Oct. 16, 2007

Losing a Language

by W. S. Merwin

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Poem: "Losing a Language" by W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees. © Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. Reprinted with permission.

Losing a Language

A breath leaves the sentences and does not come back
yet the old still remember something that they could say

but they know now that such things are no longer believed
and the young have fewer words

many of the things the words were about
no longer exist

the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree
the verb for I

the children will not repeat
the phrases their parents speak

somebody has persuaded them
that it is better to say everything differently

so that they can be admired somewhere
farther and farther away

where nothing that is here is known
we have little to say to each other

we are wrong and dark
in the eyes of the new owners

the radio is incomprehensible
the day is glass

when there is a voice at the door it is foreign
everywhere instead of a name there is a lie

nobody has seen it happening
nobody remembers

this is what the words were made
to prophesy

here are the extinct feathers
here is the rain we saw

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of American playwright Eugene O'Neill, born in a Broadway hotel room in New York City (1888), who had been at various times a gold prospector, sailor, actor, and journalist, when he caught TB and had to spend six months in a sanatorium. While recovering, he read classic playwrights and modern innovators like Ibsen and Strindberg, and suddenly began writing plays. American stages were full of melodramas and comedies at the time, and O'Neill wrote some of the first real American tragedies, full of murder, substance abuse, dark sexuality, and dysfunctional families. Sinclair Lewis later said, "Eugene O'Neill has done nothing much in American drama save to transform it utterly, in ten or twelve years, from a false world of neat and competent trickery to a world of splendor and fear and greatness." O'Neill became the only American playwright ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936.

Though many of his plays were successful in his lifetime, they're extremely difficult to stage. The first act of his play Marco Millions (1928) takes place in Venice, Syria, Persia, India, Mongolia, and China. His play Lazarus Laughed (1928) calls for 165 actors, each wearing several different masks. His play Strange Interlude (1928) runs for nine acts. O'Neill was always disappointed when he saw his plays on the stage, because they never lived up to his imagination. He once wrote, "Before long I think I shall permanently resign from all production and confine my future work to plays in books for readers only." Ironically, his most frequently revived play is Long Day's Journey into Night, which was first performed in 1956, two years after O'Neill's death, even though he had specifically requested that it never be produced as a play.

Eugene O'Neill said, "One should either be sad or joyful. Contentment is a warm sty for eaters and sleepers." And he said, "There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now."

It's the birthday of novelist Günter Grass, born in Danzig, (now Gdansk) Poland (1927), who got swept up in World War II, became a member of the Hitler youth when he was 14, and fought with the Nazis in the last few months of the war. Most of the men in his division were killed, but he was captured. He had always believed the Nazi propaganda, but as part of a POW reeducation program, he was taken to visit the concentration camp at Dachau, and he was horrified to realize what he'd been a part of. He went back to his hometown of Danzig and found that it had been completely destroyed in the war.

He worked for a while as a stonemason and then got involved with an avant-garde literary group. He was at a party one night when he noticed that one of the children of the house was hiding under a table, ignoring the adults in the room, living in his own fantasy world, and that gave Grass the idea for his first novel, The Tin Drum (1959), about a boy who deliberately stops growing when he's three years old to avoid participating in the Nazi regime. His most recent book is the memoir Peeling the Onion (2007).

It's the birthday of Oscar Wilde, born in Dublin (1854), who was already a successful playwright when he fell into a love affair with the young aristocrat Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was married with two children at the time, and the affair ruined his reputation in society. He later wrote, "I curse myself night and day for my folly in allowing him to dominate my life." But it was the most creative period of his life. He wrote three plays in two years about people leading double lives, including A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), about two men who use an imaginary person named Earnest to get themselves out of all kinds of situations, until their invented stories and identities get so complicated that everything is revealed.

The actor who played Algernon Moncrieff later said, "In my fifty-three years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest." But that same year, Wilde was accused of sodomy by the father of his lover. Wilde might have let the accusation pass, but he chose to sue his accuser for libel, because he thought he could win the case by his eloquence alone. Private detectives had dug up so much damning evidence on Wilde that he was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to two years of hard labor. His plays continued to be produced on the stage, but his name was removed from all the programs. He was released from prison in 1897 and died three years later in a cheap Paris hotel.

Oscar Wilde, who said, "All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling." And, "An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all."

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