Mar. 1, 2009

April 5, 1974

by Richard Wilbur

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch, and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law?
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream,
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter's giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.

"April 5, 1974" by Richard Wilbur, from New and Collected Poems. © A Harvest Book, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Ralph Ellison, (books by this author) born on this day in Oklahoma City (1914). His grandparents on both sides had been slaves, and his parents moved to Oklahoma Territory, a place with no history of slavery, in hopes of giving their children a better life.

He went to college. He was interested in music or sculpture, but after he met Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, he decided to become a writer instead. Richard Wright became his mentor, and he pushed Ralph Ellison to write fiction. Ellison joined the Merchant Marine in 1943 and got a bad kidney infection. He went to recuperate on a friend's farm in Vermont. He took his typewriter out to a barn and tried to work on a novel, but he wasn't getting anywhere. One day, out of the blue, he typed, "I am an invisible man." He had no idea where the line came from, but he started wondering what kind of character would say it. Seven years later, he published Invisible Man (1952), which became a best-seller and is now a considered a classic.

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Hass, (books by this author) born in San Francisco, California (1941). His books of poetry include Praise (1979), Human Wishes (1989), and Time and Materials (2007). He said, "Take the time to write. You can do your life's work in half an hour a day."

It's the birthday of the poet Howard Nemerov, (books by this author) born in New York City (1920). He was a pilot during WWII, and then he worked as a professor at Bennington College in Vermont for most of his life. He said he liked teaching because he could do all of his explaining in class, and that allowed him to write poetry with no explanations.

It's the birthday of the poet Richard Wilbur, (books by this author) born in New York City (1921). He served in the infantry during WWII. In his foxhole, he read Edgar Allan Poe and wrote the poems that became his first book: The Beautiful Changes (1947). Things of This World (1956) received a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He said, "The poet speaks not of peculiar and personal things, but of what in himself is most common, most anonymous, most fundamental."

It's the birthday of poet Robert Lowell, (books by this author) born in Boston, Massachusetts (1917). He met the poet Allen Tate, and he pitched a tent in Tate's front yard and stayed there for two months. He said he learned from Allen Tate that poems "must be tinkered with and recast until one's eyes pop out of one's head." Robert Lowell's breakthrough book was Life Studies (1959), in which he used less formal language and dealt with personal issues like mental illness, marriage, and the Vietnam War. It was called the first "confessional" book of poetry. He wrote, "If we see the light at the end of the tunnel,/It's the light of the oncoming train."

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