May 15, 2007

Siren Song

by Margaret Atwood

TUESDAY, 15 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Siren Song" by Margaret Atwood, from Selected Poems 1965 -1975. © Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Siren Song

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:

the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls

the song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the others can't remember.

Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?

I don't enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical

with these two feathery maniacs,
I don't enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.

I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1942 that William Faulkner's (books by this author) book Go Down, Moses was published. It's a collection of seven linked short stories that all take place in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, and all concern members of the racially mixed McCaslin family. The most famous story in the book is "The Bear."

It's the birthday of the man who wrote The Wizard of Oz, Lyman Frank Baum, (books by this author) born in Chittenango, New York, in 1856. As a young man, he ran a general store in Aberdeen, South Dakota, that he called "Baum's Bazaar," where, with a cigar constantly dangling from his mouth, he liked to entertain children by telling them fairy tales and giving them candy as they gathered around on the dusty, wooden sidewalk. In 1897, he published his collection of Mother Goose stories, Mother Goose in Prose. Two years later, he met the illustrator William Denslow, and the pair published Father Goose, His Book (1899), a huge success. Baum made so much money from his book that he was able to buy a summer home in Macatawa Park, Michigan, where he built all of the furniture by hand.

In 1900, Baum wrote the book that made him famous, The Wizard of Oz, illustrated by Denslow. The book began as a story he told to some neighborhood children; Frank thought it was so good that he stopped in the middle of the story to go start writing it down. The story of Dorothy, her dog Toto, the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Man and their journey down the yellow brick road was an instant classic.

Baum was a socialist, and the Emerald City of Oz was his socialist utopia. He wrote, "There were no poor people in the land of Oz, because there was no such thing as money, and all property of every sort belonged to the Ruler. Each person was given freely by his neighbors whatever he required for his use, which is as much as anyone may reasonably desire. Every one worked half the time and played half the time, and the people enjoyed the work as much as they did the play, because it is good to be occupied and to have something to do."

Frank Baum wrote, "No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home."

It's the birthday of short-story writer and novelist Katherine Anne Porter, (books by this author) born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, Texas (1890). She was a woman who might never have become a writer if she hadn't caught tuberculosis. She was working as a singer and a dancer in Chicago at the time, and her brother paid for her to go to a sanatorium in Texas.

Porter spent two years recovering there, surrounded by a group of intelligent young women, including some of the first female journalists in the area. She was inspired by their example and decided to become a writer. She visited Mexico in 1919 to cover the revolution there and spent the next several months meeting revolutionaries, artists, anthropologists, and politicians. And it was there that she began to write the first of her serious short stories.

Ten years after her trip to Mexico, she was going through her papers when she found some notes for a possible novel about Mexico she had made all those years ago, and she used the notes to write the story "Flowering Judas," about a young American woman living in Mexico just before the revolution. The story made her famous when it was published, and it became the title story of her first collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1930). She was 40 years old.

Most of Porter's early stories were about her experiences in Mexico, and it was only after she had traveled to Europe that she began to write about her childhood in rural Texas. One of the memories that came to her while she was living in Europe was of a story she heard as a child about a man in her town who was accused of murder and who went from door to door through the town, trying to persuade all his neighbors that he was innocent. That memory inspired her to write the short novel Noon Wine (1937), which most critics consider her masterpiece.

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