Dec. 23, 2001

Wanting to Steal Time

by Robert Bly

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Poem: "Wanting to Steal Time," by Robert Bly from The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (Harper Collins).

Wanting to Steal Time

People are moving big milk cans around in
The storeroom, and I am there. Each day I move
Barrels full of nothing to a different spot.

I want to charge you for the rustmarks on my pants.
When greed comes by, I hitch a ride on the truck.
You'll see nothing but my backside for miles.

Every noon as the clock hands arrive at twelve,
I want to tie the two arms together,
And walk out of the bank carrying time in bags.

Don't bother to associate poets with saints
Or extraordinary beings. People like us have already
Hired someone to weep for our parents.

We have a taste for ignorance, and a fondness
For the mediocre dressed up as fame. We love
To go with Gogol looking for dead souls.

Counting up the twelve syllables in a line
Could make us allies of the stern Egyptians
Whose armies were swallowed by the Red Sea.

It's the birthday of writer Avi, born Avi Wortis in New York City (1937), the son and grandson of writers. Since his first book for young people, Things that Sometimes Happen (1970), he has written more than forty more, including historical novels, science fiction, fantasy, and contemporary stories such as S.O.R. Losers (1984). His most recent book is Don't You Know There's a War On? (2001).

It's the birthday of poet Robert Bly, born in Madison, Minnesota (1926). After serving in the Navy during WWII, he attended Harvard University, where, he would recall later, "I learned to trust my obsessions ... One day while studying a Yeats poem I decided to write poetry the rest of my life." His first book of poems was Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962). Asked to lead a seminar for men, he unearthed a Grimm Brothers tale about Iron John, the wild man of the forest who challenges and empowers a young prince. Years later, in Iron John: a Book for Men (1990), he argued that contemporary life destroys the crucial bond between fathers and sons, creating a constant state of grief in men. He said: "Being a poet in the United States has meant for me years of confusion, blundering, and self-doubt. The confusion lies in not knowing whether I am writing in the American language or the English or, more exactly, how much of the musical power of Chaucer, Marvell, and Keats can be kept in free verse. Not knowing how to live, or even how to make a living, results in blunders. And the self-doubt comes from living in small towns."

It's the birthday of writer Calder Willingham, born in Atlanta, Georgia (1922), son of a hotel manager. Two of his novels are set in hotels, with a thoughtful bellhop as their protagonist. He came to national attention with his first novel, End as a Man (1947), which James T. Farrell called a "permanent contribution to American literature," and which was unsuccessfully prosecuted twice for obscenity. He adapted it for the stage and as a film called The Strange One (1957). He also wrote, either alone or in collaboration, the screenplays for Paths of Glory (1957), One-Eyed Jacks (1961), The Graduate (1967), Little Big Man (1972), Thieves Like Us (1975) and Rambling Rose (1991), based on his own novel.

It's the birthday of writer Norman Maclean, born in Clarinda, Iowa (1902), the son of a Scotch Presbyterian minister. After a distinguished career as an English professor, mostly at the University of Chicago, he retired at 70 and started writing, not as a retirement hobby but full time. His first book was a collection of essays and his second, A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories (1976) was the first book of fiction ever published by the University of Chicago Press. Its opening sentence has become famous: "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing."

It's the birthday of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, born in Palermo, Italy (1896). After the death of his controlling mother, he started writing, but published only three articles in his lifetime. He masterpiece was a novel, The Leopard (1959), which portrayed the decline of a once-powerful aristocratic family after Italy appropriated Sicily in 1860.

It's the birthday of poet and editor Harriet Monroe, born in Chicago, Illinois (1860). She was 51 years old, with a long, hard-fought career in the arts behind her, when she founded Poetry: a Magazine of Verse in 1912 in Chicago. On her own, and with the help of Ezra Pound, her first foreign correspondent, she discovered and published the poetry of Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, W. B. Yeats, and James Joyce, and the first mature work of T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915).

It was on this day in 1823, that the Troy, New York, Sentinel published an anonymous poem titled, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known by its first line, "'Twas the night before Christmas ..."

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