Aug. 31, 2007

After Reading T’ao Ch’ing, I wander Untethered Through the Short Grass

by Charles Wright

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Poem: "After Reading T'ao Ch'ing, I wander Untethered Through the Short Grass" by Charles Wright, from Appalachia. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

After Reading T'ao Ch'ing, I wander Untethered Through the Short Grass

Dry spring, no rain for five weeks.
Already the lush green begins to bow its head and sink to its

Already the plucked stalks and thyroid weeds like insects
Fly up and trouble my line of sight.

I stand inside the word here
         As that word stands in its sentence,
Unshadowy, half at ease.

Religion's been in a ruin for over a thousand years.
Why shouldn't the sky be tatters,
         lost notes to forgotten songs?

I inhabit who I am, as T'ao Ch'ing says, and walk about
Under the mindless clouds.
         When it ends, it ends. What else?

One morning I'll leave home and never find my way back—
My story and I will disappear together, just like this.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1837 that Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a speech entitled "The American Scholar" to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University. Emerson was actually filling in for the orator Reverend Dr. Wainwright, who had backed out of the speaking engagement at the last minute. But Emerson used the occasion to explain his transcendentalist philosophy for the first time in front of a large public audience. He said that scholars had become too obsessed with ideas of the past, that they were bookworms rather than thinkers. He told the audience to break from the past, to pay attention to the present, and to create their own new, unique ideas.

Emerson said, "Life is our dictionary. ... This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it. ... I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds."

The speech was published that same year. It made Emerson famous, and it brought the ideas of transcendentalism to young men like Henry David Thoreau. Oliver Wendell Holmes called "The American Scholar," "[the] intellectual Declaration of Independence."

It's the birthday of the second editor of The New Yorker magazine, William Shawn, born in Chicago, Illinois (1907). He started out contributing short pieces for the "Talk of the Town" section of The New Yorker when he was a young reporter in New Mexico. The magazine eventually hired him, and he worked his way up to the position of managing editor, and finally took over as editor from Harold Ross in 1952. He helped turn The New Yorker into a magazine of serious journalism. He was known to give writers more time to produce their pieces and more space in the magazine than any other magazine editor in the country.

He was squeamish about violence in fiction. He once decided not to publish an article about fishing because he didn't like the idea of killing fish. He also disliked air conditioning, was rarely photographed, didn't give interviews, and even after he became editor of The New Yorker, never once gave a speech in public. He was exceedingly polite and even people who had known him for years still called him Mr. Shawn. And he was a stickler for detail. He read every story three times before it was published in the magazine.

Four days before he died, Shawn had lunch with Lillian Ross, and she showed him a book cover blurb she had written and asked if he would check it. She later wrote of that day, "He took out the mechanical pencil he always carried in his inside jacket pocket, and ... made his characteristically neat proofreading marks on a sentence that said 'the book remains as fresh and unique as ever.' He changed it to read, 'remains unique and as fresh as ever.' 'There are no degrees of uniqueness,' Mr. Shawn said politely."

It's the birthday of song lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, born in New York City (1918). He teamed up with a composer named Frederick Loewe and after a few moderately successful productions, they came out with Brigadoon (1947), about a two Americans who discover a mythical Scottish town that disappeared in 1747 and only returns to life for one day each century. One of the Americans falls in love with a girl from the town, and has to decide whether to stay with her and give up the modern world. Brigadoon was a big hit, and it contained Lerner and Loewe's first hit song, "Almost Like Being in Love."

But Lerner and Loewe's biggest success was a musical version of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion: My Fair Lady, which premiered on Broadway on March 15, 1956. In that musical's most famous song, Professor Henry Higgins teaches Eliza Doolittle to properly pronounce the phrase "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain." Lerner spent six weeks working on most of the songs in the musical, but he wrote "The Rain in Spain" in 10 minutes.

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