Aug. 17, 2003
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Poem: "Peaches" Peter Davison from The Poems of Peter Davison (Knopf).
A mouthful of language to swallow:
stretches of beach, sweet clinches,
breaches in walls, pleached branches;
britches hauled over haunches;
hunched leeches, wrenched teachers.
What English can do: ransack
the warmth that chuckles beneath
fuzzed surfaces, smooth velvet
richness, plashy juices.
I beseech you, peach,
clench me into the sweetness
of your reaches.
It's the birthday of poet Ted Hughes, born in West Yorkshire, England (1930). He grew up in the country, surrounded by empty, desolate moors. He said, "[I could] never escape the impression that the whole region [was] in mourning for the First World War." He started out studying literature in college, but switched to anthropology and archaeology, and the folklore he read influenced the poetry he would write for the rest of his life. He learned to put himself into a trance before he wrote poems, and often tried to write from the point of view of animals. When other poets were writing about domestic life and politics, he was writing violent poems based on ancient mythology. After graduating from college, he and some friends started a literary magazine. They only printed one issue, but at the publication party Hughes met a young American woman named Sylvia Plath who was studying in England on a Fulbright Scholarship. It was apparently love at first sight. Plath wrote in her journal, "He kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hairband off ... and my favorite silver earrings ... I bit him long and hard on the cheek and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face." They were married in less than a year. They were both obsessed with poetry and got up at dawn every day to write their poems. They'd been married a year when Hughes's first book of poetry, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), was published, and he became one of the most respected poets writing in English. While they were married, Hughes was much more famous than Plath. In 1963, they separated after he fell in love with another woman. That winter, while living with their children, Plath committed suicide by sticking her head in the oven. Hughes published her book of poems Ariel (1965), which included angry poems like "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus." Plath became a symbol of the way women can be destroyed by men. Women began to show up at Hughes's poetry readings, shouting that he was a murderer. He didn't make any public comments about his marriage to Plath, but people were outraged when he admitted that he had destroyed her last diary. It took him three years after Plath's death to start publishing his own poetry again. He went on to write many more books of poetry, including Crow (1970) and Wolfwatching (1989). He served as the Poet Laureate of England from 1984 until 1998. In 1998, he published a book of poems addressed to Sylvia Plath called Birthday Letters. It was the first time he had ever written about their relationship since her death. He said he would have had a more fruitful life if he'd written the book sooner. He died that same year.
It's the birthday of novelist Jonathan Franzen, born in Western Springs, Illinois (1959). His first two novels, The Twenty-seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992), got good reviews, but they didn't sell. He spent years working on his next novel, getting nowhere. His marriage ended, his father died, he quit smoking. After five years he had written hundreds of pages, but he still didn't know what the book was about. He drew a giant diagram, graphing out the events, themes, and characters. He finally decided to throw everything away except for one chapter and started over. He wrote the rest of the book in less than a year. The Corrections was published in 2001. It's about a mother who wants all of her adult children to come to her house for one last Christmas before their father dies. It was a huge success.
It's the birthday of actress and playwright Mae West, born in Brooklyn, New York (1892 or 1893). She got her start as a vaudeville dancer after winning a series of tap dancing contests, and she was the first woman to perform a dance called "The Shimmy" onstage. Her first play was called Sex (1926) and during one of the performances she was arrested and thrown in jail for a week for "corrupting the morals of youth." The arresting officer testified that she not only revealed her navel but moved it up and down and side to side. The controversy made her a star. She went on to write and star in several more plays, including Diamond Lil (1928) and The Constant Sinner (1931); and she starred in the movies I'm No Angel (1933) and She Done Him Wrong (1933). Mae West said, "When choosing between two evils, I always like to pick the one I never tried before."
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