May 15, 2004
Learning the Bicycle
Poem: "Learning the Bicycle," by Wyatt Prunty, from Balance as Belief. © John Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission.
Learning the Bicycle
The older children pedal past
Stable as little gyros, spinning hard
To supper, bath, and bed, until at last
We also quit, silent and tired
Beside the darkening yard where trees
Now shadow up instead of down.
Their predictable lengths can only tease
Her as, head lowered, she walks her bike alone
Somewhere between her wanting to ride
And her certainty she will always fall.
Tomorrow, though I will run behind,
Arms out to catch her, she'll tilt then balance wide
Of my reach, till distance makes her small,
Smaller, beyond the place I stop and know
That to teach her I had to follow
And when she learned I had to let her go.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet Wyatt Prunty, born in Humbolt, Tennessee (1947). He's part of a group of poets known as the New Formalists, contemporary American poets who write their poetry in traditional meter and rhyme. He started writing poetry as a young man, after he met Robert Frost. He studied under the poet Allen Tate, and then spent a few years in the Navy. When he came back to the United States and went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, he was the only one in his poetry class who had been in the military, the only one with short hair, and the only one who didn't write poetry in free verse. But he stuck with it, and has since published many poetry collections, including What Women Know, What Men Believe (1986), and Balance as Belief (1989). His collection of selected poems Unarmed and Dangerous came out in 2000.
It's the birthday of young adult author Paul Zindel, born on Staten Island in New York (1935). He has written many novels for young adults, including The Pigman (1968), My Darling, My Hamburger (1969), Pardon Me, You're Stepping on My Eyeballs (1976) and The Undertaker's Gone Bananas (1978).
It's the birthday of the man who created the land of Oz, Frank Baum, born in Chittenango, New York (1856). He published the first book in his series The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, and by the time the copyright expired in 1956, it had sold five million copies. It is estimated that more than a billion people have seen the movie version of the book, more than any other film ever made.
It's the birthday of short story writer and novelist Katherine Anne Porter, born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, Texas (1890). Late in her life, Porter often told people that she had come from an aristocratic southern family. She was a descendant of Daniel Boon, but she actually grew up in poverty, in a small log house on the edge of a dirt farm. Her mother died when she was two years old, and her father was so stricken by grief that he couldn't provide for the family. They had to move in with Porter's grandmother, a harsh, domineering woman who treated Porter's father like a helpless child. Porter's grandmother taught her that women could be as strong or stronger than men.
Her grandmother died when she was eleven, and Porter had to move in with her cousins. She spent two years in a drama school, the only real education she ever received, and then briefly started a small school of her own devoted to singing and dramatic arts. Just after her sixteenth birthday, she married a twenty-one-year old railway clerk. But she wasn't happy in her marriage, and in 1914 she ran away to Chicago, where she hoped to make it as a movie actress. When she arrived in the city, she changed her name, Callie Russell, to her grandmother's name, Katherine Anne.
She got a job in a song-and-dance show, but then she caught tuberculosis. Once the disease was diagnosed, she was sent to a sick house for the poor, where there was almost no food for the patients and women were dying all around her. She might have died there herself, but her brother paid for her to switch to a high-class sanatorium in Texas.
Porter spent two years recovering at the sanatorium, surrounded by a group of intelligent young women, including some journalists and writers. Inspired by their example, she got a job as a journalist, and began to write for a variety of newspapers, first in Denver and then in New York City, covering entertainment news and social events, and adapting myths and fairytales for children. She wrote to her sister that she planned eventually to write fiction as well as anyone in the United States, but for years she struggled to write anything that she was proud of.
In 1919, she met a group of Mexican activists, and they persuaded her to go to Mexico to write about the coming revolution there. At the time, it was an extraordinary thing for a woman to travel alone to a foreign country, and especially to a country that was as politically unstable as Mexico was at the time. While living there, she hung around with revolutionaries, artists, anthropologists, and politicians, and it was there that she began to write the first of her serious short stories.
She went on writing when she returned to the United States, but she wrote extremely slowly, starting stories and sometimes not finishing them until years later. Then, in 1929, she found some notes for a possible novel she had made while she was in Mexico, and she used the notes to write the story "Flowering Judas," about a young American woman living in Mexico just before the revolution. The story made her literary reputation when it was published, and it became the title story of her first collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1930). She was forty years old.
Porter went on to publish many short stories and a few short novels. She often wrote about her difficult childhood in rural Texas. Since she told everyone she'd had an aristocratic upbringing, and in public she always wore the fanciest clothes she could afford, critics were even more impressed at her ability to invent gritty, realistic stories.
Her books of stories got great reviews, and critics compared her to some of the greatest writers in American history, but she didn't make much money from her fiction and had to support herself with journalism for most of her life. She once said, "I think I've only spent about ten percent of my energies on writing. The other ninety percent went to keeping my head above water."
She worked for more than twenty years trying to write a big novel called Ship of Fools. When it was finally published in 1962, it made her rich, but it got mixed reviews. Most critics consider her best work to be her short stories. Her Collected Stories came out in 1964 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Her work influenced many American writers, especially southern women writers like Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. Porter died in 1980.
Katherine Anne Porter said, "My life has been incredible, I don't believe a word of it."
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