Oct. 27, 2009

The Digging

by Rennie McQuilkin

It's that time of year,
the hedgerows hung with bittersweet.
Potato time.

How early the freeze, I'd say
if we were speaking. We're not.
We turn our spading forks against

the earth. It's stiff,
the Reds and Idahos hard as stone,
a total loss.

Once it was us against the beetles,
blight, whatever was not potato.
How they flowered, rows and rows

in white. Now look.
We give it one last try, and there
far down in softer soil,

a seam of them still perfect.
One after another
we hold them up to the dying day,

kneel down to sift for more.
In the dark of the earth, I come upon
your hand, you mine.

"The Digging" by Rennie McQuilkin, from The Weathering. Antrim House, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of the man who called himself "a freak user of words, not a poet" but who was one of the most popular poets of his generation, Dylan Thomas, (books by this author) born in Swansea, Wales (1914), a place he described as having the "smug darkness of a provincial town." He was writing brilliant poems by the time he was in his late teens. He skipped out on university despite the fact that his dad was a schoolmaster, and at 20 he published his first collection, 18 Poems. Literary luminaries raved about the young Welshman's work.

He moved to London, married an Irishwoman, and had three kids. He was an alcoholic, which imperiled his family's financial state. Once he became a famous poet, he earned most of his income going on reading tours in America.

At university halls all across the nation, he read the work of other poets as well as his own poetry — sometimes sober, sometimes drunk. He had a deep, resonant voice and he was immensely popular.

It was while he was on his fourth reading tour of America that he died, in New York City in 1953. Over the years, he'd written a number of memorable poems about mortality. In fact, the first poem he published after school — the year he turned age 19 — was "And Death Shall Have No Dominion." And one of his best-known poems, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," was written for his dying father. It begins: "Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

It's the birthday of Sylvia Plath, (books by this author) born in Boston, Massachusetts (1932), who went to England on a Fulbright after college and married the poet Ted Hughes. At first they were very happy, waking up every morning to write poems together. But her first book of poems, The Colossus (1960), got mixed reviews, and she began to spend more time taking care of her two children, spending less and less of her time writing. Her marriage with Hughes broke up in 1962.

Plath had always been a slow, painstaking writer, but living alone with her two children, she began to wake up every morning at 4:00 a.m. to write, and poems just poured out of her. At the end of October, she wrote to her mother, "I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name." But she couldn't get the poems published because the editors of various magazines thought they were too strange and disturbing. That winter in England was one of the coldest on record, and Plath kept coming down with fevers. On the morning of February 11, she got up and sealed her children's bedroom door with tape, sealed herself in the kitchen, stuffed a towel under the door, opened the oven and turned on the gas, killing herself. The poems she had been writing that fall were published as Ariel in 1965, and they did make her name. When her Collected Poems was published in 1981, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

It's the birthday of the novelist Zadie Smith, (books by this author) born in London (1975), who grew up black in a working-class London neighborhood where she had a hard time making friends with other kids. She finally began to fit in when she got to college at Cambridge. Her sophomore year, she published a short story in her undergraduate literary journal that attracted a lot of attention, and people said she should try to get a book contract for a novel. So while she was cramming for her final exams, she banged out 100 pages of a potential novel. Those hundred pages started a bidding war among London publishers, and Zadie Smith wound up with a six-figure book contract before she'd even graduated from college. That novel became White Teeth (2001), which was compared to the work of Charles Dickens, with a huge cast of characters — Bengali Muslims, Jews, Jamaicans, Nazis, Jehovah's Witnesses, animal rights activists, Islamic terrorists, and old English men. It sold more than a million copies.

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