Thursday

Dec. 22, 2011

December

by Gary Johnson

A little girl is singing for the faithful to come ye
Joyful and triumphant, a song she loves,
And also the partridge in a pear tree
And the golden rings and the turtle doves.
In the dark streets, red lights and green and blue
Where the faithful live, some joyful, some troubled,
Enduring the cold and also the flu,
Taking the garbage out and keeping the sidewalk shoveled.
Not much triumph going on here—and yet
There is much we do not understand.
And my hopes and fears are met
In this small singer holding onto my hand.
           Onward we go, faithfully, into the dark
           And are there angels hovering overhead? Hark.

"December" by Gary Johnson. Used with permission of the poet.

Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and the astronomical event that has more rituals and ceremonies associated with it than any other. It is no coincidence that there are numerous holidays around the solstice, for the timing of these holidays is rooted in ancient religions. There is archaeological evidence that the solstice has been important to human cultures for at least 30,000 years; many ancient stone structures like Stonehenge are designed to pinpoint the precise date of the solstice, and many ancient peoples held festivals of light to bring about the return of summer's longer days.

The term solstice means "sun stands still." It is when the sun stays closer to the horizon than at any other time of the year and appears to rise and set in the same place for several days in a row. But while the sun stands still and tonight is long, stars may appear to streak through the sky as the Earth passes through a stream of comet dust — the yearly Ursid meteor shower — which may produce a pleasing shower of shooting stars for northern viewers near the end of the night.

Today is the birthday of composer Giacomo Puccini, born in Lucca, Tuscany, Italy (1858). He is responsible for creating some of the most popular and recognizable operas of all time. Puccini's four greatest works are all tragic love stories centering on a female lead: the seamstress Mimi of La bohème (1896), the singer Floria of Tosca (1900), a Japanese teenager who goes by the nickname Butterfly in Madame Butterfly (1904), and a Persian princess in Turandot, which was left incomplete at the time of Puccini's death in 1924.

It's the birthday of the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (books by this author), born in Head Tide, Maine (1869), and among whose most celebrated works are the stories "Richard Cory" (1897) and "Miniver Cheevy" (1910).

Robinson's father was a wealthy businessman so, as a young man, Robinson did not need to work for a living, devoted himself to poetry, and earned a reputation in his hometown as an idler who wrote failed poetry no one wanted to read. Eventually, his poetry somehow made it into the hands of Theodore Roosevelt, who became a fan. Finally, in 1922, when he was in his 50s, Robinson won the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems (1921) and two more Pulitzers before the end of the decade for The Man Who Died Twice (1924) and Tristram (1927). By the time of his death, the former wastrel had become one of the best-known poets in the country.

It's the birthday of Kenneth Rexroth (1905) (books by this author), the American poet who published more than 50 collections, including The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944) and In Defense of the Earth (1956).

Rexroth was orphaned at 14, expelled from high school not long after, and began publishing in magazines by the age of 15. He hitchhiked around the country and Europe, backpacking in the wilderness and frequenting literary salons and lectures while simultaneously teaching himself several languages.

Rexroth and his first wife, the painter Andrée Shafer, moved to San Francisco in 1927. Rexroth was one of the first to bring Eastern mysticism and ecological awareness into poetry. He read poetry with jazz musicians, had a radio show on KPFA, and wrote a regular column for the Saturday Review. And he was a patron of the Beats when they arrived in San Francisco in the mid-Fifties. On October 7, 1955, Rexroth organized the legendary Six Gallery Reading, the postcard for which promised "Six poets at the Six Gallery ... Remarkable collection of angels all gathered at once in the same spot. Wine, music, dancing girls, serious poetry ... Charming event."

It was at this charming event that Allen Ginsburg's "Howl" was introduced to the literary world. As Ginsburg read, the audience erupted with appreciation and, by the end, Rexroth and everyone else in the gallery was in tears. The night came to be called the birth of the San Francisco Renaissance, and Kenneth Rexroth "the father of the Frisco poetry scene."

Today is the birthday of Thomas Higginson, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1823), and whom we know as the publisher of Emily Dickinson's poetry. Higginson recounted his first letter from the poet in the Atlantic Monthly in 1891:

"Few events in American literary history have been more curious than the sudden rise of Emily Dickinson into a posthumous fame only more accentuated by the utterly recluse character of her life and by her aversion to even a literary publicity. ... But for her only sister it is very doubtful if her poems would ever have been printed at all; and when published, they were launched quietly and without any expectation of a wide audience; yet the outcome of it is that six editions of the volume have been sold within six months, a suddenness of success almost without parallel in American literature ... and it has been urged upon me very strongly that her readers have the right to know something more of this gifted and most interesting woman.

"On April 16, 1862, I took from the post office ... the following letter: Mr. Higginson, — Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive? The mind so near itself cannot see distinctly and I have none to ask.

"The letter was postmarked 'Amherst,' and it was in a handwriting so peculiar that it seemed as if the writer might have taken her first lessons by studying the famous fossil bird-tracks in the museum ... cultivated, quaint, and wholly unique ... But the most curious thing about the letter was the total absence of a signature ... It proved, however, that she had written her name on a card ... and even this name was written — as if the shy writer wished to recede as far as possible from view — in pencil, not in ink. The name was Emily Dickinson."

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

 









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