Friday

Jul. 8, 2005

Selecting a Reader

by Ted Kooser

FRIDAY, 8 JULY, 2005
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Poem: "Selecting a Reader" by Ted Kooser, from Sure Signs. © University of Pittsburg Press. Reprinted with permission.

Selecting a Reader

First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She should be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,
"For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned." And she will.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Jean de la Fontaine, born in Chateau-Thierry, France (1621). He was the man who said, "It is a double pleasure to deceive the deceiver." And, "It is impossible to please all the world and one's father."


It's the birthday of the novelist and short story writer J.F. (James Farl) Powers, born in Jacksonville, Illinois (1917). He was a writer who didn't have too many readers in his lifetime. He wrote primarily about the lives of Catholic priests. But after his death in 1999, many critics ranked him among the greatest—and funniest—fiction writers of the late twentieth century.

He grew up in a town with very few Catholics other than his own family, and he later said, "The town was Protestant. The best people were Protestants and you felt that. That, to some extent, made a philosopher out of me. It made me mad." He went to study at Quincy College Academy, run by Franciscan friars, where most of the students went into the priesthood. But at the last minute, J.F. Powers decided against becoming a priest. He said, "I just didn't care for the look of the life. The praying would have attracted me. I wouldn't have minded the celibacy, but I couldn't see myself standing outside church Sunday morning talking to a bunch of old women."

It was the Depression, and Powers took any job he could get. He worked at a Marshall Fields department store. He sold shirts and books and linoleum. He sold insurance door to door, saved up his money, and bought a typewriter. He got a job as a chauffeur and carried the typewriter along in the trunk so he could write when he was parked.

He got involved in various Catholic charity groups in Chicago. He got to know a lot of priests through his work, and he was fascinated by how human they were, how imperfect, even as they tried to live up to their ideals. And he came to believe that these imperfect men were the real saints. He became fascinated by the non-spiritual aspects of their lives, their fundraising and ordering furniture for the church and so forth.

For his first novel, Morte D'Urban, he created a priest, Father Urban Roche, who runs a parish and plays golf in his spare time and thinks of himself as a kind of businessman. It won the National Book Award, but it only sold 25,000 copies and Powers was disappointed.

It took him 25 years to write his next novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, (1988). His publishers only ordered 8,500 copies to be printed. Powers begged them to print more. And when the book came out, it got great reviews. The first printing sold out in a few weeks. It took so long to print more copies that, by the time the book was back in print, the word of mouth had already died down. Powers said, "It was as if I were on first base but somebody had come and collected second and third base and carried them away. There was a sharp line drive to left, and I had nowhere to go."

He only published two novels and three collections of stories in his lifetime. By the time he died, most of his books had gone out of print. But his two novels have since been republished, and his short stories have been collected in The Stories of J. F. Powers, which came out in 2000.

J.F. Powers was once asked by nun in an interview for the American Benedictine Review if he had any ideas about the role of the Catholic writer. He replied, "No, I'm afraid I don't, Sister, except that obviously he should not write junk."


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