Aug. 3, 2005
Poem: "Old Men" by Norah Pollard, from Report From the Banana Hospital. © Antrim House. Reprinted with permission.
The way courage is asked of them
The way they still wear hats
and tip them for a lady.
How their collars stand out from their thin necks.
How they are careful to balance their heads.
How they do not complain
but, if you ask, might say,
"Most horrible!" and grin.
How they wear Hush Puppies, walk silently,
practicing to be ghosts.
How their hair grows so white and thin
it lies on their frail skulls like light.
How when they are alone, their spindle fingers
make gestures, speak in silence.
How their mouths work, remembering.
How their eyes, their eyes look far, far off,
seeing something I do not yet know what.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the novelist and essayist Walter Kirn, born in Akron, Ohio, (1962). He grew up on a farm in rural Minnesota. He went off to Princeton University, hoping he'd be surrounded by other people who liked to read and talk about ideas. He was disappointed to find that most of the people that he met were more interested in their social lives.
He started writing poetry, then plays, and then got a chance to talk to the editor Gordon Lish for a radio program. The interview was just finishing up and Gordon Lish asked Walter Kirn if he wrote short stories. Kirn had never written any, but he said, yes, he did. So as soon as he got home, he wrote his first story and kept writing them and published his first collection, My Hard Bargain.
Walter Kirn said, "My advice for aspiring writers is go to New York. And if you can't go to New York, go to the place that represents New York to you, where the standards for writing are high, there are other people who share your dreams, and where you can talk, talk, talk about your interests. Writing books begins in talking about it, like most human projects, and in being close to those who have already done what you propose to do."
It's the birthday of the novelist and short story writer Steven Millhauser, born in Brooklyn (1943). He studied medieval literature at Brown and worked at night on a novel about his own childhood. It came out in 1972, entitled Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 By Jeffrey Cartwright, the story of a disturbed 12-year-old novelist.
Millhauser spent the next 20 years writing novels and short stories, and then in 1996, came out with Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Millhauser was teaching his class at Skidmore when someone came to the room and handed him a note that said he'd won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He told his students that a grotesque error had been committed, and he had to go and straighten it out.
It's the birthday of the poet Hayden Carruth, born in Waterbury, Connecticut (1921). In 1953, he had a nervous breakdown, was put in a psychiatric hospital, and got electroshock therapy. He was released 18 months later and went into isolation in a small cabin in rural Vermont.
He supported himself as a freelance book reviewer and ghostwriter and started writing poems. He said, "The isolation afforded me the opportunity to put everything together, the land and seasons, the people, my family, my work, my evolving sense of survival ... in one tightly integrated imaginative structure. The results were my poems."
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