Sunday

Feb. 27, 2011

Perfection, Perfection

by Kilian McDonnell

("I will walk the way of perfection." Psalm 101:2)

I have had it with perfection.
I have packed my bags,
I am out of here.
Gone.

As certain as rain
will make you wet,
perfection will do you
in.

It droppeth not as dew
upon the summer grass
to give liberty and green
joy.

Perfection straineth out
the quality of mercy,
withers rapture at its
birth.

Before the battle is half begun,
cold probity thinks
it can't be won, concedes the
war.

I've handed in my notice,
given back my keys,
signed my severance check, I
quit.

Hints I could have taken:
Even the perfect chiseled form of
Michelangelo's radiant David
squints,

the Venus de Milo
has no arms,
the Liberty Bell is
cracked.

"Perfection, Perfection" by Kilian McDonnell, from Swift, Lord, You Are Not. © Saint John's University Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist John Steinbeck, (books by this author) born in Salinas, California (1902).

In the 1930s, his most productive decade, he wrote several novels about his native California, including Tortilla Flat (1935), set in Monterey; In Dubious Battle (1936), about fruit-pickers on strike in a California valley; and Of Mice and Men (1937), set on a ranch in Soledad, southeast of Steinbeck's birth town Salinas.

Of Mice and Men, the story of farmworker Lenny and his friend George, was a big commercial success, and it was also a highly banned book. In fact, it was on the American Library Association's "most challenged books of the 21st century." In support of the ban, people accused Steinbeck of having an "antibusiness attitude" and said that his "patriotism" was "questionable." One person — in the 1990s — wrote that the book should be banned because Steinbeck took "God's name in vain 15 times" and "[used] Jesus' name lightly."

In the 1940s, Steinbeck worked as a journalist — as a war correspondent. He sent dispatches from all around the Mediterranean and from North Africa during World War II. After the war was over, he started taking trips to the Soviet Union, going to Moscow, Kiev, Stalingrad, and also many out-of-the-way places in the Soviet republic that Western reporters had not tread. He tried learning Russian but never really attained fluency. He once wrote home about how he proudly tried to order a breakfast of omelet, toast, and coffee and was served in response a "tomato salad with onions, a dish of pickles, a big slice of watermelon, and two bottles of cream soda." He published his notes and musings from these trips in 1948 in A Russian Journal.

In 1940, after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, he won the Pulitzer Prize. He always professed to be leery and afraid of literary awards and their effect on writers. He said that after Faulkner won the Nobel Prize, hearing him talk so loftily about "writing" and "the Artist" made him (Steinbeck) want to "leave the profession."

And then, in 1962, a decade after East of Eden (1952) and shortly after the publication of Travels with Charley (1962), Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in literature for his "realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception." When a reporter at a press conference asked if he thought he deserved it, he said, "Frankly, no."

But he accepted the prize and gave a lofty acceptance speech, in which he said, "A writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature."

Afterward, he was worried about the prize's effect upon his future writing. He thought about other major prize winners and confided to a friend: "For one thing I don't remember anyone doing any work getting it save maybe Shaw. This last book of Faulkner's was written long ago. Hemingway went into a kind of hysterical haze. Red Lewis just collapsed into alcoholism and angers. It has in effect amounted to an epitaph. Maybe I'm being over-optimistic but I wouldn't have accepted it if I hadn't thought I could beat the wrap."

As it happens, he was doomed just as he feared — he died six years later, not having published a single novel since winning the prize.

The Grapes of Wrath is generally considered his masterpiece. In it, he wrote:
"The cars of the migrant people crawled out of the side roads onto the great cross-country highway, and they took the migrant way to the West. … And because they were lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to a mysterious new place … a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream."

John Steinbeck said, "The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true."

And, "The basic rule [of writing] given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules."

And he said, "A book is like a man — clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the Kiowa novelist and poet N. Scott Momaday, (books by this author) born in Lawton, Oklahoma (1934). His parents were teachers, so the family followed teaching jobs from one reservation to the next. Momaday felt like an outsider on all of them. He went to the University of Virginia to study law, but then he met William Faulkner, and he decided to study literature instead. He started writing, and he was working on a project about the sacred Sun Dance doll of the Kiowa tribe. It hadn't been displayed since 1888, but Momaday got a chance to see it, and it made a big impression on him. He said, "I became more keenly aware of myself as someone who had walked through time and in whose blood there is something inestimably old and undying." He tried to write a book of poems based on the experience, but a teacher suggested he turn the poems into fiction, and that became his first novel, House Made of Dawn (1968), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

It's the birthday of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, (books by this author) born in Portland, Maine (1807). He was a student at Bowdoin College at the same time as Nathaniel Hawthorne, and went on to teach at Harvard where he became friends with James Russell Lowell. Longfellow wrote many long, narrative poems that are still well known to this day, including "Evangeline" (1847) and "The Courtship of Miles Standish" (1858). He also translated Dante's Divine Comedy.

It's the birthday of Lawrence Durrell, (books by this author) born in India of English parents (1912). Durrell traveled widely during his life, living in Cairo, Belgrade, and on many small islands in the Mediterranean Sea. He worked as a diplomat and information officer for the British government, and also he lectured at universities. Durrell is best known for The Alexandria Quartet (1957), four linked novels set in Alexandria, Egypt, around the time of World War II.

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