Jan. 16, 2012
It was over a girl,
One boy had spoken to her,
Had asked her out, the other
Had been feeling with her
The twitches of something serious.
It was a misunderstanding,
Something that might have been fixed,
Talked out or around,
But the whole school had turned out
To watch them settle it.
It was too late for talk,
It was no longer just their fight,
Something irrelevant and impure
Had entered it, honor, looking
More upright than the other,
Things which had nothing to do
With the girl, or desire,
Or what she had whispered to one of them
One night in a car.
So they faced each other,
Bringing their anger up
By saying what finally did not matter
But loudly enough so their bodies believed it.
There was a sudden coming together,
There were fists flailing
While everybody, hundreds, watched.
One was cut above the eye, the other's
Knuckles were bloodied against teeth.
It lasted half a minute until
One of them pulled back and said
Something like "This is stupid"
And the other dropped his fists
And watched him walk away
Today is the birthday of novelist William Kennedy (books by this author), born in Albany, New York (1928). He's the author of a series of eight novels set in Albany, called The Albany Cycle, beginning with Legs (1975) and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978). The third novel, Ironweed (1983), is the story of homeless man and alcoholic who left his family after he accidentally killed his infant son. It won Kennedy a National Book Award and a Pulitzer; in 1987, it was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, and Kennedy wrote the screen adaptation.
The eighth novel in the cycle came out last fall; Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes (2011) is about the Cuban revolution of the 1950s, and the 1968 race riots in Albany.
It's the birthday of poet and memoirist Mary Karr (books by this author), born in Groves, Texas (1955). She had a rough childhood: Her parents were both heavy drinkers. Her dad worked at an oil refinery and told a good story. Her mom was an artist, mentally unstable, and she'd been married seven times. But her mom was a voracious reader, about the only real escapism that the small town offered. As Karr told the Paris Review: "[R]eading is socially accepted disassociation. You flip a switch and you're not there anymore. It's better than heroin. More effective and cheaper and legal."
Though she's always thought of herself as a poet, and has published four volumes of poetry, she became famous as a memoirist. She wrote her first memoir, The Liars' Club (1995), because she needed the money. It took two and a half years, because she only worked on it every other weekend, when her son was with his father. It was on the New York Times'best-seller list for more than a year; she followed it up with two more memoirs: Cherry (2000) and Lit (2009).
Today is the birthday of novelist, essayist, and cultural critic Susan Sontag (books by this author), born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City (1933). She grew up in Tucson and Los Angeles. She graduated from high school when she was 15, went to the University of California at Berkeley for a semester, and then transferred to the University of Chicago. It was there, during her sophomore year, that she met Philip Rieff, a 28-year-old sociology instructor. They were married 10 days after they met, and had a son, David, in 1952. She and Rieff divorced in 1958, and the next year she moved to New York with "$70, two suitcases, and a seven year old."
When she was 26, she met William Phillips, one of the founding editors of Partisan Review, at a cocktail party. She asked him how she might write for the journal, and he said, "All you have to do is ask." She replied, "I'm asking." She began to write provocative essays on culture, both high and low. One in particular that became famous in 1964 was called "Notes on Camp," and she dedicated it to Oscar Wilde. It was a direct challenge to the cultural establishment. She wrote: "The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste."
She wrote another essay that year called "Against Interpretation" (1964), in which she argues that people should stop trying to analyze and interpret art and just enjoy the experience on a spiritual and sensual level. She wrote: "Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of meanings."
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