Feb. 8, 2005
Poem: "Things" by Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University. Reprinted with permission.
What happened is, we grew lonely
living among the things,
so we gave the clock a face,
the chair a back,
the table four stout legs
which will never suffer fatigue.
We fitted our shoes with tongues
as smooth as our own
and hung tongues inside bells
so we could listen
to their emotional language,
and because we loved graceful profiles
the pitcher received a lip,
the bottle a long, slender neck.
Even what was beyond us
was recast in our image;
we gave the country a heart,
the storm an eye,
the cave a mouth
so we could pass into safety.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1910 that the Boy Scouts of America was incorporated as a youth organization in the United States. The idea for the Boy Scouts came from a British Army Officer named Robert Baden-Powell who returned from a war in South Africa to find that the young people in his country had grown soft and undisciplined in his absence. He said, "[Young people today are] without individuality or strength of character, utterly without resourcefulness, initiative or guts for adventure." He created the Boy Scouts as an organization and wrote a book called Scouting for Boys that became the Boy Scout manual.
An American man named William Boyce was visiting London, England when he got lost in a heavy fog. A young Boy Scout offered to help him, and the experience inspired him to bring Boy Scouting to America. The Boy Scout program had been popular in England, but it became a sensation in the United States after it was incorporated here. Within four years, there were more than 100,000 American Boy Scouts, and by the outbreak of World War II there were more than a million.
Among the many Americans who joined the Boy Scouts were Gerald Ford, Neil Armstrong, Alfred Kinsey, John F. Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and Michael Moore.
The Boy Scout Handbook says, "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent."
It's the birthday of the novelist Kate Chopin, born Katherine O'Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri (1851). Her father was one of the founders of the Pacific Railroad, and he died during the first trip on that railroad, when a railway bridge collapsed. Chopin was raised by her mother and her great-grandmother, and it was her grandmother who told her endless stories full of criminals and pioneers and other notorious characters from the early days of St. Louis.
When she was 11 years old, Chopin's older brother died while fighting in the Civil War. She was so distraught that she rarely left the attic of her house for the next two years, and spent almost all of her time reading. She finally began to leave the house again in her early teens, and she developed a reputation as a free spirit. When the Union army came through town, they tied up Union flags on people's houses. Young Kate took one of these flags down from her own house, an offense for which she could have been shot. The townspeople began calling her the town's "Littlest Rebel."
She married a wealthy owner of a cotton business, and lived with him in New Orleans. But after her husband suddenly died of a fever, a rumor got out that she'd been having an affair with a married neighbor. The town turned against her, and she eventually moved back to St. Louis to live with her mother.
It was there that she first began to write. She had six children to take care of, so she wrote on a lapboard in the living room while her children played around her. Because she was so busy, she tried to write as quickly as she could, and in less than ten years she produced three novels and more than a hundred short stories.
Chopin's early work was melodramatic and sentimental, but everything changed when she first read the French writer Guy de Maupassant. She wrote, "Here was a man who had escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes... [who wrote] without the plots, the old fashioned mechanism and stage trapping that in a vague, unthinking way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making."
Chopin began to write more explicitly about dissatisfied wives and marital infidelity, and she found it harder and harder to get her work published. Then she published The Awakening (1899), about a woman who leaves her husband and her children to have an affair and become an artist and then eventually commits suicide by swimming out to sea until she is exhausted. It was one of the first novels ever written by a woman about a woman committing adultery, and it was almost universally attacked by critics as "moral poison," "sordid," "unhealthy," "repellent," and "vulgar." The St. Louis literary community refused to review the novel at all, and libraries and bookstores in Chopin's hometown wouldn't stock the book. Chopin was unable to publish her next book of short stories, and she died five years later, in 1904.
Her work was forgotten for almost 50 years, and it was only revived because of a series of European critics who championed her work. A Norwegian literary scholar published the first biography of her and he also helped publish The Complete Works of Kate Chopin (1969). Today, The Awakening is now considered one of greatest novels of 19th century American literature.
Kate Chopin said, "There are some people who leave impressions not so lasting as the imprint of an oar upon the water."
It's the birthday of poet Elizabeth Bishop, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1911). Her father died when she was a little girl. Her mother had an emotional breakdown from grief and spent the rest of her life in various mental institutions. Elizabeth spent most of her childhood moving back and forth between her grandparents in Nova Scotia and her father's family in Massachusetts. For the rest of her life, she was obsessed with travel, and she never felt at home anywhere.
She was painfully shy and quiet in college, but during her senior year she mustered up all her courage and introduced herself to her idol, the elder poet Marianne Moore. The meeting was awkward at first, but then Bishop offered to take Moore to the circus. It turned out they both loved going to the circus, and they both also loved snakes, tattoos, exotic flowers, birds, dressmaking, and recipes. Moore became Bishop's mentor and friend, and Bishop said that every time she talked to Moore she felt, "uplifted, even inspired, determined to be good, to work harder, not to worry about what other people thought, never to try to publish anything until I thought I'd done my best with it, no matter how many years it took."
Moore persuaded Bishop that poems didn't have to be about big ideas, that they could be precise descriptions of ordinary objects and places. Bishop began to write poems about filling stations, fish, and the behavior of birds. Her poems rarely revealed her emotions. When other poets such as Robert Lowell and John Berryman began to write confessional poems, Bishop said, "[I] just wish they'd keep some of these things to themselves."
Bishop's first collection of poetry, North & South, came out in 1946. That same year she took a car trip to New Hampshire, but as she was driving, she impulsively decided to drive all the way to Nova Scotia, which she hadn't seen in more than 15 years. The trip brought back all kinds of memories from her childhood, and it inspired many of her best poems, including "First Death in Nova Scotia" and "The Moose." When she moved to Brazil a few years later, she found herself thinking about almost nothing but Nova Scotia.
She was an extremely slow writer, and published only 101 poems in her lifetime. She worked on her poem "One Art" for more than 15 years, keeping it tacked up on her wall so that she could rearrange the lines again and again until she got it right. But she was an obsessive letter writer. She once wrote 40 letters in a single day. She said, "I sometimes wish that I had nothing, or little more, to do but write letters to the people who are not here." One Art: The Letters of Elizabeth Bishop was published in 1994.
Elizabeth Bishop wrote,
"I'd like to retire... and do nothing, or nothing much, forever... look through binoculars, read boring books, old, long, long books, and write down useless notes, talk to myself, and, foggy days, watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light."
It's the birthday of the poet Lisel Mueller, born in Hamburg, Germany (1924). She fled with her family from Nazi Germany when she was a teenager, and she spent the rest of her adolescence in Indiana. She learned to love English by memorizing the lyrics to American songs she heard on the radio. She has gone on to write many books of poetry in English, including The Need to Hold Still (1980) and Waving from Shore (1989). Her most recent book is Alive Together: New and Selected Poems (1996).
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®