May 1, 2004
Poem: "Spring," by Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Poems and Prose.
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring--
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.--Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid's child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is May Day, a celebration of the return of spring that goes back thousands of years in European traditions. Various May Day traditions included the gathering of wildflowers and green branches, the weaving of floral garlands, and the setting up of a decorated May tree, or Maypole, around which people danced. Local villages would crown a May king and queen, and lovers would spend the night out under the stars. It was believed that washing your face with dew on May Day morning would keep you looking young and beautiful.
It's the birthday of English essayist, poet and dramatist Joseph Addison, born in Milston, England (1672). He was working as a politician when he and Richard Steele began publishing a daily periodical called the The Spectator, to which they both contributed essays. Their essays were later collected in a book called The Spectator (1711), and critics consider Addison's essays in that book to be his greatest work. He is known for introducing ordinary, easily understood language into the English essay.
It's the birthday of Joseph Heller, born in Brooklyn, New York (1923). He's the son of a bakery deliveryman and grew up in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. He once said he learned a lot about life from being surrounded by Ferris wheels, cotton candy, and con artists. He enlisted in the military in 1942 and flew bomber missions over Italy. He later said, "For someone like myself, who didn't realize he was in danger until the last twenty-five missions, it was extremely excitable and pleasurable, full of fun."
He always felt a little guilty in between missions, sitting around while his friends were out risking their lives, but one of his tent mates had a typewriter, so he started writing stories to pass the time. He said later that if it weren't for the Second World War, he'd be in the dry-cleaning business.
About ten years after the war, Heller began to write Catch-22 (1961), about a World War II bomber pilot named Yossarian who tries to get himself declared insane so he can stop flying bombing missions. Unfortunately, there is a regulation called Catch-22, which says that if you want out of combat duty you can't be crazy.
Heller wrote, "[A pilot] would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to." He also wrote, "But that was war. Just about all he could find in its favor was that it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents."
Catch-22 got mixed reviews, but it became a cult favorite and by 1963 it had become the best-selling book in America. Vietnam War protesters began wearing pins that said, "Yossarian Lives!" The phrase "Catch-22" became a part of the American lexicon, defined by one edition of the Oxford English Dictionary as "a condition or consequence that precludes success, a dilemma where the victim cannot win."
It's the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern, born in Alvarado, Texas (1924). He co-wrote the screenplays for the films Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Easy Rider (1969), but he started out as a novelist. He grew up in Dallas, reading and playing with his pet—tarantulas, chickens, steers, and an armadillo. He said that he learned to write by rewriting in his own style the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe.
It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Bobbie Ann Mason, born in Mayfield, Kentucky (1940). She grew up in rural Kentucky, the daughter of dairy farmers. When she got to high school she realized just how different she was from the city kids. She became the first member of her family to go to college, and she eventually got a PhD from the University of Connecticut. She wrote her dissertation about the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. By the time she was done, she said, "I was so sick of reading about the alienated hero of superior sensibility that I thought I would write about just the opposite."
She began to write short stories about people in her home state of Kentucky, people who grow up in Southern suburban housing developments, drive trucks for a living, listen to Bruce Springsteen, and spend all their time watching TV and going to Wal-Mart. She got an encouraging rejection letter from The New Yorker magazine when she sent them the second short story she'd ever written. Over the next two years, they rejected nineteen more stories, but they finally published the twentieth. Her first collection, Shiloh and Other Stories (1982) got great reviews, and made her one of the most prominent writers of the so-called New South.
The title story from her collection Shiloh and Other Stories begins, "Leroy Moffittss wife, Norma Jean, is working on her pectorals. She lifts three-pound dumbbells to warm up, then progresses to a twenty-pound barbell. Standing with her legs apart, she reminds Leroy of Wonder Woman."
Mason has gone on to write many more books of fiction about her native western Kentucky, including Love Life: Stories (1989) and the novel Feather Crowns (1993). Her most recent collection of short stories is Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail (2002).
Bobbie Ann Mason said, "I have always found it difficult to start [writing] with a definite idea about a character, or even a definite emotion. . . . But if I start with a pond that is being drained because of a diesel fuel leak, and a cow named Hortense, and some blackbirds flying over, and a woman in the distance waving, then I might get somewhere."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®