Feb. 25, 2005
Snow Banks North of the House
Poem: "Snowbanks North of the House" by Robert Bly, from Selected Poems. © Harper Collins. Reprinted with permission.
Snowbanks North of the House
Those great sweeps of snow that stop suddenly six feet
from the house...
Thoughts that go so far.
The boy gets out of high school and reads no more books;
the son stops calling home.
The mother puts down her rolling pin and makes no more
And the wife looks at her husband one night at a party
and loves him no more.
The energy leaves the wine, and the minister falls leaving
It will not come closer
the one inside moves back, and the hands touch nothing,
and are safe.
And the father grieves for his son, and will not leave the
room where the coffin stands;
he turns away from his wife, and she sleeps alone.
And the sea lifts and falls all night; the moon goes on
through the unattached heavens alone.
And the toe of the shoe pivots
in the dust...
The man in the black coat turns, and goes back down the
No one knows why he came, or why he turned away, and
did not climb the hill.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of painter Pierre (Auguste) Renoir, born in Limoges, France (1841). He began painting when he was 13 years old, first on porcelain, then later painting on fans. He went on to form the style of painting known as Impressionism, along with the painters Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley. Renoir became severely disabled by arthritis starting in 1902, but he continued to paint. By 1913 he was completely crippled, and he instructed his assistants in creating several of his last sculptures. Renoir said, "The pain passes, but the beauty remains."
It's the birthday of novelist and composer Anthony Burgess, born in Manchester, England (1917). He's best known for his book, A Clockwork Orange (1962), but he also wrote many musical compositions, as well as over 50 other books.
Burgess said, "I call myself a professional writer in that I must write in order to eat... But primarily I call myself a serious novelist who is attempting to extend the range of subject-matter available to fiction, as also a practitioner who is anxious to exploit words as much as a poet does."
It's the birthday of English art critic and nun Sister Wendy Beckett, born in South Africa (1930) and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland. She's been a nun for over 50 years, an art critic for almost 20. She's famous for books on art and her television shows on the BBC and PBS where she talks about art in museums around the world in plain, understandable language.
Sister Wendy said, "Many people feel I am not really equipped to understand art, that I am not educated enough to speak to people in elitist languages, but don't you seethat's the point!" Her first book was Contemporary Women Artists (1988).
Sister Wendy surprises her audience with the way she openly talks about sex and nudity in paintings without any embarrassment. She says, "I use the words that come naturally [...] I'm absolutely astonished and bewildered to find people commenting on my delight in a naked body. Never, ever, has anyone suggested that parts of the body were not quite right, that God made a mistake, that they should be passed over. It's appropriate to comment on everything in the painting. I'm not going to deny God's glory by pandering to narrow-mindedness."
Sister Wendy negotiated in her contract that no matter where she is filming, she must go to mass every day. When not filming, she lives in solitude and prayer in a trailer on the property of the convent. All the money she makes from her book sales and her shows go to the Carmelite convent and its hospice for children. Sister Wendy says, "When you are talking about art, you are talking about God indirectly; all experience of art is an indirect experience of God."
It was on this day in 1956 that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes met in London, beginning one of the most famous literary relationships in modern history. Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts (1932), and had studied at Smith College, but she was in England studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship.
Sylvia Plath met Hughes at a party in a bar, and the next morning she wrote about the encounter in her journal. She spent most of the evening talking to someone else, who she described as, "some ugly, gat-toothed squat grinning guy named Meeson trying to be devastatingly clever." She said the party was "very bohemian, with boys in turtleneck sweaters and girls being blue-eye-lidded or elegant in black." Plath had been drinking a little, and she wrote, "The jazz was beginning to get under my skin, and I started dancing with Luke and knew I was very bad, having crossed the river and banged into the trees..."
Plath said, "Then the worst thing happened, that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me, who had been hunching around over women, and whose name I had asked the minute I had come into the room, but no one told me, came over and was looking hard in my eyes and it was Ted Hughes."
Plath quoted one of his poems to him, and he guided her to a side room of the bar. She wrote of that moment, "And then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hair band off, my lovely red hair band scarf which had weathered the sun and much love, and whose like I shall never again find, and my favorite silver earrings: hah, I shall keep, he barked. And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face."
Plath composed a poem over the next few days after meeting Hughes. Called "Pursuit," it was a poem about a woman being hunted by a panther and was a response to a Hughes poem called "The Jaguar." Plath spent the night with Hughes and his friend in their London flat right before going on a spring vacation in Europe. When she returned, they spent even more time together, and after seeing so much of each other for a couple of months, they started thinking about marriage.
They got married on June 16th, four months after that first meeting, but it was a secret wedding because they didn't want to jeopardize Plath's fellowship or academic career. The ceremony was in the Church of Saint George the Martyr in London. Plath wore a pink suit, and Hughes gave her a pink rose to hold as she walked down the aisle.
Plath and Hughes spent the rest of that summer in Paris, Madrid, and the small town of Benindorm in Spain. They passed their days swimming, studying, and writing. Plath wrote the poems "Dream with Clam Diggers," Fiesta Melons," and "The Goring" as well as many others while on this honeymoon. Plath told a friend many years later that Hughes had gotten very angry with her during that trip and tried to choke her while they sat on a hill. She said she had resigned herself to die while it was happening, and she worried she had made the wrong decision in getting married so soon after meeting him.
Plath and Hughes decided to separate in 1962, right after they had moved back to England and had a second child. Plath discovered that Hughes was having an affair. She said in an interview that year, "I much prefer doctors, midwives, lawyers, anything but writers. I think writers and artists are the most narcissistic people [...] I'm fascinated by this mastery of the practical. As a poet, one lives a bit on air. I always like someone who can teach me something practical."
Plath committed suicide in 1963 by sticking her head in an oven. Hughes's mistress would also kill herself years later using the same method. Hughes was left in control of Plath's estate, and he edited her poems and controlled what of hers was published and what was not. He once was met on a trip to Australia by protestors holding signs that accused him of murdering Plath. Plath fans trying to chip away the word "Hughes" from her name on the tombstone have repeatedly vandalized her grave in Yorkshire, England.
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