Dec. 8, 2001


by Delmore Schwartz

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Poem: "Sarah," by Delmore Schwartz from Selected Poems: Summer Knowledge (New Directions).


The angel said to me: "Why are you laughing?"
"Laughing! Not me. Who was laughing? I did not laugh. It was
A cough. I was coughing. Only hyenas laugh.
It was the cold I caught nine minutes after
Abraham married me: when I saw
How I was slender and beautiful, more and more
Slender and beautiful.
            I was also
Clearing my throat; something inside of me
is continually telling me something
I do not wish to hear: A joke: A big joke:
But the joke is always just on me.
He said: you will have more children than the sky's stars
And the seashore's sands, if you just wait patiently.
Wait: patiently: ninety years? You see
The joke's on me!"

It's the birthday of novelist, memoirist, and short story writer Mary Gordon, born in Far Rockaway, New York (1949). Final Payment (1978), The Company of Women (1981), and Men and Angels (1985), all center around single women struggling to find their relationships to the world around them, bound by familial obligations and the limitations of love. Then, in 1996, Gordon wrote The Shadow Man, a memoir about her father, who died when she was eight years old. While researching the book, she discovered that many things she thought she knew about her father were false. She thought he had attended Harvard, for instance, and discovered that he was a high school dropout who had worked as a railroad clerk.

It's the birthday of poet and critic Delmore Schwartz, born in Brooklyn, New York (1913), who struggled throughout his life to live up to his early success. His family lost most of its savings in the 1929 stock market crash, and his father died the following year. The executor of his father's will embezzled whatever was left. At the age of sixteen, Schwartz was practically penniless. He managed to attend college, however, first at the University of Wisconsin and then at New York University. In 1938, his debut collection of poems, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, was published to great critical acclaim. At the age of 25 wenty-five, Schwartz was recognized as one of America's preeminent poets. His work never seemed to critics to live up to his early efforts, despite the fact that he won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry for his 1959 collection called Summer Knowledge. Schwartz, a long time alcoholic, felt that he had failed to live up to his promise. The last six years of his life were filled with drink and drugs, and commitments to hospitals for psychiatric treatment. In 1966, Schwartz suffered a massive heart attack in a New York City elevator. Novelist Saul Bellow, a friend of Schwartz's, based the title character of his book, Humbolt's Gift, on the sad, declining life of the ruined poet.

It's the birthday of novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and journalist Richard Llewellyn, born in Saint David's, Wales (1906). It is as a novelist that Llewellyn gained fame, and for one novel in particular: How Green Was My Valley (1940), the story of the problems faced by a late nineteenth century South Wales coal mining family.

It's the birthday of cartoonist, journalist, and short story writer James Thurber, born in Columbus, Ohio (1894). Thurber attended college at Ohio State University, where he began to write for the school newspaper, and edited The Sundial, the school's humor magazine. He left for France and became a reporter for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. He returned to New York in 1927 with no specific plans. At a party, he met fellow writer E.B. White, who introduced him to Harold Ross, editor of The New Yorker. He was hired as managing editor for the magazine, for which, he finally convinced Ross, he was unfit, and so began thirty-year association with the magazine as a writer and cartoonist. He became a prolific writer for the magazine. Thurber's cartoons appeared in the magazine from 1930 to 1947. Between 1930 and 1961, Thurber published nearly thirty books, including My Life and Hard Times (1933), The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), and My World—And Welcome to It (1942). The latter contained one of Thurber's most famous stories, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," the story of a man who daydreams about heroic adventures in order to escape from his domineering wife and boring job.

It's the birthday of cartoonist Elzie Crisler Segar, born in Chester, Illinois (1894). He created "Popeye the Sailor Man." For about ten years, the respectably popular strip starred three characters, Castor Oyl, Olive Oyl, and Ham Gravy. Then on January 17, 1929, Castor Oyl hired a funny-looking old sailor to pilot a ship to Dice Island. That character's name was Popeye, and he was more of a fighter than a sailor.

It's the birthday of playwright Georges Feydeau, born in Paris, France (1862), who is considered one of the major figures in French comic theater. Two of his most popular plays, The Lady from Maxim's (1899) and A Flea in Her Ear (1907), are still often performed today.

It's the birthday of poet and satirist Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known as Horace, born in Venusia, Italy (65 BC).

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