Mar. 1, 2007

A New Lifestyle

by James Tate

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Poem: "A New Lifestyle" by James Tate from Memoir of the Hawk. © The Ecco Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

A New Lifestyle

People in this town drink too much
coffee. They're jumpy all the time. You
see them drinking out of their big plastic
mugs while they're driving. They cut in
front of you, they steal your parking places.
Teenagers in the cemeteries knocking over
tombstones are slurping café au lait.
Recycling men hanging onto their trucks are
sipping espresso. Dogcatchers running down
the street with their nets are savoring
their cups of mocha java. The holdup man
entering a convenience store first pours
himself a nice warm cup of coffee. Down
the funeral parlor driveway a boy on a
skateboard is spilling his. They're so
serious about their coffee, it's all they
can think about, nothing else matters.
Everyone's wide awake but looks incredibly

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1692 that the Salem Witch Trials began, as three women were charged with practicing witchcraft. At the time, the town of Salem, Massachusetts, had recently gone through an epidemic of small pox, and the Indian Wars that had gone on for years had left many of the children in the town without fathers. There had also been a power struggle between the Puritan Colony and the king of England, which left Massachusetts without a true legal system.

It was in the middle of this difficult period that several girls began to go into convulsions, and they began accusing people in the town of having bewitched them. Some historians now believe that the witch-hunt might have been fueled by a long-running family feud in the town. The Porter family had long been growing in influence and wealth in the area, and the Putnam family had been losing influence. The girls doing most of the accusing were connected in various ways to the Putnam family, and most of the witches they accused were connected to the Porter family.

There were multiple attempts to keep the trials from getting out of control. Judges resigned in protest of the convictions. Neighbors gathered petitions in support of the accused. But in the end, 19 accused witches were hanged, 14 of them women, and three more died in jail. By the following fall, the preacher Cotton Mather was speaking out against the trials. He said, "We ought not to practice witchcraft to discover witches. It is better that 10 suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned." After the girls accused the governor's wife of being a witch, the governor stepped in and stopped the trials. It was the last time anyone was put to death for witchcraft in American history.

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Hass, (books by this author) born in San Francisco, California (1941).

It's the birthday of poet Howard Nemerov, (books by this author) born in New York City (1920). He started writing poetry after studying T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats in college. He later said, "I got ... the idea that what you were supposed to do was be plenty morbid and predict the end of civilization many times, but civilization has ended so many times during my brief term on earth that I got a little bored with the theme, and in old age I concluded that the model was really Mother Goose."

It's the birthday of the poet Richard Wilbur, born in New York City (1921). He entered the military during World War II, and wrote a book of poems about the war called The Beautiful Changes (1947), and it was a big success. Ten years later, he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collection Things of this World.

Wilbur became one of America's leading poets at a time when most of this country's leading poets were suffering from mental illness and alcoholism. While those other poets wrote about their madness in increasingly more experimental styles, Wilbur has kept writing precise, rhythmical verse with meter and rhyme, living the mild-mannered life of a successful writer and literature professor.

It's the birthday of poet Robert Lowell, (books by this author) born in Boston, Massachusetts (1917). He wrote his early poems in the style of Milton, with elaborate meter and rhyme schemes, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for his first major collection, Lord Weary's Castle (1946), which included poems about whale hunters and Napoleon. But after World War II, Lowell began to write more and more about himself and the people he knew — his relatives and friends — and the most ordinary details of his daily life.

He said, "Almost the whole problem of writing poetry is to bring it back to what you really feel, and that takes an awful lot of maneuvering. You may feel the doorknob more strongly than some big personal event, and the doorknob will open into something you can use as your own."

His collection Life Studies (1959) was one of the most baldly autobiographical collections of poetry ever published at that time, and he wrote it in a conversational free-verse style. He was criticized at first for writing what was called "confessional poetry," but it quickly became the standard style of American poetry.

It's the birthday of a man who had a hard time following up on his first book, Ralph Ellison, (books by this author) born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1914). He originally wanted to be a classical composer, but when he met the great African-American writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, they encouraged him to write stories and book reviews for New York magazines. Ellison decided to quit studying music and devote his life to writing.

One day, Ellison was sitting in a barn on his friend's farm in Vermont, staring at a typewriter, when he typed the sentence, "I am an invisible man." He didn't know where it came from, but he wanted to pursue the idea, to find out what kind of a person would think of himself as invisible. The sentence turned into his first novel, Invisible Man, published in 1952.

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