Aug. 5, 2007

The Problem of Anxiety

by John Ashbery

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Poem: "The Problem of Anxiety" by John Ashbery, from Can You Hear, Bird. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Problem of Anxiety

Fifty years have passed
since I started living in those dark towns
I was telling you about.
Well, not much has changed. I still can't figure out
how to get from the post office to the swings in the park.
Apple trees blossom in the cold, not from conviction,
and my hair is the color of dandelion fluff.

Suppose this poem were about you – would you
put in the things I've carefully left out:
descriptions of pain, and sex, and how shiftily
people behave toward each other? Naw, that's
all in some book it seems. For you
I've saved the descriptions of chicken sandwiches,
and the glass eye that stares at me in amazement
from the bronze mantel, and will never be appeased.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Wendell Berry (books by this author), born in Port Royal, Kentucky (1934). He grew up on farmland that had belonged to his family since 1803. He went on to college and to graduate school. He lived in California and Italy and New York City. But through all those years, he never stopped thinking about the place where he grew up, and he finally decided to move back to the area permanently. Most of his city friends thought he was crazy, but he bought a small farm in his hometown, which still had a population of only a hundred or so people, and he began farming it the way his grandfather had taught him, without any machines.

He grew squash, corn, and tomatoes, and he got a flock of sheep, a milk cow, and some horses. And he wrote about his experiences as a farmer in more than 40 books of poetry, fiction, and essays. His collections of poetry include The Farm (1995) and A Timbered Choir (1998). But he's best known for his essays in books such as The Gift of Good Land (1981), What Are People For? (1990), and Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (2000).

Wendell Berry said, "Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup."

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Conrad Aiken (books by this author), born in Savannah, Georgia (1889). When he was 11, his father shot Aiken's mother and then himself. Aiken wrote about it in his autobiography, Ushant (1952): "After the desultory early-morning quarrel, came the half-stifled scream, and the sound of [my] father's voice counting three, and the two loud pistol shots and [I] tiptoed into the dark room, where the two bodies lay motionless, and apart, and, finding them dead, found [myself] possessed of them forever."

Aiken won awards for his poetry and many writers admired him, but he was criticized for being too literary and he never became a popular poet. He described himself as a "poet more honored than read." In 1930, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems.

Conrad Aiken wrote: "Music I heard with you was more than music,/ And bread I broke with you was more than bread./ Now that I am without you, all is so desolate; / And all that once was so beautiful is dead."

On this day in 1850, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne met at a picnic with friends on Monument Mountain near Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Hawthorne was 15 years older, and had spent his life in New England. Melville was born in New York and went to sea at 20. When they met, Hawthorne was a somewhat reserved short-story writer and Melville was the more outgoing author of four novels.

A short time later, Melville bought a farmhouse he called "Arrowhead" in Pittsfield. For a year and a half, the two friends lived six miles apart during the most productive time in their writing lives. It was during that period of the early 1850s that Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), and The Blithedale Romance (1852), and Melville published Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre (1852) in the same period. In fact, The Blithedale Romance and Pierre were written at the same time, and The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick were published only a year apart.

It's the birthday of film director John Huston (books and movies by this artist), born in Nevada, Missouri (1906). He made many films, including The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). He said, "The directing of a picture involves coming out of your individual loneliness and taking a controlling part in putting together a small world. A picture is made. You put a frame around it and move on."

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