Tuesday

Dec. 21, 2010

Noel

by Anne Porter

When snow is shaken
From the balsam trees
And they're cut down
And brought into our houses

When clustered sparks
Of many-colored fire
Appear at night
In ordinary windows

We hear and sing
The customary carols

They bring us ragged miracles
And hay and candles
And flowering weeds of poetry
That are loved all the more
Because they are so common

But there are carols
That carry phrases
Of the haunting music
Of the other world
A music wild and dangerous
As a prophet's message

Or the fresh truth of children
Who though they come to us
From our own bodies

Are altogether new
With their small limbs
And birdlike voices

They look at us
With their clear eyes
And ask the piercing questions
God alone can answer.

"Noël" by Anne Porter, from Living Things. © Zoland Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night in the Northern Hemisphere.

Poets over the ages have proffered plenty of advice for the coming months. Poet Pietro Aretino, born in the 15th century, said, "Let us love winter, for it is the spring of genius." William Blake wrote, "In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy." There's a Japanese proverb that says, "One kind word can warm three winter months."

Emily Dickinson wrote, "There's a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons — That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes." Existentialist Albert Camus wrote, "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." Victor Hugo once said, "Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart."

American writer Minna Antrim gave these instructions-in-verse:
"Brew me a cup for a winter's night.
For the wind howls loud and the furies fight;
Spice it with love and stir it with care,
And I'll toast our bright eyes,
my sweetheart fair."

It was exactly 70 years ago, on this day in 1940, that F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author) died of a heart attack in Hollywood at the age 44.

The last decade had been a difficult. In 1930, his wife, Zelda, suffered her first breakdown and hospitalization. She would spend the next several years in and out of psychiatric clinics before being hospitalized for the rest of his ­— and her — life. After huge critical and commercial success in his 20s, Fitzgerald found himself in his mid-30s deep in debt and feeling depleted. He said: "A writer like me must have an utter confidence, an utter faith in his star. It's an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothing-can-happen-to me, nothing-can-touch-me. … I once had it. But through a series of blows, many of them my own fault, something happened to that sense of immunity and I lost my grip." He said, "One blow after another and finally something snapped."

He wrote about it in The Crack-Up essays, published in Esquire magazine in early 1936. He wrote: "I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt." He'd "cracked like an old plate." He said: "Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work — the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside — the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within — that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick — the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed."

And it was in these essays that he wrote the often-quoted lines:
"Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation — the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."

He was deep in debt, and so he went to Hollywood to work on movie scripts. It paid really well: In 1937, during the Great Depression, MGM paid him $1,000 per week. His daughter, Scottie, entered college at Vassar, and the next year MGM declined to renew his contract. He drank a lot. He also began work on what would be his final novel, The Last Tycoon.

Throughout 1940, he wrote letters from Hollywood to his daughter across the country. They were letters filled with thoughts on reading and writing. In July, he wrote:
"This job has given me part of the money for your tuition and it comes so hard that I hate to see you spend it on a course like English Prose since 1800. Anybody that can't read modern English prose by themselves is subnormal — and you know it."

He wrote to her about cultivating distinction in her writing style: "The only way to increase it is to cultivate your own garden. And the only thing that will help you is poetry, which is the most concentrated form of style. … I don't care how clever the other professor is, one can't raise a discussion of modern prose to anything above tea-table level."

The next month, he wrote to her:
"Poetry is either something that lives like fire inside you — like music to the musician or Marxism to the Communist — or else it is nothing, an empty, formalized bore, around which pedants can endlessly drone their notes and explanations."

Later, Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter:
"What you have felt and thought will by itself invent a new style, so that when people talk about style they are always a little astonished at the newness of it, because they think that it is only style that they are talking about, when what they are talking about is the attempt to express a new idea with such force that it will have the originality of the thought."

He wrote:
"It is an awfully lonesome business, and, as you know, I never wanted you to go into it, but if you are going into it at all, I want you to go into it knowing the sort of things that took me years to learn.

"All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath."

Shortly before his death on this day in 1940, he wrote to Scottie about what he called "the wise and tragic sense of life," which he described as "the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not 'happiness and pleasure' but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle."

And he said, "The wise writer, I think, writes for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward."

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

 









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