Sunday

May 23, 2004

Philosophy in Warm Weather

by Jane Kenyon

SUNDAY, 23 MAY, 2004
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Poem: "Philosophy in Warm Weather," by Jane Kenyon, from The Boat of Quiet Hours. Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission.

Philosophy in Warm Weather

Now all the doors and windows
are open, and we move so easily
through the rooms. Cats roll
on the sunny rugs, and a clumsy wasp
climbs the pane, pausing
to rub a leg over her head.

All around physical life reconvenes.
The molecules of our bodies must love
to exist: they whirl in circles
and seem to begrudge us nothing.
Heat, Horatio, heat makes them
put this antic disposition on!

This year's brown spider
sways over the door as I come
and go. A single poppy shouts
from the far field, and the crow,
beyond alarm, goes right on
pulling up the corn.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Thomas Hood, born in London (1799). His early poetry was serious and romantic, but then in 1825 he anonymously published a collection of comic poems called Odes and Addresses to Great People (1825), which poked fun at many famous writers and thinkers of his day. The book was enormously successful; Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the puns as "transcendent." Hood tried all his life to write serious poems, but he is best remembered today for his comic verse, collected in books such as Whims and Oddities (1827) and Whimsicalities (1844).

He wrote, "'Lives' of great men oft remind us as we o'er their pages turn, / That we too many leave behind us-- / Letters that we ought to burn.


It's the birthday of poet Jane Kenyon, born in Ann Arbor, Michigan (1947). She wrote poetry about everyday life, collected in books such as The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986) and Let Evening Come (1990).


It's the birthday of playwright, poet and novelist Pär Lagerkvist, born in Växjö, Sweden (1891). He's best known for his novel Barabbas (1950), about the thief pardoned by Pontius Pilate at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. Lagerkvist was the son of poor, devout Lutherans, but when he was in high school he read Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, and it caused him to question his faith. He began writing for various socialist journals and made a name for himself as one of the most promising young socialist writers of his day.

Between 1915 and 1945, he published more than twenty-five plays and novels, none of them very successful. He wrote about the anguish and the meaninglessness of the universe, and many of his characters were disabled, deformed, or dead. His short story collection The Eternal Smile (1934) is about a group of spirits passing the time in eternity by telling stories about their former lives. He finally achieved international recognition with his novel Barabbas (1950), and a year later he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is now one of the most widely translated Swedish writers of all time.


It's the birthday of Margaret Wise Brown, born in Brooklyn, New York (1910). She was one of the first writers to write books specifically for children who were just beginning to learn language. She's best known as the author of the children's book Goodnight Moon (1947).

Brown wanted to become a writer as a young woman, and she once took a creative writing class from Gertrude Stein. But she had a hard time coming up with story ideas, so she went into education. She got a job at an organization called the Bureau of Educational Experiments, researching the way that children learn to use language. What she found was that children in the earliest stage of linguistic development relish language with patterns of sound and fixed rhythms. She also found that young children have a special attachment to words for objects they can see and touch, like shoes and socks and bowls and bathtubs.

She eventually began to write books for children based on her research, and in 1938 she became the editor of a publishing house called William R. Scott & Company, which specialized in new children's literature. The Great Depression had made children's books into luxury items, and most other publishing houses had phased out children's literature. Margaret Wise Brown helped make children's books profitable, because she understood that children experience books as sensual objects. She invested in high quality color illustrations, and she printed her books on strong paper with durable bindings, so that children could grab, squeeze, and bite their books the way they did with all their toys.

Brown had been a fairly successful writer and editor for almost ten years when, one morning, she woke up wrote a poem, listing the items in a house, and then saying goodnight to each item, including the famous lines "Goodnight room / Goodnight moon / Goodnight cow jumping over the moon . . . / Goodnight comb / And goodnight brush / Goodnight nobody / Goodnight mush. / And goodnight to the old lady whispering 'hush' / Goodnight stars / Goodnight air / Goodnight noises everywhere." She thought the poem could be made into a book, so she sent it off to her publisher, and it was published in 1947 as Goodnight Moon.

The influential New York Public Library gave it a terrible review, and it didn't sell as well as some of Brown's other books in its first year. But parents were amazed at the book's almost hypnotic effect on children, its ability to calm them down before bed. Brown thought the book was successful because it helped children let go of the world around them piece by piece, just before turning out the light and falling asleep.

Parents recommended the book to each other, and it slowly became a word-of-mouth best-seller. It sold about 1,500 copies in 1953, 4,000 in 1955, 8,000 in 1960, 20,000 in 1970; and by 1990 the total number of copies sold had reached more than four million.

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