Mar. 24, 2007

Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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Poem: "Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from These Are My Rivers. © New Directions. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West

Retired ballerinas on winter afternoons
      walking their dogs
in Central Park West
(or their cats on leashes—
The cats themselves old highwire artists)
The ballerinas
      leap and pirouette
      through Columbus Circle
      while winos on park benches
      (laid back like drunken Goudonovs)
      hear the taxis trumpet together
      like horsemen of the apocalypse
      in the dusk of the gods
It is the final witching hour
      when swains are full of swan songs
      And all return through the dark dusk
      to their bright cells
      in glass highrises
      or sit down to oval cigarettes and cakes
      in the Russian Tea Room
      or climb four flight to back rooms
      in Westside brownstones
      where faded playbill photos
      fall peeling from their frames
      like last year's autumn leaves

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the great showmen in American history: Harry Houdini (books by this author). Though he claimed that his hometown was Appleton, Wisconsin, he was actually born in Budapest (1874), and his real name was Erich Weiss. His family immigrated to the United States when he was just a baby. He began working as a circus acrobat when he was a teenager, but he decided to switch to magic and took the stage name of Harry Houdini. Early on, he did all kinds of magic. His signature trick was to swallow a series of needles, and then pull them out of his mouth threaded together. After he got married, he performed with his wife, and she specialized in mind-reading on stage. They also had a comedy routine.

But Houdini had developed an interest in lock picking, and he began to develop a trick in which he escaped from a pair of handcuffs. The performance didn't become a big hit until he got the idea of inviting the local police to lock him up in their own handcuffs. The presence of the police made the trick more real somehow, and people were amazed. Houdini began to play bigger and bigger venues, and he would escape from more and more elaborate contraptions: straitjackets, jails, coffins, trunks, steel containers, and glass boxes filled with water. In one trick, he leapt from a bridge wrapped in chains, and he had to escape before he drowned in the river.

When asked about his success as a performer, Houdini said, "The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will result in sudden death."

It's the birthday of the poet, publisher and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti, (books by this author) born in Yonkers, New York (1919). His father died five months before Ferlinghetti was born, and his mother was so devastated by the loss that she had to be committed to the state mental hospital. Young Lawrence was sent to live with his aunt in France.

He didn't learn English until he was five, when he returned to America. As a teenager, he became an Eagle Scout and was also arrested for petty theft, as part of his involvement with a street gang called the "Parkway Road Pirates." But shortly after, he was inspired by a copy of Baudelaire poems he was given, and became interested in poetry and literature.

After serving in World War II, he moved to San Francisco, where he decided to open City Lights Bookstore. Ferlinghetti also started a publishing venture with what he called the Pocket Poets series — collections of poetry designed to be small enough to slip into your pocket. The fourth book in the Pocket Poets series was Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, published in September 1956. The following year, the second edition of Howl was seized by customs officials, and Ferlinghetti was charged with printing and selling lewd and indecent material. Ferlinghetti won the case, with help from the ACLU, and all the publicity made Howl into a best-seller.

In 1958, he also published his own collection of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, which shocked everyone by going through 28 printings and selling 700,000 copies in the United States alone. By the end of the 1960s, it was the best-selling book ever published by a living American poet.

Ferlinghetti is one of the few poets in the United States who has never held a job at a university, never received government funding, and never attended an MLA conference. He's also never won a Pulitzer. City Lights Bookstore is still going strong, grown from one floor to three floors. It still sells nothing but books and magazines, no calendars or greeting cards. It's the only bookstore in America that's also a destination on a tour bus route.

It was on this day in 1955 that the Tennessee Williams (books by this author) play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened on Broadway. It's the story of the 65th birthday party for a man named Big Daddy, at his plantation house on the Mississippi Delta. The family members struggle to get along at the party and try not to talk about the fact that Big Daddy is terminally ill with cancer. The play focuses on Big Daddy's son Brick, who is struggling with alcoholism and his sexuality. His wife, Maggie, is trying to revive their marriage. It was one of Williams's most successful plays. It ran for 694 performances and won for Williams his third New York Drama Critics Circle Award and second Pulitzer Prize.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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