Feb. 7, 2007

The Lyric

by Tom Clark

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Poem: "The Lyric" by Tom Clark, from Light & Shade: New and Selected Poems. © Coffee House Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Lyric

lament, sorrow and wild
joy commingle in

the lyric — a collective
sigh of relief comes cascading
out of the blue —

a yearning to submerge
in life like the swimmer
in the pool forgetful

immersed and quenched —
water trailing scattered
diamonds in a rustling

voice of resigned subsidence
as though in the same stroke
everyone alive were speaking through you —

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Charles Dickens, (books by this author) who was born in Portsmouth, England (1812). He grew up in a series of small towns on the southern coast of England, where his father worked as a naval clerk. His mother taught him to read, and he became obsessed with books. He later wrote, "[Reading] was my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life."

When he was 10 years old, his father got a promotion to a job on the outskirts of London. Dickens always remembered leaving the small coastal town where he'd grown up. At the time, London was one of the capitals of the Industrial Revolution, one of the first giant sprawling cities, full of poverty and pollution, crime and mystery. Dickens would go on to describe London as, "The great city ... like a dark shadow on the ground, reddening the sluggish air with a deep dull light, that told of labyrinths of public ways and shops, and swarms of busy people. ... Sounds arose — the striking of church clocks, the distant bark of dogs, the hum of traffic in the streets ... tall steeples looming in the air, and piles of unequal roofs oppressed by chimneys."

Dickens' father had been gathering debts for years, struggling more and more to pay them. Charles was 12 years old when his parents decided he could help the family financially if he took a job at Warren's Blacking Company, a manufacturer of boot blacking that was run by a friend of the family.

A few days after he started the job, Dickens' father was arrested for debt. Dickens was devastated. It was then that he decided that he would do whatever it took to make sure that he was never poor again. In his spare time, he began writing sketches of the people imprisoned with his father, and then began to write about other ordinary people on the streets of London, the cabdrivers, shoe shiners, pickpockets, and clowns.

Dickens eventually got a job as a journalist and began writing fiction, and he went on to become the most popular writer of his lifetime. But he also became a publishing entrepreneur by inventing a remarkably successful new form of publishing, selling his novels in serial installments. Because he couldn't wait to write a whole book before he started getting paid for it, he published each new chapter as soon as it was finished.

Most critics agree that Dickens' first real masterpiece was his most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield (1850).

Dickens' reputation among critics declined after his death. His work was considered too melodramatic and moralistic. But his reputation was revived by the critic G.K. Chesterton, and since 1950, more has been written about Dickens each year than about any other author in the English language except Shakespeare.

It's the birthday of novelist (Harry) Sinclair Lewis, (books by this author) born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (1885). His mother died when he was six years old, and he never got along with his father. Growing up in Sauk Centre, he was a gawky kid, uncoordinated and odd looking, and his only talent seemed to be imitating the voices of local teachers and priests. He never felt comfortable in his hometown and tried to run away to fight in the Spanish American War when he was 13.

As soon as he graduated from high school, he moved away to the East Coast for college and then almost never stopped moving for the rest of his life. He published short stories in popular magazines and produced five novels, none of which got any attention. But he took a trip back home to Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and while he was there, he felt as though everyone was judging him and gossiping about him. The experience gave him the idea for a novel about a rebellious woman named Carol Kennicott who moves to a small town called Gopher Prairie and tries to bring it culturally up to date, only to fail miserably.

That novel was Main Street (1920), and it was a literary sensation. No one had ever written such a fierce attack on small-town American life. Lewis described the people in his fictional Gopher Prairie as "a savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world." When asked about the popularity of the book, he said, "Some hundreds of thousands read the book with the same masochistic pleasure that one has in sucking an aching tooth."

He went on to write many other books, including Babbitt (1922) and Arrowsmith (1925), but most people consider Main Street his masterpiece. In 1930, he became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He said his inspiration as a writer came from, "sitting in Pullman smoking cars, in a Minnesota village, on a Vermont farm, in a hotel in Kansas City or Savannah, listening to the normal daily drone of what are to me the most fascinating and exotic people in the world — the Average Citizens of the United States."

It's the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder, (books by this author) born Laura Ingalls near Pepin, Wisconsin (1867). When she was 63 years old she started writing about her pioneer childhood in books such as Little House in the Big Woods (1932) and Little House on the Prairie (1935).

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