Apr. 2, 2004
Poem: "Some Clouds," by Steve Kowit, from The Dumbbell Nebula (The Roundhouse Press).
Now that I've unplugged the phone
no one can reach me--
At least for this one afternoon
they will have to get by without my advice or opinion.
Now nobody else is going to call
& ask in a tentative voice
if I haven't yet heard that she's dead,
that woman I once loved--
nothing but ashes scattered over a city
that barely itself any longer exists.
Yes, thank you, I've heard.
It had been too lovely a morning.
That in itself should have warned me.
The sun lit up the tangerines
& the blazing poinsettias
like so many candles.
For one afternoon they will have to forgive me.
I am busy watching things happen again
that happened a long time ago,
as I lean back in Josephine's lawn chair
under a sky of incredible blue,
broken--if that is the word for it--
by a few billowing clouds,
all white & unspeakably lovely,
drifting out of one nothingness into another.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the author of many of our best-known fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen, born in Odense, Denmark (1805). He grew up in poverty. His mother was a washerwoman and his father was a shoemaker who died when Hans was eleven years old. After his father died, he was forced to find a job, first as a tailor and then at a tobacco factory.
When he was fourteen and almost completely broke, he set off for Copenhagen to try to find work at one of the city's theaters. He knocked on doors of famous producers and directors, introducing himself as a poet and a playwright. Finally, he landed a spot in the Royal Theatre singing school, and later the Royal Theatre ballet. The director of the theater saw that Andersen was a talented child and paid for him to go to grammar school when he was seventeen, where he studied with ten- and eleven-year-olds and made up for his lack of an education as a younger child.
Andersen finished his first novel, The Improvisatore, in 1835. While he was waiting for it to be published, he needed some money to pay his rent, so he published a pamphlet containing four fairy tales. It was such a big success that he published a new collection of fairy tales every Christmas for the next few years. They were cheap paperback editions, and they grew to be extremely popular. He started off by retelling the stories he had heard from his parents as a child, but then he began making up his own. Between 1835 and 1872, he published 168 fairy tales, including "The Little Mermaid," "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Snow Queen," "Princess and the Pea," and "The Nightingale."
"The Ugly Duckling" is usually considered to be his most autobiographical tale. He was an unattractive man, and he was always self-conscious about his looks. One of his friends once described him as a "long, thin, fleshless, boneless man, wriggling and bending like a lizard with a lantern-jawed cadaverous visage." Andersen wrote in "The Ugly Duckling," "Being born in a duck yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan's egg."
Andersen's fairy tales transformed the way Danish was written. Instead of using the formal "King's Danish," he wrote the way ordinary people spoke, and his fairy tales are full of humorous details that seem unnecessary to the story. People often think of Andersen's fairy tales as light-hearted and optimistic, but he wrote many tragic tales with unhappy endings. The first English translations of the tales were done by a woman who didn't even speak Danish, and she deleted disturbing passages and made them more sentimental than Andersen intended. Many children today only know the fairy tales through cartoon movie spin-offs or simplified versions in children's picture books.
It's the birthday of novelist Emile Zola, born in Paris (1840). He was one of the first novelists to research his topics as if he were a journalist rather than a fiction writer. He interviewed experts and wrote detailed reports on the subjects he wanted to write about in his novels. When he wrote a book about a train engineer he spent days riding in the front car of a train, and when he wrote a book about miners he visited nearby coalmines.
In 1867, Zola began writing a long series of books that would portray the life of a single family in nineteenth-century France. He called the series Les Rougon Macquart, and it eventually grew to include twenty novels, including The Dram Shop (1877), Nana (1880) and La Terre (1887).
Zola said, "I'm not very concerned with beauty or perfection. . . . All I care about is life, struggle, intensity."
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