Dec. 13, 2001

A First Day in Paris

by James Wright

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Poem: "A First Day in Paris," by James Wright from Above the River: Complete Poems (Noonday Press).

A First Day in Paris

    Some twenty years ago I was still a young man. I did not know
anything more about Paris than a small black-haired sea tern knows
about inland mountain gardens on the first day of his life. All he
does is gaze around him, puzzled at the solitary distances of the
ocean. How many mountains I have flown across, how many nests
I have lain down in and abandoned between the big American cities.
Now I walk in the gardens of the Tuileries. Here, a song tells me,
some twenty years ago the chestnut buds in April were too heavy
to bear themselves any longer. When a late frost fell on them, they
suddenly shuddered in the night, and the next morning they opened,
green as before, in spite of everything. The startled frost ran off and
vanished, and the open blossoms turned white in their own good
time. In Paris the natural world, alert and welcome in a moment to
its own loveliness, offers a strange new face, as though God were
creating it for the first time. Sometimes the women in the Tuileries
grow so old they outlive death, and their shadows lie on chestnut
leaves like sunlight.

It's Santa Lucia Day. Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy, lived in Sicily in the fourth century. Her name means "light," and she became the patron saint of sight, and of the blind. According to one legend about her martyrdom, part of her punishment was to have her eyes plucked out, and in paintings she is often shown carrying her own eyes on a plate. By the year 1000, the veneration of Saint Lucy had reached as far as Sweden, where her feast day became the start of the Christmas season. In Sweden, it's a tradition on Santa Lucia Day for the eldest daughter of the house to usher in the Christmas season by putting on a white dress and wearing an evergreen wreath with seven lighted candles as a crown. In the old Julian calendar, December 13 was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the light of the candles on Santa Lucia Day was a reminder that the daylight would now begin to lengthen toward spring.

It's the birthday of poet James (Arlington) Wright, born in Martin's Ferry, Ohio (1927). His father was a worker at a glass factory and his mother worked in a laundry. He served in the Army in Japan during WWII, then became a student of John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College. He later studied with Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington before going on to teach at the University of Minnesota, Macalester College, and Hunter College in New York. His first book of poetry was The Green Wall (1957), and was followed by 12 other books of poetry and several volumes of translations from Spanish and German. His Collected Poems (1971) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

It's the birthday of poet Kenneth Patchen, born in Niles, Ohio (1911). Like his father he worked in a steel mill in eastern Ohio, before wandering off into migratory work and, eventually, poetry. His first volume of poetry was Before the Brave (1936). During WWII, he wrote angry anti-war poetry that was later rediscovered during the Vietnam War. During the 1950s, he began to read his poetry in clubs to a jazz accompaniment.

It's the birthday of the German poet (Christian Johann) Heinrich Heine, born in Düsseldorf, Prussia (1797). He is most famous for his poems, such as "The Lorelei," which were set to music by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and other German Romantic composers. He wrote: "People in those old times had convictions; we moderns have only opinions. And it needs more than a mere opinion to erect a Gothic cathedral."

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