Sunday

Mar. 7, 2010

The Old Neighbors

by Katha Pollitt

The weather's turned, and the old neighbors creep out
from their crammed rooms to blink in the sun, as if
surprised to find they've lived through another winter.
Though steam heat's left them pale and shrunken
like old root vegetables,
Mr. and Mrs. Tozzi are already
hard at work on their front-yard mini-Sicily:
a Virgin Mary birdbath, a thicket of roses,
and the only outdoor aloes in Manhattan.
It's the old immigrant story,
the beautiful babies
grown up into foreigners. Nothing's
turned out the way they planned
as sweethearts in the sinks of Palermo. Still,
each waves a dirt-caked hand
in geriatric fellowship with Stanley,
the former tattoo king of the Merchant Marine,
turning the corner with his shaggy collie,
who's hardly three but trots
arthritically in sympathy. It's only
the young who ask if life's worth living,
notMrs. Sansanowitz, who for the last hour
has been inching her way down the sidewalk,
lifting and placing
her new aluminum walker as carefully
as a spider testing its web. On days like these,
I stand for a long time
under the wild gnarled root of the ancient wisteria,
dry twigs that in a week
will manage a feeble shower of purple blossom,
and I believe it: this is all there is,
all history's brought us here to our only life
to find, if anywhere,
our hanging gardens and our street of gold:
cracked stoops, geraniums, fire escapes, these old
stragglers basking in their bit of sun.

"The Old Neighbors" by Katha Pollitt, from The Mind-Body Problem. © Random House, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1923, Robert Frost's poem (books by this author) "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" was published in The New Republic magazine. It was Frost's favorite of his own poems, and he called it "my best bid for remembrance." He's remembered for many of his poems today, but that one is his best known and one of the most popular poems in American literature.

Though it's a poem about winter, Frost wrote the first draft on a warm morning in the middle of June. The night before, he had stayed up working at his kitchen table on a long, difficult poem called "New Hampshire" (1923). He finally finished it and then looked up and saw that it was morning. He'd never worked all night on a poem before. Feeling relieved at the work he'd finished, he went outside and watched the sunrise.

While he was outside, he suddenly got an idea for a new poem. So he rushed back inside his house and wrote "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" in just a few minutes. He said he wrote most of the poem almost without lifting his pen off the page. He said, "It was as if I'd had a hallucination."

It was on this day in 1994 that the Supreme Court ruled that parody can be protected by the fair use clause of the Copyright Act of 1976. The case arose from a song by the rap group 2 Live Crew, which used elements of the Roy Orbison song from 1964 "Oh Pretty Woman."

The Roy Orbison version of the song is about a man watching a pretty woman walking down the street. The 2 Live Crew version is about the subsequent relationship with that woman, who becomes a hairy woman, a bald-headed woman, and a two-timing woman. The music publishing company Acuff-Rose, which holds the copyright for the Roy Orbison song, sued 2 Live Crew for copyright violation.

Among those who sent "friend of the court" briefs in support of 2 Live Crew were Mad magazine, The Harvard Lampoon, and the Comedy Central TV channel. Among those who argued against 2 Live Crew were Dolly Parton and Michael Jackson. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of 2 Live Crew.

Justice David H. Souter wrote, "Like less ostensibly humorous forms of criticism, [parody] can provide social benefit by shedding light on an earlier work and, in the process, creating a new one.

It's the birthday of literary critic and James Joyce scholar William York Tindall, (books by this author) born in Williamstown, Vermont (1903). He studied literature at Columbia University and soon after graduation he traveled to Europe. He had heard about the notorious book Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce, and he decided to buy a copy when he was in Paris. He said, "I went straight to Luxembourg Gardens and read the final chapters, and discovered that it wasn't a dirty book but a fascinating one." He also realized that by pure coincidence, he had purchased the book on June 16, which is the day on which the action takes place. He became obsessed with Joyce, and read all of his works. When he returned to the U.S., he started teaching a course in modern literature at New York University, and he was one of the first professors in the United States to assign Ulysses to his students. The book was still banned in the U.S. at the time, so his students had to read a bootlegged copy that was chained to a desk in the library. He went on to become president of the James Joyce Society, and he wrote four books about Joyce, including A Reader's Guide to James Joyce (1959) and A Reader's Guide to Finnegan's Wake (1969).

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