Oct. 19, 2004
you can take it with you
Poem: "you can take it with you" by Josephine Jacobsen, from In the Crevice of Time: New & Collected Poems © Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission.
you can take it with you
2 little girls who live next door
to this house are on their trampoline.
the window is closed, so they are soundless.
the sun slants, it is going away;
but now it hits full on the trampoline
and the small figure on each end.
alternately they fly up to the sun,
fly, and rebound, fly, are shot
up, fly, are shot up up.
one comes down in the lotus
position. the other, outdone,
somersaults in air. their hair
flies too. nothing, nothing, noth
ing can keep keep them down. the air
sucks them up by the hair of their heads.
i know all about what is
happening in this city at just
this moment, every last
grain of dark, i conceive.
but what i see now is
the 2 little girls flung up
flung up, the sun snatch
ing them, their mouths rounded
in gasps. they are there, they fly up.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the novelist Susan Straight, born in Riverside, California (1960). A white woman herself, she grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood. She said, "There were people that were half-German and half-black, half-Filipino and half-white. So we had friends who were half-half-half-half." She used that neighborhood and its problems with drugs and violence, as inspiration for her first novel, Aquaboogie (1990).
When she found out Aquaboogie would be published, no one was home but her six-month-old daughter. She said, "I picked her up from her crib to tell her how happy I was...and she threw up all over me." She decided at that moment never to take her writing career too seriously. But, she's gone on to write several more novels, including The Gettin Place (1996), and High Wire Moon (2001).
It's the birthday of the poet and critic Leigh Hunt, born in Middlesex, England (1784). He was a well-known journalist in his day and he was one of the first critics to champion poets such as Percy Shelley, John Keats, Robert Browning, and Alfred Tennyson. Today, he's remembered for a few pieces of light verse he wrote, such as "Jenny Kissed Me:"
Jenny kiss'd me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss'd me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss'd me.
It's the birthday of the spy novelist David Cornwell who writes under the name John le Carré, born in Poole, England (1931). In his novels such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), he's known for writing realistically about spies who aren't sexy or daring, like James Bond, but tired, lonely men, who barely trusted their own government more than they trusted their enemies.
His father was a conman who made money from fraudulent real estate deals and then racked up millions of dollars in gambling debts. Cornwell's mother abandoned the family when he was five years old. His father was in and out of prison for various fraud charges, so he was raised mostly by his father's various girlfriends. He never forgave the man. He said, "I think that my great villains have always had something of my father in them."
When he was sixteen, he ran away from home to Switzerland, where he lied about his age and bluffed his way into a University education. After college, he seriously considered becoming an Anglican monk, but he was called up for service by the British Army. They assigned him to the intelligence corps because he spoke German.
After serving his time in the Army, he studied languages at Oxford, but instead of going onto a career teaching, he decided to join the Queen's secret service. He said, "I had had a taste of the secret world, and it drew me back." But he found the actual work of a spy pretty boring. He said, "[It was] spectacularly undramatic."
Since he was disappointed in his life as a spy, Cornwell decided to entertain himself by writing novels. He had to keep his identity secret, so he used the pen name John le Carré. He said, "I wanted something three-syllabled and exotic." Le Carré means "the square" in French. His third novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) was so successful that he quit his job as a spy and began to write full time.
But he has continued to use things he learned from spying in order to write his books. To do research, he often travels alone to various cities, checks into cheap hotels, and carries out surveillance, interviewing the local police and politicians without ever disclosing that he's actually just a novelist.
David Cornwell said, "Most of us live in a condition of secrecy; secret desires, secret appetites, secret hatreds and relationship with the institutions which is extremely intense and uncomfortable. These are, to me, a part of the ordinary human condition. So I don't think I'm writing about abnormal things."
It's the birthday of the novelist Philip Pullman, born in Norwich, England (1946). He's best known as the author of a trilogy of fantasy novels that have been best-sellers among children and adults, and the last of which, The Amber Spyglass (2000), was the first children's novel ever to be nominated for Great Britain's prestigious Booker Prize. It also won Britain's Whitbread Book of the Year Award for both children's and adult fiction.
His father was a pilot in the Royal Air Force, and he died in a plane crash in Kenya when Pullman was seven years old. He later said, "How strange it was that so many children's authors have lost one or both parents in their childhood...Naturally I was preoccupied for a long time by the mystery of what [my father] must have been like."
He went on to become a middle school teacher at a boys' school, and he found that the best way to capture the attention of young boys was to introduce them to Greek mythology. He found that his students were entranced by all the stories of gods and humans, magic and transformation.
But instead of reading those stories to them, he told the stories himself, over and over again, and he said that exercise turned him into a storyteller. He said, "Being spared the burden of invention, I could learn how the stories worked."
Pullman began writing plays, based on Greek myths, for his own students to perform, and it was writing those plays that inspired him to start writing novels. He published several children's novels in the 1980's that were moderately successful. Then in the early 1990's, be began to read a lot about religion, The Book of Genesis, the poetry of William Blake, Christian theology, and Milton's Paradise Lost. He said, "I set out to do Paradise Lost for teenagers in three volumes."
The first volume of Pullman's trilogy was The Golden Compass (1995), set in a world where the Church rules over all of Europe, and children are disappearing, and a girl named Lyra is trying to find out why. It was a huge success, and so were the following volumes: The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000). His work has been compared to the classics of fantasy literature such as J. R. R. Tolkein and Lewis Carroll.
The only people who don't like his books are religious groups, who point out that the books are critical of organized religion and therefore not appropriate for children. But Pullman has argued that stories can be their own religion. He said, "We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts: we need books, time, and silence. 'Thou shalt not' is soon forgotten, but 'Once upon a time' lasts forever."
When asked why he tries to pack such sophisticated ideas into children's fantasy literature, Phillip Pullman said, "There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book."
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