Friday

Nov. 19, 2010

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. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of best-selling poet Sharon Olds, (books by this author) born in San Francisco on this day in 1942. Her collections include Satan Says (1980), The Dead and the Living (1984), The Gold Cell (1987), The Matter of This World (1987), The Sign of Saturn (1991), The Father (1992), The Wellspring (1996), Blood, Tin, Straw (1999), The Unswept Room (2002), Strike Sparks (2004), and One Secret Thing (2008). Since she began publishing in the 1980s, her poems have appeared in more than 100 poetry anthologies.

She grew up in Berkeley, California, where she was brought up as a "hellfire Calvinist," she said. Though a nonbeliever from a young age, she said that she was greatly influenced by the "great literary art and bad literary art" of her church. Psalms were great art, she said, and hymns were not. She said, "The four-beat was something that was part of my consciousness before I was born."

She went across the Bay to Stanford for college, where she studied a bunch of different languages, including French, German, Greek, Italian, and Middle English. And then she moved to New York City to do a Ph.D. in literature at Columbia. She wrote her own poems, but she wasn't happy with them. She felt as though she were imitating the poets she studied for grad school. She was 30 years old, desperately wanting to find her own voice, and had what she calls a "religious experience" wherein she made a deal with the devil on the steps of Columbia's library. She once described it like this:

"I said to free will or the pagan god of making things, or whoever, let me write my own stuff. I'll give up everything I've learned, anything, if you'll let me write my poems. They don't have to be any good, but just mine." It was in the syntax of her prayer that came an epiphany. She explained: "What happened was enjambment. Writing over the end of the line and having a noun starting each line — it had some psychological meaning to me, like I was protecting things by hiding them. Poems started pouring out of me and Satan was in a lot of them. Also, toilets."

She started going to writing workshops at the local YMCA, and eventually she published her first collection of poems, called Satan Says (1980). She later realized that she wrote in the structure of the hymns of her youth, which is what felt comfortable to her, but that she "had to ride over the end of the line" to craft her poems.

When her first book was published, she was a few years shy of 40. Within a decade, she'd released several highly acclaimed, best-selling collections, and she'd also become the director of the Graduate Writing Program at NYU. She was so busy that she decided for one year she would not watch TV, read a newspaper or book, or go hear music, just so that she'd have enough time to do her job and keep writing poetry.

She was poet laureate of New York from 1998 to 2000. She still teaches creative writing at NYU, and she writes poems from her apartment on the Upper West Side, in a rocking chair with a view of the Hudson River. She uses different colored ballpoint pens to compose poems, and sometimes puts stickers on the pages of her drafts, which remind her of the stained glass windows of her religious youth. She said that she loves "odd" or "strange" words. She said: "By the time I see that it's a poem, it's almost written in my head somewhere. It's as if there's someone inside of me who perceives order and beauty — and disorder. And who wants to make little copies. Who wants to put together something that will bear some relationship to the vision or memory or experience or story or idea or dream or whatever."

She once described poetry as coming from her lungs, and said that to her, "Poetry is so physical, the music of it and the movement of thought." She said that over the years, she has noticed that ideas for poems will come to her when she's dancing or running, and that these ideas seem to come to mind with the act of breathing deeply, with the intake of oxygen. She said, "Suddenly you're remembering something that you haven't thought of for years."

Her advice to young poets is this: "Take your vitamins. Exercise. Just work to love yourself as much as you can — not more than the people around you but not so much less."

She once said: "I'm not asking a poem to carry a lot of rocks in its pockets. Just being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion."

And, "Poets are like steam valves, where the ordinary feelings of ordinary people can escape and be shown."

From the archives:

It was on this day in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln (books by this author) delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of a new cemetery to honor the Union soldiers who had died during the Battle of Gettysburg. The three-day Battle of Gettysburg had been fought a few months earlier, in July of 1863, and there were more than 50,000 casualties. Eventually more than 3,500 Union soldiers were reburied in the cemetery. The organizers of the dedication had invited the most popular poets of the day to write something in honor of the occasion, but Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Cullen Bryant all declined. So the keynote speaker was Edward Everett, known for his speeches about battlefields. Lincoln was invited only as an afterthought, but he hoped to use the occasion to explain why he thought this horrific war was still worth fighting.
About 15,000 people showed up that day, and the festivities began with a military band. A local preacher offered a long prayer, and then Edward Everett stood up and spoke for more than two hours, describing 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 only 10 sentences, just 272 words, did not mention any of the specifics of the war or any of the details of the battle, did not mention the North or the South, and did not mention slavery. What he said was that our nation was founded on the idea of equality, and the war was being fought over that idea. And he ended by saying, "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

The audience was distracted by a photographer setting up his camera, and by the time Lincoln had finished his speech and sat down, many people in the audience didn't even realize he had spoken. But Edward Everett later 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."

It was on this date in 1861 that Mrs. Julia Ward Howe (books by this author) sat down and wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The poem was first published in the February 1862 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and later set to the popular melody "Glory Hallelujah."

It's the birthday of the 20th president of the United States, James Abram Garfield, born in Orange, Ohio (1831). After graduating from Williams College in 1856, he returned home to Ohio as a teacher of classics at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) in Hiram, Ohio. As a parlor trick, he could hold a pen in each hand and simultaneously write in Latin and Greek. He went on to gain distinction as a Union officer in the Battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga, got himself elected first to the House and then the Senate, and emerged as the compromise choice to head the Republican ticket for president in 1880.

Only four months after he took office, on July 2, 1881, he was fatally shot by a deranged gunman in the Washington, D.C., railroad station. He lingered painfully for over two months, and finally died on September 19.

When President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Garfield gave a speech in New York City, in which he said: "For mere vengeance I would do nothing. This nation is too great to look for mere revenge. But for the security of the future, I would do everything."

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

 









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