Oct. 20, 2010
My Father's Green Flannel Shirt
He wore it when he mowed the grass, walked the dog,
lounged with the Sunday papers. Whether
it was his favorite, I'm not sure, the way
I'm not sure if he cared for me
more than for my brother. When I was a child,
he would pull me aside sometimes
and tell me a secret – perhaps about his sister
or one of the brothers he wasn't speaking to,
a few times about my mother, whom I knew he loved –
but always something that nagged at him.
Afterwards he would tell me not to tell anyone,
then walk away whistling the way
Alec Guinness, in The Bridge on the River Kwai,
walked away whistling when they let him out
of solitary confinement, as if he knew
something wonderful and important
and no one could scare it out of him.
Sometimes at dinner, my father would whistle
that same tune. And wink at me.
How I loved being in cahoots with him. Loved
feeling chosen, being the one selected to receive.
I took each secret into me and kept it.
It's the birthday of the man who designed St. Paul's Cathedral in London, architect Christopher Wren, born in East Knoyle, England (1632). In addition to his accomplishments as an architect, he knew Latin, he could draw, he did work in medicine and mechanics, he was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer, and a philosopher, too.
And he had impeccable manners. He particularly disliked swearing. When he was overseeing the construction of St. Paul's, he issued this official order: "Whereas, among laborers, etc., that ungodly custom of swearing is too frequently heard, to the dishonor of God, and contempt of authority; and to the end, therefore, that such impiety may be utterly banished from these works, intended for the service of God, and the honor of religion. It is ordered, that customary swearing shall be a sufficient crime to dismiss any laborer that comes to the call; and the clerk of the works, upon sufficient proof, shall dismiss them accordingly. And if any master, working by task, shall not, upon admonition, reform this profanation among his apprentices, servants, and laborers, it shall be construed his fault; and he shall be liable to be censured by the commissioners."
In 1795, William Seward published Anecdotes of Some Distinguished Persons. He wrote: "Sir Christopher Wren was a man of small stature. When Charles the Second came to see the hunting-place he had built for him at Newmarket, he thought the rooms too low. Sir Christopher walked about them, and looking up, replied, 'Sir, and please your Majesty, I think they are high enough.' The King squatted down to Sir Christopher's height, and creeping about in this whimsical posture, cried, 'Aye, Sir Christopher, I think they are high enough.'"
Along with 51 churches in the London area, Wren also designed a couple of structures not for humans but for bees. When he was still a student at Oxford he designed an octagonal, wooden beehive. At the time, most beekeepers used structures made from woven straw and mud, called skeps. Wren was trying to mimic the hollow trees that bees sought out in the wild. And he helped design a transparent beehive, using glass panes, so that beekeepers could observe their colonies.
Once a year, he had a ritual of being driven to London and sitting in the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral. The journey became harder as he got older, and in 1723 he caught a cold on his journey to and from London, and died in his chair after a good dinner. He was 90 years old.
He said, "Architecture aims at Eternity."
It's the birthday of poet Robert Pinsky, (books by this author) born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1940). Long Branch was a town of Italian immigrant families, and he came from a well-known family in the town — one of his grandfathers owned a bar and was a popular bootlegger; the other grandfather washed the windows of downtown stores. Robert Pinsky wasn't a very good student, but he liked poetry, and during college he taped a handwritten copy of "Sailing to Byzantium" by William Butler Yeats onto his wall. He met a group of writers at Rutgers and started focusing on writing his own poems, and he went on to publish books of poetry and also translations. He is probably most famous for his translation of Dante's Inferno (1994). He said: "I literally could not stop working on it. We have pillowcases stained with ink where my wife took the pen out of my hand at night." His translation won awards, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and it was even a best-seller.
He served as the U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, and he started something called the Favorite Poem Project. He said: "If a poem is written well, it was written with the poet's voice and for a voice. Reading a poem silently instead of saying a poem is like the difference between staring at sheet music and actually humming or playing the music on an instrument." So he organized hundreds of poetry readings all over the country, where people from that city or town would come and get up on stage and read their favorite poem, or a poem that was meaningful for some reason, and maybe say a few words about why they had chosen it. And he created an archive of audio and video recordings of people doing the same thing
His most recent book is a book of essays, Thousands of Broadways (2009), about American small towns.
It's the birthday of humorist Lewis McDonald Grizzard, (books by this author) born in Fort Benning, Georgia (1946). His humor centered on his Southern upbringing, particularly in stories about his hometown of Moreland, Georgia. At the peak of his career, he wrote a column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that was syndicated in 450 newspapers. His books include They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat (1982), Don't Bend Over In the Garden, Granny — You Know Them Taters Got Eyes (1988), and I Haven't Understood Anything Since 1962 and Other Nekkid Truths (1992).
He said, "Never order barbeque in a place that also serves quiche."
And, "In the south there's a difference between 'Naked' and 'Nekkid.' 'Naked' means you don't have any clothes on. 'Nekkid' means you don't have any clothes on ... and you're up to somethin'."
From the archives:
It's the birthday of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, (books by this author) born in Charleville, France (1854). He began writing poems as a teenager that were as good as anything being written in France. He became friends with the elder poet Paul Verlaine, whose work he admired, and Verlaine invited him to stay at his house. When he arrived, Rimbaud had his first masterpiece in his pocket, a poem called "The Drunken Boat" (1871), describing the journey of an empty boat as it wanders the ocean and eventually breaks apart. Rimbaud and Verlaine fell into a love affair that shocked the rest of the Paris literary scene. But they had a bitter break-up, and the relationship ended when Verlaine tried to murder Rimbaud with a pistol, shooting him in the arm.
Verlaine went to prison and Rimbaud went back to live with his mother, where he wrote one of his last books, A Season in Hell (1873), which some critics consider his farewell to poetry. He wrote: "I tried to invent new flowers, new stars, new flesh, new tongues. ... I am returned to the soil with a duty to seek and rough reality to embrace. ... At last, I shall ask forgiveness for having fed on lies."
Rimbaud had been 16 when he started publishing his poetry and he was 19 when gave up on poetry and took off to wander around the world, winding up in Africa, where he became an arms dealer. He kept writing letters to his family, but he never wrote another poem and never gave any hint that he missed poetry. A cult grew up in Paris around the few books of poetry he had published, and years before his death, people already referred to him as the late Arthur Rimbaud.
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