Dec. 17, 2009

You Are Happy

by Margaret Atwood

The water turns
a long way down over the raw stone,
ice crusts around it

We walk separately
along the hill to the open
beach, unused
picnic tables, wind
shoving the brown waves, erosion, gravel
rasping on gravel.

In the ditch a deer
carcass, no head. Bird
running across the glaring
road against the low pink sun.

When you are this
cold you can think about
nothing but the cold, the images

hitting into your eyes
like needles, crystals, you are happy.

"You Are Happy" by Margaret Atwood, from Selected Poems 1965-1975. © Houghton Mifflin, 1976. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of a distinguished lexicographer who dropped out of college, an arbiter of and participant in language disputes, a man who wrote speeches for a U.S. president and who won a Pulitzer Prize for his political columns, an unrelenting pun-maker and alliteration-user who came up with the phrases "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history." William Safire was born in New York City on this day in 1929.

He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and then went on to Syracuse, but he dropped out after his sophomore year and went to work for a newspaper man. He campaigned for Eisenhower, joined the Army and reported for the Armed Forces Network from Europe in the 1950s, and then got a job with a public relations firm.

In 1959, he was helping promote an American model home at a trade show in Moscow, and he found a way to usher visiting Vice President Richard Nixon into a discussion with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev about the merits of capitalism versus communism. This became known as the famous "kitchen debate," and 29-year-old trade-show-products-publicist William Safire took a black and white photo of the event that became famous.

Nixon remembered the encounter and was impressed with Safire. After Nixon was elected president, he hired Safire to write his speeches and Spiro Agnew's speeches.

Safire wrote speeches on Vietnam, on the economy, and on the NASA manned space excursions. He had to write a speech that President Nixon could deliver if the Apollo 11 mission to moon fatally failed. Safire began the never-delivered speech, "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace."

He was hired by The New York Times, where he wrote political op-eds for more than 30 years. He died just a few months ago. His New York Times obituary by Robert McFadden read, "[Safire] was hardly the image of a button-down Times man: The shoes needed a shine, the gray hair a trim. Back in the days of suits, his jacket was rumpled, the shirt collar open, the tie askew. He was tall but bent — a man walking into the wind. He slouched and banged a keyboard, talked as fast as any newyawka and looked a bit gloomy, like a man with a toothache coming on."

Safire once said that when he wrote his political columns, he took on the persona of a "vituperative right-wing scandalmonger." But he also wrote a playful "On Language" column for the Sunday New York Times Magazine, which, as his obit noted, "tapped into the lighter side of the dour-looking Mr. Safire: a Pickwickian quibbler who gleefully pounced on gaffes, inexactitudes, neologisms, misnomers, solecisms, and perversely peccant puns, like 'the president's populism' and 'the first lady's momulism.'"

William Safire was an unrelenting, playful grammarian whose self-proclaimed "Rules for Writers" include "Remember to never split an infinitive," "The passive voice should never be used," and "Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague."

It's the birthday of Ford Madox Ford, (books by this author) born in Surrey, England (1873). His books were critically acclaimed, he was part of the literary elite of his time, and he was a prolific author — he wrote almost 30 novels. But despite all this, Ford is not widely read, and many of his books are out of print today.

Ford had blond hair, a mustache, and bad teeth. He was overweight, and he smoked Gauloises cigarettes. And he had a series of scandalous relationships — he was in "major" romantic relationships with at least 20 women during his life. He had an affair with his wife's sister, and soon after that, had a nervous breakdown. Even after his marriage ended, he never obtained a legal divorce.

Ford was a mentor to Joseph Conrad, and they collaborated on three books, The Inheritors (1901), Romance (1903), and The Nature of a Crime (1909). Ford founded The Transatlantic Review and hired Ernest Hemingway as an editor. Toward the end of his life, Ford was "writer-in-residence" at Olivet College in Michigan, in a small town 30 miles south of Lansing. Ford had never graduated from college, but Olivet College awarded him an honorary doctorate, and Ford wrote up grandiose, exaggerated autobiographical notes for the certificate.

Toward the end of his life, Ford often referred to himself as "an old man mad about writing."

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




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