Dec. 23, 2009
At the University College of North Wales at Bangor
Most of my students here are very poor.
I seldom see them in the pubs: they
Cannot really afford the prices.
As winter hits they have to decide whether
To spend their shillings on the coin-operated heaters
Or on food.
I suspect that heat often wins—you can
Freeze to death quicker than you will starve.
Their incentive is that they will presumably
Have more comfortable lives if they survive
The minimalist conditions of college.
The government gives them a small grant
From which to buy books.
We are encouraged to require
Very few books.
A book is a valued art object here.
I never hear a complaint here
And no one misses a tutorial
Without the most profuse and formal
In California my students and I and everyone else,
Also including the movie stars and politicians and
Seldom stop for breath
In the midst of a constant bitching.
It's the birthday of the poet Robert Bly, (books by this author) born in Madison, Minnesota (1926). He said, "One day while studying a [William Butler] Yeats poem I decided to write poetry the rest of my life. I recognized that a single short poem has room for history, music, psychology, religious thought, mood, occult speculation, character, and events of one's own life."
It's the birthday of author Norman Maclean, (books by this author) born in Clarinda, Iowa (1902), but he grew up in Missoula, Montana. He taught English at the University of Chicago, and after his retirement from teaching, at the age of 70, he focused on writing. He published two autobiographical essays, and then he wrote his famous autobiographical novella, A River Runs Through It.
It begins: "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."
It's Christmas week, and we're celebrating with Christmas stories. John Updike (books by this author) wrote a story called "The Carol Sing," about residents of the Tarbox, Massachusetts, a fictional town that Updike created that resembled the real one he lived in from 1957 to 1974. The residents meet at the Tarbox town hall to rehearse Christmas carols for the annual concert.
This year, the Tarbox carolers are rehearsing "The First Noël" and "Adeste, fideles, / Laeti triumphantes; / Venite, venite / In Bethlehem" and also "This time of the year is spent in good cheer, / And neighbors together do meet, / To sit by the fire, with friendly desire, / Each other in love to greet."
They're missing the only man able to sing the low notes, the man whom the story begins by describing: "Surely one of the natural wonders of Tarbox was Mr. Burley at the Town Hall carol sing. How he could jubilate, how he would God-rest those merry gentlemen, how he would boom out when the male voices became Good King Wenceslas. ... He had what you'd have to call a God-given bass." He'd committed suicide just after Thanksgiving.
The Tarbox old-timers who compose the chorus go on rehearsing, arthritic, hitting wrong notes, each wondering why Mr. Burley swallowed cyanide, feeling his absence, but no one speaking of him. The narrator muses: "Why? Health, money, hobbies, that voice. Not having that voice makes a big hole here. Without his lead, no man dares take the lower parts; we just wheeze away at the melody with the women. ... We peek around guiltily, missing Burley's voice."
And concludes, "Well, why anything? Why do we? Come every year sure as the solstice to carol these antiquities that if you listened to the words would break your heart. Silence, darkness, Jesus, angels. Better, I suppose, to sing than to listen."
John Updike's "The Carol Sing" can be found in The Early Stories, 1953–1975 by John Updike (2003). It can also be found in a treasury entitled Christmas Stories, (2007), edited by Diana Secker Tesdell, part of the Everyman's Pocket Classics series: http://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Stories-Everymans-Library-Cloth/dp/0307267172
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