Monday

Jun. 9, 2008

High Flight (An Airman's Ecstasy)

by John Gillespie Magee Jr.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

"High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., Public Domain.

It's the birthday of novelist Charles Webb, (books by this author) born in San Francisco, California, 1939. He wrote a book that became one of the iconic films of the 1960s: The Graduate (1963; film version, 1967). Not many people realize that The Graduate is based on a book, but in fact the dialogue in the film comes almost entirely from the dialogue Webb wrote for the novel.

Webb grew up in Pasadena, California, a very rich community, and he turned down an inheritance from his father who was a wealthy doctor. He wrote The Graduate in the poolside bar of the Pasadena Huntington Hotel, and he based it loosely on his own experience: He was attracted to the wife of a friend of his parents, and he decided "it might be better to write about it than to do it." When The Graduate was published he was 24 years old.

Webb and his long-term partner got married, but then they got divorced in protest of the institution of marriage, and sold all their wedding presents. In 2008, Webb finally published his sequel to The Graduate, called Home School; in the sequel Benjamin and Elaine are fighting the local authorities for the right to home school their children, and Benjamin is forced to turn to Mrs. Robinson for help. She seduces the local principal.

Webb says he wrote Home School "to round out my career in fiction and tie up the loose ends."

It was on this day in 1870 that the novelist Charles Dickens died; (books by this author) the day before, he had a stroke and fell off his chair at the dinner table. He was just eating a good dinner after a full day of work on his latest novel, called The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens asked to be buried "in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner," so even though he was buried in Westminster Abbey, it was a secret funeral, early in the morning, with only 12 mourners. But the grave was left open for a week and thousands of people, all types of people, came to throw in flowers for the man whose tomb is inscribed with the words "He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world."

He said, "This is a world of action, and not for moping and droning in."

Today is the birthday of the composer who was voted "Most Entertaining Man" while he was a student at Yale University: Cole Porter, born in Peru, Indiana in 1891. His first musical was See America First, and it was a flop, but he kept writing and eventually composed classic songs like "Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)," "You're the Top," and "Night and Day." He wrote the tunes and the lyrics to his songs, and they were very popular, and still are.

Porter was gay, but he married a close friend, the socialite Linda Thomas, to keep up appearances. In 1937, he got in a serious horseback-riding accident and one of his legs was horribly injured, but he was an extremely vain man, a man who spent hours every day on his clothes and his appearance, so he refused to have his leg amputated and he dealt with the pain for years. It wasn't until 20 years later that he finally agreed to amputation, but he became depressed afterward, couldn't write or enjoy himself in public, and he died a few years later, in 1964.

Porter wrote romantic love songs, but they were funny and clever too; songs like "I Get a Kick Out of You," which says

"Some like the bop-type refrain
I'm sure that if, I heard even one riff
It would bore me terrifically too
But I get a kick out of you.
Some they may go for cocaine
I'm sure that if, I took even one sniff
It would bore me terrifically too
But I get a kick out of you"

Today is the birthday of the man who wrote the most famous inspirational poem about aviation — a sonnet about aviation — John Gillespie Magee Jr., born in Shanghai, China, in 1922, the son of missionaries. He was an American, but like thousands of other young Americans he served with the Royal Canadian Air Force before the United States officially entered WWII. He had a scholarship to Yale, but after high school he enlisted in the air force, and he was sent to combat duty in England. A month or maybe two months later, he wrote a sonnet, "High Flight," and sent it to his parents on the back of a letter, saying "I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed." Three months later, the U.S. entered the war, and just three days after that Magee died in a plane crash. The sonnet was widely copied and distributed, and it is still referenced in novels, television shows, and political speeches. All first-year cadets at the United States Air Force Academy are required to memorize and recite it.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









«

»

  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook


The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Sharon Olds at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »