Thursday

Nov. 19, 2009

Diagnosis

by Sharon Olds

By the time I was six months old, she knew something
was wrong with me. I got looks on my face
she had not seen on any child
in the family, or the extended family,
or the neighborhood. My mother took me in
to the pediatrician with the kind hands,
a doctor with a name like a suit size for a wheel:
Hub Long. My mom did not tell him
what she thought in truth, that I was Possessed.
It was just these strange looks on my face—
he held me, and conversed with me,
chatting as one does with a baby, and my mother
said, She’s doing it now! Look!
She’s doing it now! and the doctor said,
What your daughter has
is called a sense
of humor. Ohhh, she said, and took me
back to the house where that sense would be tested
and found to be incurable.

"Diagnosis" by Sharon Olds, from One Secret Thing. © Random House, Inc., 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln got up in front of about 15,000 people seated at a new national cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and delivered the Gettysburg Address.

It was a foggy, cold morning. Lincoln arrived about 10 a.m. Around noon, the sun came out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. A military band played, a local preacher offered a long prayer, and the headlining orator, Edward Everett, spoke for more than two hours. At that time, a two-hour speech was quite normal. Everett described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once.

When Everett was finished, Lincoln got up and pulled his speech from his coat pocket. It consisted of 10 sentences, a total of 272 words. Lincoln did not mention any of the specifics of the war or any of the details of the battle of Gettysburg. He did not mention the North or the South. He did not mention slavery. Instead, he explained, in ordinary language, that our nation was founded on the idea that all men are created equal, and that we must continue to fight for that principle, in honor of those who have died fighting for it.

Unfortunately for Lincoln, the audience was distracted by a photographer setting up his camera, and by the time Lincoln had finished his speech and sat down the audience didn't even realize he had spoken. Lincoln was disappointed in his performance, but the next day Edward Everett told the president, "I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes." The speech was reprinted in newspapers around the country, and it went on to become one of the most important speeches in American history.

The Gettysburg Address begins:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

It's the birthday of poet Sharon Olds, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1942), whose work has appeared in more than 100 poetry anthologies. She studied languages at Stanford, then moved to New York to do a Ph.D. As she researched American literature at Columbia, she also tried to write her own poems, but she wasn't happy with them; she felt as though she were imitating the poets whom she'd studied. She was 30, unsatisfied with what she'd been writing for a decade, and feeling sort of desperate to find her own voice. So she made a deal with the devil on the steps of Columbia's library. She said, "I will give up all I have learned here if I can just write my own poems, and I don't care if they're good. I just want to write my own stuff."

Seven years later, she published her first collection of poems, Satan Says (1980). She was a few years shy of 40. She said, "I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky." She's published eight more collections in the past three decades, including The Dead and the Living (1984), The Father (1992), and Blood, Tin, Straw (1999).

She teaches creative writing at New York University and lives in an apartment on the Upper West Side, where she sits in a rocking chair with a view of the Hudson River and writes poems. She begins writing, she says, when "a poem has formed itself, or its beginning, within me, and it's time to get a pen and notebook and sit over there on the rocking chair next to the window and try to bring forth that which is within."

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

 









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