Saturday

Oct. 14, 2006

SATURDAY, 14 OCTOBER, 2006
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Poem: "87" by E.E. Cummings from 100 Selected Poems. © Grove Weidenfeld. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

87

o by the by
has anybody seen
little you-i
who stood on a green
hill and threw
his wish at blue

with a swoop and a dart
out flew his wish
(it dived like a fish
but it climbed like a dream)
throbbing like a heart
singing like a flame

blue took it my
far beyond far
and high beyond high
bluer took it your
but bluest took it our
away beyond where

what a wonderful thing
is the end of a string
(murmurs little you-i
as the hill becomes nil)
and will somebody tell
me why people let go


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet and essayist Katha Pollitt, (books by this author) born in New York City (1949). She grew up in an activist household, and from the time she was a young girl her parents were encouraging her to write angry letters to newspapers. During college, she helped take over Harvard University's ROTC building to protest the Vietnam War. When her parents found out what she'd done, they sent her flowers.

She published her first book of poetry, The Antarctic Traveler, in 1982, and started supporting herself writing book reviews. Eventually, she found she was more interested in expressing her own ideas than talking about the books she was reviewing, so she dropped the books and became an essayist. She started writing a column called "Subject to Debate" for The Nation magazine in 1994, and many of her columns have been collected in Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism (1994) and Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture (2001).


It's the birthday of the 34th president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, (books by this author) born in Denison, Texas (1890). He was the last person to become president after having served as the commanding general of the United States Army. He grew up in a poor, deeply religious family, working on a creamery to help pay the bills. His mother was a pacifist, and when he chose to go to West Point for college, she broke down in tears. He served in World War I and worked his way up through the military ranks until World War II, when he was put in charge of strategic planning for the European stage of the war. After leading the successful invasion of French North Africa, he was named Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, and a few months later he planned the invasion of Normandy—the largest amphibious attack in history.

He became known as one of the friendliest generals in the army. He loved to stand around with soldiers, smoking cigarettes, talking about where everyone was from. He slept in the trenches with the privates, and when he traveled by jeep near enemy lines, he preferred to drive the jeep himself. He was also one of the only generals who loved talking to the press. He said, "[Journalists are] quasi members of my staff."

Even though he'd been such a successful military leader, he ran for president against Adlai Stevenson promising to get the United States out of the Korean War, and that's what he did. There wasn't another major military conflict in his two terms in office. He said, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."


It's the birthday of poet E. E. Cummings (Edward Estlin Cummings), (books by this author) born in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1894). He was a man who wrote joyful, almost childlike poems about the beauty of nature and love, even though he was actually a conservative, irritable man who hated noisy modern inventions like vacuum cleaners and radios. He spent most of his life unhappy, struggling to pay the bills, ostracized for his unpopular political views.

He had published several books of poetry, including Tulips and Chimneys (1923), when he traveled to Russia in 1931, hoping to write about the superior society under the rule of communism. He was horrified at what he found. He saw no lovers, no one laughing, no one enjoying themselves. The theaters and museums were full of propaganda, and the people were scared to talk to each other in the street. Everyone was miserable.

When he got home, he wrote about the experience, comparing Russia to Dante's Inferno. Most of the publishers at the time were communists themselves, and they turned their backs on Cummings for criticizing communist Russia. Many magazines refused to publish his poetry or review his books. But the attacks only made him more stubborn. He said, "To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting."

He tried to write a script for a ballet, but it was never performed. He tried writing for the movies in Hollywood, but found that he spent all his time painting humming birds and sunsets instead of working on screenplays. He had to borrow money from his parents and his friends. He said, "I'm living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart." A few years later, he decided to make some extra money by giving a series of lectures at Harvard University. Most lecturers spoke from behind a lectern, but he sat on the stage, read his poetry aloud, and talked about what it meant to him.

The faculty members were embarrassed by his earnestness, but the undergraduates adored him and came to his lectures in droves. Even though he suffered from terrible back pains, and had to wear a metal brace that he called an "iron maiden," he began traveling and giving readings at universities across the country. By the end of the 1950s he had become the most popular poet in America. He loved performing and loved the applause, and the last few years of his life were the happiest. He died on September 2, 1962.

In the first edition of his Collected Poems, he wrote in the preface, "The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for most people—it's no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. ... You and I are human beings; most people are snobs."


It's the birthday of short-story writer Katherine Mansfield, (books by this author) born Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp in Wellington, New Zealand (1888). She's the author of short-story collections such as Bliss and Other Stories (1920) and The Garden Party, and Other Stories (1922); and she is known as one of the originators of the modern short story in English.

Her father was an incredibly successful businessman in the growing economy of New Zealand, and he sent her away to school in England. After her 18 birthday, when her parents came to pick her up from her English school and bring her back to New Zealand, she found that she no longer had anything in common with them or their values. She wrote in her journal on the boat ride home, "They are worse than I had even expected. They are prying and curious, they are watchful and they discuss only the food. ... For more than a quarter of an hour they are quite unbearable, and so absolutely my mental inferiors."

As soon as she got back to New Zealand, she became one of the wildest members of the small artistic community there. She had affairs with men and women; she traveled deep into the countryside and lived with the indigenous people; and she published a series of occasionally scandalous stories under a variety of pseudonyms. In a letter to an editor, asking for money, she wrote, "[I have] a rapacious appetite for everything and principles as light as my purse." Eventually, her parents gave her an allowance so she could move to London, and she never returned to New Zealand.

Mansfield lived so freely in the London bohemian scene that she eventually had to destroy her own diaries for fear of incriminating evidence. At one point, she married a man she barely knew, but left him before the wedding night was over, because she couldn't stand the pink bedspread and the lampshade with pink tassels in the hotel room. She had to settle down a bit when her mother came to London and threatened to put her in a convent. She said, "How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?"

She wrote sketches and essays for various newspapers and journals, but she didn't begin to write the stories that made her famous until her younger brother came to visit her in 1915. They had long talks over the course of the summer, reminiscing about growing up in New Zealand. She hadn't seen him in years and found that she had more in common with him than any other member of the family. He left that fall to start military duty as a soldier in World War I. She learned two months later that he had been killed while demonstrating how to throw a grenade. She was devastated, and she dealt with her grief by writing a series of short stories about her childhood, including "The Garden Party," which many consider her masterpiece. She died of tuberculosis a few years later in January 1923, at the age of 34. She wrote, "How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you—you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences—little rags and shreds of your very life."


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