Jan. 22, 2007

Winterís End

by Howard Moss

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Poem: "Winter's End" by Howard Moss, from New Selected Poems. © Atheneum. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Winter's End

Once in a wood at winter's end,
The withered sun, becoming young,
Turned the white silence into sound:
Bird after bird rose up in song.
The skeletons of snow-blocked trees
Linked thinning shadows here and there,
And those made mummy by the freeze
Spangled their mirrors on cold air.
Whether they moved — perhaps they spun,
Caught in a new but known delight —
Was hard to tell, since shade and sun
Mingled to hear the birds recite.
No body of this sound I saw,
So glassed and shining was the world
That swung on a sun-and-ice seesaw
And fought to have its leaves unfurled.
Hanging its harvest in between
Two worlds, one lost, one yet to come,
The wood's remoteness, like a drum,
Beat the oncoming season in.
Then every snow bird on white wings
Became its tropic counterpart,
And, in a renaissance of rings,
I saw the heart of summer start.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of romantic poet Lord Byron, (books by this author) born George Gordon Noel in Aberdeen, Scotland (1788). Byron inherited a lordship and an estate from his uncle, but the estate was rundown, and there was no money for the upkeep. He was born with a right foot that was abnormally small and turned inward. He had to wear a special boot to help him walk, and his classmates made terrible fun of him. On top of that, he realized as a teenager that he was attracted to men as well as women. At the time, men convicted of the crime of sodomy were pilloried in the public square, where crowds could pelt them with mud.

So when he was a young man, to get away from a country where he felt like an outcast, Byron decided to set out on a tour of the eastern Mediterranean, where there were fewer sexual taboos. He and his friend John Hobhouse sailed from England to Portugal and then rode on horseback across Spain. They eventually made their way through Albania, Turkey, and Greece. Byron's friend went back to England, but Byron stayed on in Greece, studying the language and working on a poem loosely based on his adventures. He finally sailed back to England two years after he had left. He wrote to his sister, "If I am a poet ... the air of Greece has made me one."

The poem Byron had written about his travels, called Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812), tells the story of a world-weary young man looking for some kind of meaning in the world in the wake of the French Revolution and the war between France and England. Byron gave a copy of the poem to a publisher when he got back to England, and when it came out in March of 1812, it struck a nerve. The first printing sold out in three days. Byron later said, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous."

He was 24 years old, and he had become the toast of London. Suddenly, he was invited to the most prestigious families' homes. He began to receive hundreds of fan letters, asking for autographs and clippings of his hair. He apparently loved that he had achieved such fame, because he kept all those fan letters for the rest of his life.

He became an outspoken politician in the House of Lords, holding forth in favor of workers' rights. He also wrote many more romantic tales in verse, and his poetry was so popular that it allegedly forced Sir Walter Scott to give up poetry and start writing novels instead. But Byron's behavior was growing increasingly scandalous. He got married, but his wife eventually asked for a divorce, telling her lawyers that she suspected her husband of having committed incest with his half-sister, as well as sodomy with men. When word of the accusations got out in 1816, there was talk that Byron's life might be in danger. He was advised not to appear in public for fear that a crowd might lynch him.

He was finally forced to flee England. He settled in Italy and began his masterpiece, the novel-in-verse Don Juan, loosely based on a legendary hero. It tells the story of a young man sent by his mother on a tour of Europe, where he survives a shipwreck, gets sold into slavery, becomes a soldier and finally a diplomat. Byron developed a new conversational style of poetry for the poem, and he inserted into it all kinds of satirical commentary on European society.

Don Juan remained unfinished when Byron died, at age 36, and the memoir he had been working on was burned by several of his friends and relatives before he'd even been buried.

Lord Byron wrote: "The thorns which I have reap'd are of the tree/I planted; they have torn me, and I bleed./I should have known what fruit would spring from such a seed."

It's the birthday of the crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh, (books by this author) born in East Pittsburgh (1937). The son of a policeman, he's the author of novels such as The New Centurions (1971) and The Onion Field (1974). The tone of Wambaugh's writing changed after he read Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1955). Wambaugh said, "Heller enabled me to find my voice."

Before Joseph Wambaugh, most police officers were depicted in print and in film as either overly pious or violent heroes. Wambaugh's characters are "just coping." Nearly all contemporary police characters are influenced by his characterizations.

It's the birthday of the poet Howard Moss, born in New York (1922). He served as poetry editor of The New Yorker magazine for almost four decades, publishing such poets as Theodore Roethke, Richard Wilbur, and Sylvia Plath. He wrote many books of poetry himself, including The Wound and the Weather (1946) and A Swimmer in the Air (1957), and received the National Book Award for his Selected Poems in 1971.

When asked his definition of a good poem, Howard Moss said, "One I like."

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