Jun. 27, 2009
Meditation on the Word Need
The problem with words of emotion
is how easily meaning drains
from their fiddle-sweet sounds
and they become empty instruments.
I can say love
and mean desire to give—
or I am drawn to the light
shining from your soul—
or my life is empty without you—
or I want to run my hands
and mouth down the length of you—
or all of these at once.
Need, now, is a plain word.
I need a nail to hang this picture.
I need money to pay my bills.
I need air and light,
water and food,
shelter from storm and sun and cold.
To be healthy,
to be sane,
I need you.
It was on this day that scientist James Smithson died. He was born in England, the illegitimate son of a British nobleman and his mistress. He went to Oxford, studied chemistry and mineralogy, and became a respected scientist. He didn't marry or have any children, so when he died in 1829, he left all his money to his nephew, and he wrote in his will that if his nephew died without any heirs, the money would go "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge …." No one is sure why Smithson chose to leave his money to this country instead of England. He had never visited the United States, and it doesn't appear that he even knew any Americans. But he did, and the nephew died in 1835, and a year later, President Andrew Jackson announced the gift to Congress. It was more than $500,000. The first building contained a library, chemistry lab, art gallery, and science museum, and the Smithsonian became an important research institute.
Today, the Smithsonian has 19 museums in Washington, D.C. In 2015, the Smithsonian will open the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
It's the birthday of Alice McDermott, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1953). Both her parents were first-generation Irish-Americans, and she grew up in a large Irish Catholic community on suburban Long Island. She said, "I was one of those kids who wrote all the time. Some kids draw, some kids write — it's just a way of taking control of the world when you feel helpless. I had my secret writing life for a very long time, well into my 20s, when no one knew I was writing. You know — diaries I would fill with things that never really happened."
She went to Catholic schools; she wasn't a very good student. She went to the State University of New York at Oswego, and she signed up for writing classes because they were easy for her, and she wanted to get easy credits. But her professors took her work seriously and told her that she was a writer.
She realized that being a writer could actually be a career, and so despite her family's hesitation, she went back to school for creative writing and started to send out stories for publication. In 1978, she had a story accepted by Ms. magazine. She went out to a bar to celebrate her first publication, and there she met a man named David Armstrong. A year later, they got married, and went on to have three children. She did a lot of her writing while she was on the go, raising kids, and she said that because of that, she doesn't have a lot of writing rituals. She said, "I write many first drafts still in longhand. Because I like that original romance of having a pen and a legal pad and going anywhere in the world and being able to write a novel with just those two things." She also always works on two novels at once, one longer and one shorter, so that if she gets stuck with one, she has a fallback.
In 1982, she published her first novel, The Bigamist's Daughter, and since then she has written five more novels, including Charming Billy (1998) and After This (2006), the story of the middle-class Keane family, living on Long Island in the 1960s, and what happens to the family after their son dies in Vietnam.
It's the birthday of poet Lucille Clifton, (books by this author) born in Depew, New York (1936). She grew up without much money, and no car, and she wrote a poem about how her father walked 12 miles to Buffalo to order the first dining room set ever owned by a black family in Depew. Her mother wrote poems, but her father disapproved and made his wife burn them, which made Lucille all the more determined to become a poet. She started to write poetry when she was 12, and she won a full scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she was friends and classmates with Amiri Baraka. She transferred to Fredonia State Teachers College, and there she met her husband, and they got married and had six children. And while she was raising kids, she published her first book, Good Times (1969). It was named one of the Best Books of the Year by The New York Times, and she went on to publish many books of poetry, including An Ordinary Woman (1974) and Blessing the Boats (2000), as well as almost 20 books for children.
It's the birthday of poet Frank O'Hara, (books by this author) born in Baltimore, Maryland (1926). He was actually born in March, but he believed he was born on this day and always celebrated it as his birthday. His parents lied to him by three months so he wouldn't know that he was conceived before they were married.
He grew up near Worcester, Massachusetts, and he took the train in to Boston every weekend to study classical piano. His ambition was to be a concert pianist. He fought in WWII and then went to Harvard to study music. His roommate was Edward Gorey, and he became good friends with another classmate, John Ashbery, and he switched his major to English. Along with James Schuyler and Kenneth Koch, O'Hara and Ashbery became the core of a school of poets known as the New York School.
Frank O'Hara got a job at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — he started as a clerk and worked his way up to become a curator, even though he had no formal training in art. And it was there, at MOMA, that he got to have constant conversations about art, performance, and poetry, and the new types of art emerging after the war. He helped curate an important exhibition called "The New American Painting," which featured many of his friends, including Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. It changed the art world, and so when Donald Allen put together a poetry anthology of young poets, he called it The New American Poetry (1960), and it was that anthology that made Frank O'Hara's name.
O'Hara is most famous for Lunch Poems (1964). He wrote poems on random pieces of paper and stuck them away. His friend, the painter John Button, said: "When asked by a publisher-friend for a book, Frank might have trouble even finding the poems stuffed into kitchen drawers or packed in boxes that had not been unpacked since his last move. Frank's fame came to him unlooked-for." He died at age 40 when he was out walking on the beach at Fire Island, and was hit by a taxi.
He wrote: "I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It's more important to confirm the least sincere. The clouds get enough attention as it is."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®