May 24, 2007

Ars Poetica

by X. J. Kennedy

THURSDAY, 24 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Ars Poetica" by X.J. Kennedy, from Peeping Tom's Cabin: Comic Verse 1928-2008. © BOA Editions, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Ars Poetica

The goose that laid the golden egg
Died looking up its crotch
To find out how its sphincter worked.
Would you lay well? Don't watch.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the singer and songwriter Bob Dylan (books by this author), born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota (1941). He grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, a mining town on the decline. Dylan later said, "It was a very itinerant place — no interstate highways yet, just country roads everywhere. There was an innocence about it all, and I don't recall anything bad ever happening." At school, his classmates said he was a quiet kid who didn't call much attention to himself. But then, in 1955, the movie Rebel Without a Cause came out, and Dylan went to see it at least four times. After that, he began wearing a red leather jacket to school, and he put grease in his hair. He set about forming the first rock and roll band in the history of Hibbing, Minnesota, and he called his band The Golden Chords.

It was only after he enrolled in the University of Minnesota that Dylan became interested in folk music. He heard a record by the folk singer Odetta in 1958 and immediately went out and traded his electric guitar for an acoustic. He soon dropped out of college to focus on learning as many folk songs as he could. At some point, he stumbled upon the work of Woody Guthrie and became a kind of Guthrie disciple. He bought a harmonica and a metal neck brace so that he could sing, play guitar, and play the harmonica at the same time, just like Woody, and he began performing at local coffeehouses. It was at one of these coffeehouses that he first called himself Bob Dylan. He took the name Dylan from the poet Dylan Thomas.

After a few years in Minneapolis, Dylan decided to take off for New York City in January of 1961. He arrived in the middle of a snowstorm. It was one of the worst winters in decades, and he had no place to stay. He spent several days just riding the subways, because it was the only place he could keep warm. He found a place to stay by the end of the week, and then he took a trip down to Greystone Hospital in New Jersey, where he'd heard that Woody Guthrie was slowly dying of Huntington's disease.

Guthrie was staying in the psychiatric part of the hospital, and he was already suffering spasms and having difficulty talking. But Dylan brought along his guitar and he sang songs to Guthrie, which Guthrie loved. Dylan went back to visit Guthrie many times, and the first song he wrote after his arrival in New York was called "Song to Woody." It included the lines, "Here's to the hearts and the hands of the men / That come with the dust and are gone with the wind."

Within a year, Dylan had his first record contract, and he recorded his first album when he was just 19. He went on to become one of the most prolific songwriters in American history, writing and recording songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and "Like a Rolling Stone." Dylan also published his first memoir a few years ago, Chronicles, Volume One (2004), which got great reviews and was even nominated for a National Book Award.

Bob Dylan was once asked if he thought of himself more as a singer or a poet. He said, "I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man."

It's the birthday of the novelist Michael Chabon (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1963). He's a writer who suffered from early success. He was just 23 when he wrote his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and turned it in as his master's thesis at a creative writing program. He presented the final draft on a Friday and learned on Monday that his professor had sent the manuscript to an agent. The book was published the following year, in 1988. It became a huge critical and commercial success. Chabon was compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Cheever. He was asked to model clothing for The Gap, and People magazine wanted to include him in its 1988's "50 Most Beautiful People" issue, but Chabon turned down both offers.

Instead, he took an advance on his second novel and started working on it. Chabon later said, "It was a novel about utopian dreamers, ecological activists, an Israeli spy, a gargantuan Florida real estate deal, the education of an architect, the perfect baseball park, Paris, French cooking, and the crazy and ongoing dream of rebuilding the Great Temple in Jerusalem. It was about loss — lost paradises, lost cities, the loss of the Temple, the loss of a brother to AIDS; and the concomitant dream of Restoration or Rebuilding."

Chabon spent five years working on his novel, which he called Fountain City. He wrote 1,500 pages of manuscript. But he finally had to give up on it. Instead, he began a book about a creative writing professor who can't finish his latest novel. And that was Wonder Boys (1995), which was made into a movie in 2000.

In 2000, Chabon came out with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), the story of a Jewish kid who flees the Nazis just before World War II, but he has to leave his family behind to come to America, and along with his cousin, he creates a comic book superhero named The Escapist.

Michael Chabon said, "Literature, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the pain, the destruction and the marvelous liberation that can result when they are revealed."

It's the birthday of poet Joseph Brodsky (books by this author), born in St. Petersburg, Russia (1940). He moved to this country in 1972.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer William Trevor (books by this author), born in Mitchelstown, Ireland (1928). His collections of short stories include The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories (1967) and Beyond the Pale (1981); and his novels include Felicia's Journey (1994) and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002).

He once said, "If anyone asks why I write gloomy novels, they need only know that my father came from the South and my mother from the North."

He also said, "All my writing is about noncommunication — which is very sad and very funny."

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




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