Jan. 10, 2012
Finished early at the library,
I strolled Canal Street to fill
before we'd meet home for dinner.
Late-winter light sneered,
reluctant to leave
the streets, bargain tables
with t-shirts or imposter purses,
where gold necklaces refracted
from squares of scarlet felt.
All down Mulberry, arched
garlands of festival bulbs
From Italian restaurant stoops,
waiters with handsome accents
lured tourists by describing
entrées like landscapes.
At Ferrara's desert café,
the wait bent
halfway up the clogged block.
I whittled inside, browsed
glass cabinets of cookies,
on paper placemats
that looked like lace.
I arrived 40 minutes late.
You balanced, hand
against bedroom door-jamb,
pulling off your office heels.
Once you noticed the bakery box
under my arm, your face calmed—
my earlier whereabouts
evidenced in sweetness
we would fork from the same plate.
It's the birthday of the current national poet laureate, Philip Levine (books by this author), born in Detroit in 1928. He was a public school kid living about a mile from 8 Mile Road, the son of Russian emigrants. His father died when Levine was five. When he was 13, he found a weekly ritual that helped sustain him: He'd go outside after dinner, stand in a grove of trees, and compose poetry in his head.
After graduation he worked in a Cadillac plant, drove a truck for Railway Express, and worked a night shift at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle factory. He wrote poetry in his off hours. Levine escaped to graduate school, focusing on poetry more than his night shift had allowed, then he moved to California looking for work and housing so he could relocate his wife and two small children there. The poet Yvor Winters gave him a place to crash and later chose him for the prestigious Jones Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford.
Six years after the move he published his first book of poetry, at the age of 38; his most recent book is News of the World (2010).
Levine said: "It is the imagination that gives us poetry. When you sit down to write a poem, you really don't know where you're going. If you know where you're going, the poem stinks, you probably already wrote it, and you're imitating yourself."
And: "You have to follow where the poem leads. And it will surprise you. It will say things you didn't expect to say. And you look at the poem and you realize, 'That is truly what I felt.' That is truly what I saw."
It's the birthday of best-selling historian Stephen Ambrose (books by this author), born in Lovington, Illinois (1936). Ambrose's father was a Navy doctor during World War II, and the family followed him from post to post around the country until he was shipped overseas. The war ended, Ambrose's father came home and took up a private practice in Wisconsin, and Ambrose decided he'd take over when he grew up.
A pre-med student, he was annoyed when his state university requirements compelled him to take an American history class the second semester of his sophomore year. It was called, "Representative Americans," and was based on biographies of individuals throughout the country's history; the first class focused on George Washington. The professor said that the students would be completing their own biography of an unknown Wisconsinite, which they would have to use primary research from the state historical society to write. The result, the professor promised, would add to the sum of the world's knowledge.
"And that just hit me like a sledgehammer," Ambrose later said. "It had never before occurred to me that I could add to the sum of the world's knowledge." He changed his major to history, and at the end of the term wrote a 10-page biography of a Civil War-era one-term Wisconsin Congressman named Charles Billinghurst. Ambrose marveled that he was now the world's leading expert on Charles Billinghurst. "Now what I soon learned was, the reason for that was that nobody else cared about Charles A. Billinghurst," Ambrose laughed. But his next epiphany was what transformed him from a historian to a world-class storyteller: "But I can make 'em care if I tell the story right."
He became the biographer of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, he wrote a best-selling book about the Lewis & Clark expedition titled Undaunted Courage (1996), and wrote multiple books on WWII, like Citizen Soldiers (1997) and Band of Brothers (1992).
It's the birthday of Charles Ingalls, otherwise known as "Pa" in his daughter Laura Ingalls Wilder's (books by this author) Little House on the Prairie books. Born in Cuba, New York (1836), Ingalls descended on his father's side from a Mayflower passenger, and on his mother's from an early settler of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His family had been New Englanders for generations, but they moved to the tallgrass prairies of Illinois when Ingalls was a boy. As an adult he moved by covered wagon from areas that are now Wisconsin to Kansas, back to Wisconsin, to Minnesota, to Iowa, back to Minnesota, and to the railroad town of De Smet, South Dakota, where he lived the rest of his life.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®