Sep. 3, 2007
Poem: "Candles" by Carl Dennis, from New and Selected Poems 1974-2004. © Penguin Books, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
If on your grandmother's birthday you burn a candle
To honor her memory, you might think of burning an extra
To honor the memory of someone who never met her,
A man who may have come to the town she lived in
Looking for work and never found it.
Picture him taking a stroll one morning,
After a month of grief with the want ads,
To refresh himself in the park before moving on.
Suppose he notices on the gravel path the shards
Of a green glass bottle that your grandmother,
Then still a girl, will be destined to step on
When she wanders barefoot away from her school picnic
If he doesn't stoop down and scoop the mess up
With the want-ad section and carry it to a trash can.
For you to burn a candle for him
You needn't suppose the cut would be a deep one,
Just deep enough to keep her at home
The night of the hay ride when she meets Helen,
Who is soon to become her dearest friend,
Whose brother George, thirty years later,
Helps your grandfather with a loan so his shoe store
Doesn't go under in the Great Depression
And his son, your father, is able to stay in school
Where his love of learning is fanned into flames,
A love he labors, later, to kindle in you.
How grateful you are for your father's efforts
Is shown by the candles you've burned for him.
But today, for a change, why not a candle
For the man whose name is unknown to you?
Take a moment to wonder whether he died at home
With friends and family or alone on the road,
On the look-out for no one to sit at his bedside
And hold his hand, the very hand
It's time for you to imagine holding.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Labor Day, first celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. The holiday was the idea of the Central Labor Union in New York City, which organized a parade and a picnic featuring speeches by union leaders. It was intended to celebrate labor unions, call for the eight-hour workday, and to recognize the achievements of the American worker.
Many of the labor laws those early activists wanted were passed in the 1930s, including the eight-hour workday and the 40-hour workweek. Most sociologists predicted that in the coming decades Americans would work steadily fewer and fewer hours. But in fact, the opposite has happened. Today, more than 25 million Americans work more than 49 hours each week. And 11 million spend 60 hours or more at work each week. Americans also take fewer vacation days than employees in any other industrialized nation, making Americans the hardest-working (or most overworked) industrialized nation on the planet.
Most writers have worked day jobs at some point in their careers to support their writing, and many have been inspired by those day jobs. Salman Rushdie was an advertising man, and so was Allen Ginsberg. Wallace Stevens worked for an insurance company. Charles Bukowski worked, among other things, as a janitor, a truck driver, and a bouncer for a brothel. Walt Whitman worked for a while as a teacher in series of windowless, poorly heated, one-room schoolhouses for almost no money. While teaching at one school, he wrote to a friend, "How tired and sick I am of this wretched, wretched hole! ... O, damnation, damnation! Thy other name is school-teaching."
It's the birthday of writer Sarah Orne Jewett (books by this author), born 1849 in South Berwick, Maine, renowned for her stories about the ships, fishermen, and coastal villages of 19th-century Maine. In her teens she started writing stories about the traditions of Maine village life. Of her 20 books, the best known is the short novel The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), which takes place in the fictitious town of Dunnet.
It's the birthday of American playwright, short-story writer, and essayist Sally Benson, born Sara Mahala Redway Smith in St. Louis (1900). She is best known for her novel Meet Me in St. Louis (1942), which was made into a movie musical in 1944. But she also wrote numerous stories and sketches for The New Yorker magazine. She published almost all of her work in The New Yorker, and she later said, "Editors of some of the [other] national magazines have asked for my stuff, but what they really want are healthy, clean-limbed, hearty young people on a raft and that isn't for me."
It's the birthday of novelist Alison Lurie (books by this author), born in Chicago, Illinois (1926). Her first big success was the novel The War Between the Tates (1974), about a college professor who has a mid-life crisis and his marriage begins to fall apart. Lurie went on to write several more novels about life in the world of academia, including Foreign Affairs (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize, about two American professors on sabbatical in England.
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