Oct. 25, 2004
Poem: "Minnesota Thanksgiving" by John Berryman, from Collected Poems 1937-1971 © The Noonday Press. Reprinted with permission.
For that free Grace bringing us past great risks
& thro' great griefs surviving to this feast
sober & still, with the children unborn and born,
among brave friends, Lord, we stand again in debt
and find ourselves in the glad position: Gratitude.
We praise our ancestors who delivered us here
within warm walls all safe, aware of music,
likely toward ample & attractive meat
with whatever accompaniment
Kate in her kind ingenuity has seen fit to devise,
and we hope - across the most strange year to come -
continually to do them and You not sufficient honour
but such as we become able to devise
out of decent or joyful conscience & thanksgiving.
Bless then, as Thou wilt, this wilderness board.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the novelist Anne Tyler, born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1941). She's the author of many novels, including Searching for Caleb (1974), The Accidental Tourist (1985), and Breathing Lessons (1988) which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Her parents were interested in living the simple life, so she grew up in a series of utopian Quaker communes, where she was home schooled and isolated from the modern world. She spent so much time walking around without shoes on that she could light a match on the sole of her bare foot. She first attended public school at the age of eleven, and her classmates were amazed that she'd never used a phone. She said, "My upbringing made me view the normal world with a certain amount of distance...to this day I am surprised by the taste of Coca-Cola."
She always had trouble sleeping at night, so she told herself stories to fall asleep. She studied Russian in college, but she took a class with the novelist Reynolds Price, and he told her that she should devote herself to writing, so that's what she did. She had trouble finishing her first novel until she accidentally left the first draft on an airplane. That forced her to start over again, and the end result was If Morning Ever Comes (1964).
She went on writing and publishing novels while raising her children, doing all the writing between 8:00 AM and 3:30 PM, while her children were at school. She said, "If things [were] going well, I [would] feel a little drugged by the events in my story...When the children [rang] the doorbell I [would] have trouble sorting my lives out...We bake cookies. Run the dog. Argue. My characters grow paler and paler and finally slink away."
Anne Tyler gave a few interviews in her early career, but after that she decided she didn't want to be a public person. She never goes on book tours or speaks on talk shows, and if she answers any questions from journalists, she does so only in writing.
Anne Tyler said, "[I write because] I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances. It's lucky I do it on paper. Probably I would be schizophrenic--and six times divorced—if I weren't writing."
She said, "There aren't enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in [contemporary fiction.]"
It's the birthday of the poet John Berryman, born John Smith in Oklahoma (1914). When he was twelve years old, his father died of a gunshot wound after catching his mother having an affair. The death was ruled a suicide, but young John imagined that his father had been murdered. His mother married the man she was having the affair with, and John was forced to take the name Berryman, which was the last name of the man he considered his father's killer. For the rest of his life, he thought of himself as a kind of Hamlet, and his mother a kind of Gertrude.
In college, Berryman took a class from the famous professor Mark Van Doren and fell in love with poetry. Van Doren said, "[Berryman was] slender, abstracted, courteous. He lived one life alone, and walked with verse as in a trance." He got a series of job supporting himself as a college professor, and published a few collections of unremarkable poetry.
Then, one summer, he fell in love with the young wife of a graduate student and secretly wrote a series of love sonnets to her. It was in those sonnets that he developed a much more experimental, conversational style, full of jokes and slang and plays on words. He didn't publish the sonnets until twenty years later, as Berryman's Sonnets (1967), but they were a breakthrough for him, and his next major poem Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1948) was his first big success.
His masterpiece was The Dream Songs, published in two volumes: 77 Dream Songs (1964) and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968). It was a kind of fictional poetic diary or autobiography, in which Berryman referred to himself as Henry. He said, "These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify & comfort."
The Dream Songs begins,
"Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point, - a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked."
Berryman was part of a generation of American poets, along with Delmore Schwartz, Robert Lowell, and Randall Jarrell, who all suffered from alcoholism and mental illness.
He spent the last years of his life getting on and falling off the wagon. His longest stretch of sobriety as an adult was twelve days. After working for years as a professor at the University of Minnesota, he committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in Minneapolis onto the frozen Mississippi. An eyewitness reported that as he jumped he turned and waved goodbye.
John Berryman said, "When one thinks reluctantly over the lives of the writers with whom one is familiar, they seem a chain of disasters and maladies."
It's the birthday of the artist Pablo Picasso, born in Malaga, Spain (1881). His father was an unsuccessful artist and art teacher. Picasso's first word as a baby was the Spanish word for "pencil." He was an only child, and his mother spoiled him and encouraged his every creative urge. Picasso said, "My mother told me 'If you become a soldier you'll be a general. If you become a monk you'll end up as the pope.' Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso." "Picasso" was actually his mother's maiden name. He took it as his own because he adored her so much.
He went off to art school in Barcelona where he got involved with the avant-garde scene and started painting portraits of prostitutes, beggars, and circus performers. Then he moved to Paris, where he struggled to make a name for himself. He remained penniless until he met Leo and Gertrude Stein, who were two of the most adventurous art collectors at the time. Gertrude thought Picasso's paintings were grotesque, but she invited him to her house, and he ended up spending the winter painting a portrait of her. She and her brother became his first patrons. And they introduced him to Matisse, who became his artistic rival, and who inspired him to start experimenting with form and style.
Picasso became a kind of artistic chameleon. Whenever he admired another artist's work, he would imitate it, master it, and turn it into something new. Some critics called him a mere imitator, with no real style of his own. But Picasso said, "I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it." He also said, "When there's anything to steal, I steal."
He became the most famous artist in the world. No artist before him had such a large mass audience in his own lifetime. And no other artist has ever dominated so many different fields. Picasso painted, drew, sculpted, and worked with pottery, sheet metal printmaking, and collage. But even though he's considered the father of modern art, he never once painted an abstract picture. All his works are representations of things that existed in the world.
This past spring, Picasso's 1905 painting "Boy with a Pipe" sold at Sotheby's to an anonymous buyer for $104.2 million. It was the largest sum of money ever paid for a work of art at auction.
Pablo Picasso said, "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®