Feb. 28, 2004
Slow Children at Play
Poem: "Slow Children at Play," by Cecilia Woloch, from Late (BOA Editions).
Slow Children at Play
All the quick children have gone inside, called
by their mothers to hurry-up-wash-your-hands
and only the slow children out on the lawns, marking off
paths between fireflies, making soft little sounds with their mouths, ohs
that glow and go out and glow. And their slow mothers flickering,
pale in the dusk, watching them turn in the gentle air, watching them
twirling, their arms spread wide, thinking, These are my children, thinking,
Where is their dinner? Where has their father gone?
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet Robert Mezey, born in Philadelphia (1935). He's the author of many collections of poetry, including The Lovemaker (1961) and The Door Standing Open (1970). His Collected Poems came out in 2000.
It's the birthday of novelist Kelly Dwyer, born in Torrence, California (1964). She's the author of two novels: The Tracks of Angels (1994) and Self-Portrait with Ghosts (1998).
It's the birthday of playwright and novelist Ben Hecht, born in New York City (1893). When he published his first collection of newspaper writing, 1001 Afternoons in Chicago (1922), it became a kind of bible to newspaper reporters across the country, and greatly influenced how journalists covered human-interest stories. He got involved in the Chicago literary renaissance, along with writers like Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser. He published his first novel in 1921—Erik Dorn, about a jaded journalist who can only speak in newspaper headlines. He also began writing and collaborating on plays. He didn't have any success until he and a newspaper reporter named Charles MacArthur decided to write a play about the newspaper industry called The Front Page (1928). It was a big success on Broadway, and it was later made into the movie His Girl Friday (1940).
It's the birthday of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, born on Long Island, New York (1953). He studied economics at MIT and became one of the leading economists in the U.S., specializing in international trade. In the early 1980s, he worked for President Ronald Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors, but, he said, "[I was disillusioned to learn] that powerful people prefer to take advice from those who make them feel comfortable rather than those who will force them to think hard." He decided that one way he could contribute to the world of economics would be to explain economics to ordinary people, and so he wrote several books in the 1990s for the general public, including The Age of Diminished Expectations (1990), Peddling Prosperity (1994) and Pop Internationalism (1996). He became an op-ed columnist for the New York Times in 1999, and he has since become a fierce critic of the Bush administration. His most recent book is The Great Unraveling (2003).
It's the birthday of the great essayist Michel de Montaigne, born in Perigueux, France (1533). His father was a wealthy landowner and a devout Catholic, with innovative ideas about child rearing. He sent the infant Michel to live with peasant parents, so that he would learn to love the lower classes. Then, when Michel was a toddler, his father required everyone in the household to speak Latin rather than French, so that Latin would be his first language. Michel went off to college and became a lawyer. His father died when Michel was thirty-eight years old, and so he retired to the family estate and took over managing the property. His best friend had died a few years before, so he had no one to write to while living on his estate. He grew increasingly bored, so to occupy himself he began to write down his thoughts for an imaginary reader. He wrote about a wide variety of subjects: sadness, idleness, liars, fear, smell, prayer, cannibals, and thumbs, among other things. He called his short pieces "essays" when he published his first collection in 1580, because the French word "essai" comes from the word for "ttempt", and he considered the short pieces he wrote to be mere attempts at addressing ideas.
Montaigne didn't think he had an extraordinary mind, but he believed that every mind was unique, and he wanted to leave a record of his own. He wanted to capture on paper the movement of his own thoughts. He said, "I take the first subject Fortune offers: all are equally good for me. I never plan to expound them in full. . . . Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it. . . . I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle. . . . I can surrender to doubt and uncertainty and to my master-form, which is ignorance. Anything we do reveals us."
He lived at a time when religious civil wars were breaking out all over the country. The Black Plague was ravaging the peasants in his neighborhood; he once saw men digging their own graves and then lying down to die in them. Still, while he occasionally wrote about big subjects like hatred and death, he also wrote about the most ordinary things, like his gardening or the way radishes affected his digestion.
Montaigne wrote, "Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most."
And he wrote, "Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®