Sunday

Jul. 20, 2008

Thistles

by Ted Hughes

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutterals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

"Thistles" by Ted Hughes from Collected Poems.© Faber & Faber. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of feminist artist Judy Chicago, (books by this author) born Judy Cohen, in Chicago (1939). She grew up in a secular Jewish family and her father was, according to her, "an atheist, a radical, and a labor organizer." She began drawing when she was a toddler and from a very early age she knew she wanted to be an artist. She said, "Because my mother worked and because I saw women participating fully in all the discussions that went on in the house, I grew up with the sense that I could do what I wanted and be what I wanted." At age eight, she started taking Saturday lessons at the Chicago Art Institute.

Her father died when she was 13, and the event was for her particularly traumatic, shadowing her teenage years. When she graduated from high school, she was given a scholarship to study art. She left the Midwest for Southern California and went to UCLA to do a bachelor's and M.F.A. in art. She has noted that while she was there, she encountered several barriers that stemmed from male chauvinism. The art department didn't give teaching assistant stipends to women painters, so she had to teach in the sculpture section instead. Some of her master's advisers found that her work was too full of female genitalia and other "biomorphic imagery," which they found offensive, and they told her that they would no longer support her thesis if she continued to incorporate such imagery. She altered her art so that it became less graphic and more abstract.

She married a fellow student and thereby became Judy Gerowitz. Her husband died in a car accident, however, just a few years after they had married.

Five years after she received her master's, the Pasadena Art Museum featured her work in a solo show. Over the next many years, she devoted increasing energies to spotlighting women artists and their art. She founded the Feminist Studio Workshop in Los Angeles, which promoted art as well as leadership, and she saw to the opening of the Woman's Building, a facility for feminist political organizations, theater groups, and media. At one of her art shows, she posted an announcement: "Judy Gerowitz divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and freely chooses her own name, Judy Chicago."

She published an autobiography in 1975, Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist. Some critics thought it a significant contribution to feminist literature, but the book was widely disparaged for sloppy and clichéd writing.

She is perhaps best known for her piece "The Dinner Party," which opened to the public in 1979 at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. It's a huge triangular banquet table with 39 full place settings, each for a significant woman in mythology or history. The Fertility goddess, Saint Bridget, Amazon, Sacajawea, Hildegard of Bingen, Susan B. Anthony, Emily Dickinson, Margaret Sanger, Virginia Woolf, and Georgia O'Keeffe are all honored with place settings—which include golden chalices, embroidered runners, and intricate porcelain plates.

Judy Chicago documented the process of making the exhibit, which took five years and the collaboration of many skilled artists, in The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage (1979) and Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework (1980). It's now on permanent exhibition at the New York's Brooklyn Museum.

She said, "I am trying to make art that relates to the deepest and most mythic concerns of human kind, and I believe that, at this moment of history, feminism is humanism."

It's the birthday of novelist Cormac McCarthy, (books by this author) born Charles McCarthy Jr. in Providence, Rhode Island (1933). He grew up in rural Tennessee, and he disliked school, but liked just about everything else. He later said, "I remember in grammar school the teacher asked if anyone had any hobbies. I was the only one with any hobbies, and I had every hobby there was. There was no hobby I didn't have, name anything, no matter how esoteric, I had found it and dabbled in it. I could have given everyone a hobby and still had 40 or 50 to take home."

He spent four years in the Air Force, went to the University of Tennessee, and then dropped out after just a couple years. He spent the next few years working on what would become his first novel, The Orchard Keeper.

Over the next 25 years, McCarthy wrote four more novels. Most of them were set in rural Tennessee, and he was known for filling them with violence and bloodshed. In the late '70s, he moved to El Paso, Texas, and he set his next book, Blood Meridian, in the Texas of the 1850s. It was his most violent book yet, about a 14-year-old boy who roams around the West with a band of killers. The New York Times called it "the bloodiest book since the Iliad."

It wasn't until the publication of All the Pretty Horses in 1992 that McCarthy finally became widely recognized. It's about a 16-year-old Texas rancher who leaves his family and rides into northern Mexico looking to make his fortune. None of McCarthy's first five novels had sold more than 2,500 hardcover copies, but All the Pretty Horses won the National Book Award and sold almost 200,000 copies in less than six months. It's since been made into a Hollywood movie. McCarthy used the money to buy a new truck.

McCarthy wrote in All the Pretty Horses: "They ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised."

McCarthy doesn't do book tours or give lectures, and he's never taught or written journalism to support himself. He said, "Teaching writing is a hustle."

And he said, "There's no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous."

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 Jeffrey Harrison 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 »