Jun. 13, 2009

The Great Poem

by Lawrence Raab

The great poem is always possible.
Think of Keats and his odes.
But we shouldn't have to be dying,

What I'm writing now is not
the great poem. After a few lines
I could tell. It may not even be

a particularly good poem, although
it's too early to decide about that.
Keep going, I say. See what happens.

But trying hard is one of the problems.
since it shows in the lines as a strain
or struggle that reminds the reader

too much of the writer, whereas
most readers want to listen alone.
The great poem, I think, will arrive

when I no longer care. Perhaps
I'll have abandoned art altogether,
and I won't even want to write

the poem down. But then I'll remember
what I once would have given
for this moment, and I'll go back

to my desk. And I'll write the poem
as though I were another person,
someone I will never be again.

"The Great Poem" by Lawrence Raab, from The History of Forgetting. © Penguin Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the South Korean diplomat Ban Ki-Moon, born in a farming village in North Chungcheong Province, South Korea (1944). He is the current Secretary-General of the United Nations.

It's the birthday of the artist Christo, born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff in Gabrovo, Bulgaria (1935); and it's also the birthday of his wife, the artist Jeanne-Claude, born Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon in Casablanca, Morocco, also in 1935. They are known for their huge installations, like Running Fence in 1976, a fabric fence that stretched through Sonoma and Marin counties in California; in 1991, The Umbrellas, 3,100 umbrellas divided between inland valleys in Japan (where the umbrellas were blue) and California (where they were yellow); and in 2005, The Gates, 7,503 orange pieces of fabric stretched on poles throughout New York City's Central Park. All their art installations are temporary — they take years to prepare, and are often on display for just a couple of weeks.

It's the birthday of mystery writer Dorothy Leigh Sayers, (books by this author) born in Oxford, England (1893). She is famous for her character Lord Peter Wimsey, the amateur detective whom she featured in 11 novels and 21 short stories. She was one of the first women to get a degree from Oxford University. After she graduated, she got a job writing advertising copy, joined a motorcycle gang, fell in love with one of its members, and got pregnant. She decided to start writing mystery novels to make some money. Her Lord Peter Wimsey novels were extremely popular in England. She was famous for coming up with outrageous causes of death like poisoned teeth fillings, a cat with poisoned claws, and a dagger made of ice.

The birthday of Alexander the Great is not known, but historians believe that he died on this day in the city of Babylon (323 B.C.). By the time he died when he was about 33 years old, his kingdom spanned across Europe and Asia, from Greece to Egypt, Turkey and India. He was known to recite long passages from the plays of Euripides, and he often slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow.

It's the birthday of William Butler Yeats, (books by this author) born in Dublin, Ireland (1865). When he was a teenager, he decided that the only things he cared about were poetry and mysticism. His aunt gave him a popular book called Esoteric Buddhism (1884), and Yeats loved the idea that the world of matter was an illusion. When he was 20, he and his friends formed the Dublin Hermetic Society to conduct experiments into the nature of ghosts and psychic powers.

Yeats was part of the upper-class Protestant population. In general, the Protestants were pro-English — Ireland was still an English colony at the time — and the disenfranchised Catholic majority wanted Irish independence. Yeats wasn't that interested in politics one way or another. But that changed in 1889, when he met the love of his life: the beautiful Maud Gonne, an actress and a pro-Irish revolutionary. She refused his proposals of marriage, but she said that they had a spiritual union. Yeats became an advocate of Irish nationalism, and he spent years writing political plays for Maud Gonne to star in.

For awhile, encouraged by Maude, he tried to write poetry based on Irish mythology, and thought that it could unify the country. He collected folklore and tried to write about Ireland's collective soul. But eventually, he decided he needed to write for himself instead. He said, "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." Maud Gonne married someone else, and eventually Yeats did, too, but he continued to write about her in his poems.

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