Jun. 29, 2009

The Effort

by Billy Collins

Would anyone care to join me
in flicking a few pebbles in the direction
of teachers who are fond of asking the question:
"What is the poet trying to say?"

as if Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson
had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts—
inarticulate wretches that they were,
biting their pens and staring out the window for a clue.

Yes, it seems that Whitman, Amy Lowell
and the rest could only try and fail
but we in Mrs. Parker's third-period English class
here at Springfield High will succeed

with the help of these study questions
in saying what the poor poet could not,
and we will get all this done before
that orgy of egg salad and tuna fish known as lunch.

Tonight, however, I am the one trying
to say what it is this absence means,
the two of us sleeping and waking under different roofs.
The image of this vase of cut flowers,

not from our garden, is no help.
And the same goes for the single plate,
the solitary lamp, and the weather that presses its face
against these new windows--the drizzle and the
    morning frost.

So I will leave it up to Mrs. Parker,
who is tapping a piece of chalk against the blackboard,
and her students—a few with their hands up,
others slouching with their caps on backwards—

to figure out what it is I am trying to say
about this place where I find myself
and to do it before the noon bell rings
and that whirlwind of meatloaf is unleashed.

"The Effort" by Billy Collins, from Ballistics. © Random House, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1921, Edith Wharton (books by this author) became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize, for her book The Age of Innocence.

On this day in 1613, the Globe Theatre burned down. It was built by Shakespeare's acting company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, in 1599. It was a round, wooden building with thatched-roof balconies for the gentry. A cannon was fired during a performance of Henry VIII to mark the King's entrance, the thatched roof caught fire, and the whole theater was lost in an hour. It was rebuilt the next year, but taken down in 1644 to make space for tenements, after the Puritans closed all theaters. A replica, the new Globe Theatre, was built in the mid-1990s.

It's the birthday of the aviator and author of The Little Prince (1943), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, (books by this author) born in Lyons, France (1900). Saint-Exupéry wrote it in America, and it is a kind of fable, about a Little Prince who visits earth from his own tiny planet where he keeps a single rose that he loves. In The Little Prince, Saint-Exupéry writes, "Grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them." Saint-Exupéry insisted on serving in the air force during World War II even when he was too old to fly, and he flew his last mission 1944, when he was reported missing after a reconnaissance flight.

It's the birthday of the man considered to be New Zealand's greatest poet, James K. Baxter, (books by this author) born in Dunedin, New Zealand (1926). His mother came from a family of English academics and his father was a self-educated Scottish farmer, socialist, and pacifist who'd written a book about his experiences as a conscientious objector during World War I, when he'd been imprisoned, beaten, and tortured for refusing to serve in the war.

He hated school, believing that educational institutions failed people, and he dropped out of college soon after enrolling. He had to support himself with a series of odd manual labor jobs, and he worked for a while as a janitor in a sugar refinery, which inspired his poem "Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works."

He struggled with alcoholism throughout his 20s, then joined AA and sobered up completely. He later reflected that he thought it had been "a necessary evil" for him. He said: "It de-educated me, put me through the various hoops of calamity which are necessary if one is to understand oneself and one's neighbours, and made the circumstance of living in the modern world more tolerable."

He joined the Anglican Church when he married his first wife, a devout Anglican. But after he converted to Roman Catholicism, his wife, mystified by his new religion, divorced him. He got a UNESCO grant to travel around Asia, and he spent a long time in India, where he was plagued by dysentery. He returned to New Zealand and published plays and poems through out the 1960s, and then he had a dream in which he was instructed to "Go to Jerusalem." There was a place in New Zealand on the Wanganui River called Jerusalem. It was a Māori settlement, indigenous Polynesian New Zealanders, and the location was actually known by its Māori transliteration of Jerusalem, Hiruharama. Baxter quit his university teaching post and moved out there, married a Māori woman, and made a living by writing up material for the Catholic Education Board, using the Bible he brought along as his only reference book. He spent his last years exploring his spirituality and founding communes, and died of a heart attack at the age of 46.

His best-known collections are Howrah Bridge and Other Poems (1961) and Autumn Testament (1972).

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




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