Jun. 27, 2007
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Poem: "Gamin" by Frank O'Hara, from The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara. © Alfred A. Knopf, 1971. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
All the roofs are wet
and underneath smoke
that piles softly in
streets, tongues are
on top of each other
mulling over the night.
We lay against each other
like banks of violets
while the slate slips
off the roof into the
garden of the old lady
next door. She is my
enemy. She hates cats
airplanes and my self
as if we were memories
of war. Bah! when you
are close I thumb my
nose at her and laugh.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet and children's author, Lucille Clifton, (books by this author) born in Depew, New York (1936). Her poetry collections include The Terrible Stories (1998), Blessing the Boats (2000), and Mercy (2004). Her father was a steel worker and her mother was a laundress, and neither of her parents had finished elementary school. But despite that, they both loved to read and they encouraged Clifton to read when she was growing up.
Clifton was the first member of her family to go to college when she won a full scholarship to Howard University. She got married and had kids, and kept writing poems all the time. It was finally a friend who encouraged her to show her poems to the poet Robert Hayden, and he was so impressed that he helped get them published. Those poems became Clifton's first book Good Times (1969), which was called one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times. The year it came out, Clifton still had six children under ten years old. The untitled opening poem in that collection begins, "in the inner city / or like we call it / home / we think a lot about uptown / and the silent nights / and the houses straight as dead men / and the pastel lights / and we hang on to our no place / happy to be alive."
It's the birthday of novelist Alice McDermott, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1953). She grew up on Long Island in an Irish Catholic family, where most of the men worked for the Con Edison electric company. She wanted to be a writer from the time she was ten years old. She wrote stories throughout college and then enrolled in a creative writing program at the University of New Hampshire. Just 3 years after graduating from that program, McDermott came out with her first novel A Bigamist's Daughter (1982), which got great reviews.
McDermott has gone on to write several novels including That Night (1987) and Charming Billy (1998), which won the National Book Award. Her most recent novel After This came out in 2006. All of her books are about working class Irish Catholic families in the suburbs around New York. She said, "In fiction you have to be fairly specific. And I know how Irish-Americans in the New York area talk, what kind of couches they buy, and what kind of plastic slipcovers they put on the couches. ... But I'm more interested in what's going on in their heads than what's going on their couches."
Even though she has won awards and written best-sellers, McDermott still feels the need to keep her novels short, because she's worried about the readers' attention span. She said, "I still have that sense of apology: Look, I'm not going to waste your time; I'm going to tell you what I need to tell you, then stop. ... Sing your song and get offbefore they bring out the hook!"
It's the birthday of author and educator Helen Keller, (books by this author) born in Tuscumbia, Alabama (1880). She was one of the first people ever to learn to speak, read and write, even though she'd grown up blind and deaf. As a child she often erupted into terrible temper tantrums, but in spite of her disabilities, her parents could tell she was extremely intelligent. So they hired a teacher from the Perkins Institution for children with disabilities. The teacher who eventually came to teach Helen was a woman named Anne Sullivan. The day that Helen Keller met Anne Sullivan for the first time, she knocked out one of Sullivan's front teeth.
But Anne Sullivan stuck with the job. She and Helen moved to an isolated cottage for non-stop teaching sessions. Helen Keller learned to read letters that Anne Sullivan spelled out on her palm, but at first, Helen could only mimic the letters that Sullivan taught her. Then, one day, Anne Sullivan spelled the word "water" on Keller's palm while Keller held her hand in the water from the well. Keller later wrote, "I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me."
Within the next few hours, Helen learned thirty new words, and by the end of the month, she'd stopped her temper tantrums. By the time she was twelve, she was reading Milton's Paradise Lost. She went on to college at Radcliffe, where she wrote her autobiography, The Story of My Life, which came out in 1903.
Helen Keller said, "I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble."
It's the birthday of poet Frank O'Hara, (books by this author) born in Baltimore, Maryland (1926). He fell in love with the abstract art of the 1950s, and he believed that poems should be improvisational, like action paintings.
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