown over
the fastenings the casements are hooked open
in the stone frame high above the river
looking out across the tops of plum trees
tangled on their steep slope branches furred
with green moss gray lichens the plums falling
through them and beyond them the ancient
walnut trees standing each alone on its
own shadow in the plowed red field full
of amber September light after so
long unattended dead boughs still hold
places of old seasons high out of the leaves
under which in the still day the first walnuts
from this last summer are starting to fall
beyond the bare limbs the river looks
motionless like the far clouds that were not
there before and will not be there again

It's the birthday of poet, novelist, biographer and translator Robert Payne, born in Cornwall, England (1911), who was one of the most multi-faceted and prolific writers of the 20th century. He authored more than 100 books on a variety of subjects. He began a career as a British shipwright, which gave him his introduction to China. He spent time there as a professor of English and naval architecture, and developed a lifelong love for the country. He expressed that love in two published diaries of his time there: Forever China (1945) and China Awake (1947). Throughout his life, he continued to write poetry, fiction, and non-fiction books about the country that he loved. But that was only one aspect of his writing career. Payne is perhaps best known as a biographer of literary figures, political icons, and films stars, including Fyodor Dostoyevsky, William Shakespeare, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Tse-tung, Adolph Hitler, Karl Marx, Greta Garbo, and Charlie Chaplin.

It's the birthday of poet, critic and essayist Sir Herbert Edward Read, born in Kirbymoorside, Yorkshire, England (1893). The son of a farmer, and orphaned at the age of 10, Read made his writing debut in 1915 with a book of poetry called Songs of Chaos. His fledgling career was cut short by WWI, during which he co-founded the journal Arts and Letters, which attacked conservative views and attracted writers like T. S. Eliot. After the war, he became a literary critic and, in 1926, published Reason and Romanticism. He was a frequent champion of new artistic movements, and earned a reputation as a defender of modern art, especially of the sculptures of Henry Moore. He said: "The only sin is ugliness, and if we believed this with all our being, all other activities of the human spirit could be left to take care of themselves. That is why I believe that art is so much more significant than either economics or philosophy. It is the direct measure of man's spiritual vision."

It's the birthday of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, born in Prague (1875). He wrote the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus.

It's the birthday of writer Samuel Butler, born in Nottinghamshire, England (1835). He was the author of two major satires, the first published anonymously in 1872 as Erehwon, which is "nowhere" spelled backwards. It was about a fictional nation called Erehwon, where many of the features of Victorian society were skewered and reversed. The book was an immediate success, whereupon Butler claimed the credit and the fame. In 1903, The Way of All Flesh was published posthumously. Considered Butler's greatest work, it is part autobiography and part brilliant criticism of the attitudes and institutions of Victorian England. Both Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh have since been acknowledged as literary classics. He said: "Every man's work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or anything else, is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself the more clearly will his character appear in spite of him."

It's the birthday of philosopher and writer Thomas Carlyle, born in Dumfriesshire, Scotland (1795), who was the leading social critic of early Victorian England. He said: "A person usually has two reasons for doing something: a good reason and the real reason."

In 1947 on this day, Tennessee Williams' play, "A Streetcar Named Desire," premiered at New York's Shubert Theater. The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, was an immediate success, as were its stars: Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter.

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