Feb. 9, 2005
For Laurel and Hardy on My Workroom Wall
Poem: "For Laurel and Hardy on My Workroom Wall," by David Wagoner, from The House of Song © University of Illinois Press. Reprinted with permission.
For Laurel and Hardy on My Workroom Wall
They're tipping their battered derbies and striding forward
In step for a change, chipper, self-assured,
Their cardboard suitcases labeled
Guest of Steerage. They've just arrived at the boot camp
Of the good old French Foreign Legion
Which they've chosen as their slice of life
Instead of drowning themselves. Once again
They're about to become their own mothers and fathers
And their own unknowable children
Who will rehearse sad laughter and mock tears,
Will frown with completely unsuccessful
Concentration, and will practice the amazement
Of suddenly understanding everything
That baffles them and will go on baffling them
While they pretend they're only one reel away
From belonging in the world. Their arrival
Will mark a new beginning of meaningless
Hostilities with a slaphappy ending. In a moment,
They'll hear music, and as if they'd known all along
This was what they'd come for, they'll put down
The mops and buckets given them as charms
With which to cleanse the Sahara and move their feet
With a calm, sure, delicate disregard
For all closeorder drill and begin dancing.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of humorist George Ade, born in Kentland, Indiana (1866). He started out as a newspaperman in Chicago writing a daily column about the weather. He would just walk around the city and ask ordinary people what they thought of the weather, and then he wrote down what they said. He was so good at capturing the ordinary speech and humor of various people, that his column became one of the most popular in the Chicago Morning News. He went on to become on of the most popular humorist in the country, and he's best known for his book Fables in Slang (1899).
George Ade said, "A friend who is near and dear may in time become as useless as a relative."
It's the birthday of the playwright and memoirist Brendan Behan, born in Dublin (1923). He grew up in a house fiercely opposed to British rule. His mother was fond of saying, "Burn all things British&&151;except their coal." He got involved with the IRA and as a result spent most of his early life in and out of prison. He later said of his prison experience, "The Bible was a consolation to a fellow alone in the old cell. The lovely thin paper with a bit of mattress stuffing in it, if you could get a match, was as good a smoke as I ever tasted."
It was while he was in prison that he wrote his play The Quare Fellow (1954) about a day in the life of group of inmates as they wait for one of their fellow prisoners to be hanged. The original title was "The Last Twist of the Rope," but when a small Dublin theater decided to produce it, they made Behan change the title to The Quare Fellow to save money on advertisements. "Quare Fellow" is Irish slang for a condemned man.
Even though The Quare Fellow was successful at the tiny theater where it first came out, none of the major theaters in Dublin would pick it up for fear of controversy. So Behan sent a copy of the play to a theater producer in London. The manuscript he sent was tattered and covered with beer stains and revisions, but the producer loved it, and The Quare Fellow became a sensation in London.
Behan was a heavy drinker and a wild character, and he quickly became one of the most notorious writers in London. At performances of his own plays, he would heckle the actors and join in with the songs. His behavior got him lots of attention and made him an international celebrity. He once said, "There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary."
Behan's autobiography Borstal Boy (1958) and his play The Hostage (1958) were also big successes, but after that his health declined, and he died in 1964, his career having lasted only 10 years. But the many Irish Pubs that he frequented in the UK and New York City have items on their menus named after him. Last year, on the 50th anniversary of the first production of The Quare Fellow, the Oxford Theater Company revived the play for the first time in 20 years, and it was a big success.
Brendan Behan said, "It's not that the Irish are cynical. It's rather that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody."
It's the birthday of the novelist Alice Walker, born in Eatonton, Georgia (1944). She grew up the youngest of eight children. She grew up listening to the women in her family telling stories about lynching and adultery and struggling to survive. Her parents were sharecroppers who made about $300 a year. Walker would have been spent most of her time helping out in the fields, but when she was four years old a school teacher noticed her and got her new clothes and made sure she went to school every day.
When she was eight years old, her brother shot her in the eye with a BB gun, and a scar covered that eye for six years. She felt like an outcast, and began spending most of her free time alone, hiding in the farm fields, and she began writing in a journal. She said, "I think I started writing just to keep from being so lonely."
She graduated first in her class from high school, but it was because of her partial blindness that she was given a college scholarship for disabled students. Her friends and family helped pay for the $75 dollar bus ticket to Atlanta.
She transferred to Sara Lawrence College, and then took a trip to Africa. When she got back to college she was pregnant and seriously considering suicide. She chose to get an abortion, and then began writing dozens of poems over the course of a week, barely eating or sleeping, and she shoved all the poems under the door of her poetry teacher Muriel Rukeyser. Rukeyser showed the poems to her agent, and they were eventually published as Alice Walker's first book Once (1968).
Walker went on to write several more books of poetry and fiction, none of which got much attention, and then she decided to try writing a novel in the voice of a woman like one of the women she grew up listening to as a child. She started writing letters in that voice, addressed to God, and those letters eventually grew into her novel The Color Purple (1982), which spent more than 25 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and went on to win both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Walker was the first black woman ever to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The Color Purple begins, "Dear God, I am fourteen years old. I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me."
Walker has gone on to write many other novels. Her next novel, Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart, will come out this spring.
It's the birthday of the novelist J.M. [John M.] Coetzee, born in Cape Town, South Africa (1940). He comes from a family of Afrikaner settlers in South Africa. One of his ancestors first traveled to Africa in the 1700s, and wrote a history of the Hottentot tribe.
Coetzee went to a Catholic boys' school and just before graduation an aptitude test said that he should become a "quantity surveyor." He decided to go to college anyway, and got degrees in math and literature. He loved with work of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, but he said, "[I] tried doggedly to understand what people saw in Shakespeare."
Coetzee left Africa for a job in England as a computer programmer for IBM. He said, "[I spent my] evenings in the British Museum reading... and the rest of the time tramping the cold streets of London seeking the meaning of life."
He decided he should study literature, and got into a graduate program in Texas. It was there that he got a chance to examine some of Samuel Beckett's notebooks, which gave him an idea of how to write a novel. Around the same time, he also found a book in the library about the early white settlers of South Africa, their explorations and their violent confrontations with African tribes. He made a resolution on New Years Day in 1970 to use what he'd learned from Samuel Beckett to write a work of fiction about South Africa. The result was his book Dusklands (1974), about a white explorer who slaughters an entire African tribe because they are indifferent to him.
Coetzee had left South Africa because he'd hated being part of the white ruling class, but he found that he couldn't stay away. He said, "What I missed, seemed to be a certain emptiness, empty earth and empty sky, to which South Africa had accustomed me." He moved back to Cape Town and got a job at the University, and began to write seriously.
At first, his books were about the real South Africa, but in his first big success, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), he began to write about a sort of mythical version of South Africa, an empire in the desert where colonists try to defend crumbling outposts against the tribes of natives all around them.
Coetzee is a famously quiet and disciplined man. One of his colleagues said that in 10 years he only saw Coetzee laugh once. He never drinks, smokes, or eats meat, and he uses a bicycle for transportation whenever possible. He almost never gives interviews.
He is the only writer ever to win the Booker Prize twice, for his books The Life and Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999), but he refused to show up to accept either award. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, he did show up, but he delivered his acceptance speech from the point of view of Robinson Crusoe, and talked about missing his island, and the difficulty of being back in England, alienated by society. His most recent book is Elizabeth Costello (2003).
J.M. Coetzee said, "What [I] would write if [I] could... would be something... that, once it began to flow from [my] pen, would spread across the page out of control, like spilt ink. Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightning crackling across the sky."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®