Thursday

Aug. 5, 2004

Goldfinches

by Mary Oliver

THURSDAY, 5 AUGUST, 2004
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Poem: "Goldfinches" by Mary Oliver, from Owls and Other Fantasies © Beacon Press, 2003.

Some goldfinches were having a melodious argument at the edge of a puddle. The birds wanted to bathe, or perhaps just to dip their heads and look at themselves, and they were having trouble with who should be first, and so on. So they discussed it while I stood in the distance, listening. Perhaps in Tibet, in the old holy places, they also have such fragile bells. Or are these birds really just that, bells come to us—come to this road in America—let us bow our heads and remember now how we used to do it, say a prayer. Meanwhile the birds bathe and splash and have a good time. Then they fly off, their dark wings opening from their bright, yellow bodies; their tiny feet, all washed, clasping the air.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Wendell Berry, born in Port Royal, Kentucky (1934). As a young man, he traveled to California, Europe, and New York City, but eventually he came back to the land in rural Kentucky near the Kentucky River where his family had lived since the early 1800s. He writes poems, fiction, and essays about the benefits of the simple life, and about humans' responsibility to the earth. Wendell Berry said, "We learn from our gardens to deal with the most urgent question of the time: How much is enough?"

In his essay, "Why I Am Not Going To Buy a Computer" (1987), he wrote, "...when somebody has used a computer to write work that is demonstrably better than Dante's, and when this better is demonstrably attributable to the use of a computer, then I will speak of computers with a more respectful tone of voice, though I still will not buy one."


It's the birthday of poet and novelist Conrad Aiken, born in Savannah, Georgia (1889). When he was eleven, his father shot Aiken's mother and then himself. Aiken wrote in his autobiography, Ushant (1952): "After the desultory early-morning quarrel, came the half-stifled scream, and the sound of his father's voice counting three, and the two loud pistol shots and he tiptoed into the dark room, where the two bodies lay motionless, and apart, and, finding them dead, found himself possessed of them forever."

The family had often spent its summers in Massachusetts, and Aiken was sent to New Bedford and was raised by a great-great-aunt. He attended Middlesex School in Concord and enrolled at Harvard where his classmates included Walter Lippman and E. E. Cummings. Aiken successfully petitioned to be excused from service in World War I on the grounds that he was at work in the "essential industry" of writing poetry. In 1930, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems.


On this day in 1850, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne met at a picnic with friends at Monument Mountain near Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Two days later, Melville visited Hawthorne at his little red farmhouse in Lenox. Hawthorne gave him two bottles of champagne and they took a walk to the lake. That same day, Hawthorne wrote to a friend, "I met Melville, the other day, and liked him so much that I have asked him to spend a few days with me before leaving these parts." For a year and a half, the two friends lived six miles apart during the most productive time in their writing lives. Their five greatest books—The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, Moby-Dick, The Blithedale Romance, and Pierre—were either being written or published. In fact, The Blithedale Romance and Pierre were written at the same time, and The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick were published only a year apart. In the fall of 1851, Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne.


It's the birthday of (Henry-Rene-Albert-) Guy de Maupassant, born in Normandy (1850), one of the great French short story writers. In just ten years, between 1880 and 1890, he wrote most of the work for which he is remembered, including three hundred stories and five novels. For nearly ten years he was an apprentice of Gustave Flaubert, who used to invite him to lunch on Sundays, lecture him on prose style, and correct his early work. Flaubert also introduced him to some of the leading writers of the time, like Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, and Henry James. Maupassant threw away nearly all he wrote until he felt he'd mastered the craft.

He published "Boule de Suif" ("Ball of Fat," 1880) a few weeks before Flaubert's death, followed by his collection La Maison Tellier ("Madame Tellier's Establishment," 1881). These early stories with his sympathetic portrayals of prostitutes made him famous.

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