Oct. 7, 2012
Should my tongue be tied by stroke
listen to me as if I spoke
and said to you, "My dear, my friend,
stay here a while and take my hand;
my voice is hindered by this clot,
but silence says what I cannot,
and you can answer as you please
such undemanding words as these.
Or let our conversation be
a mute and patient amity,
sitting, all the words bygone,
like a stone beside a stone.
It takes a while to learn to talk
the long language of the rock."
Today is the birthday of Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist Niels Bohr, born in Copenhagen (1885). Bohr theorized that atoms were composed of a small, dense nucleus that is orbited by electrons at a fixed distance from the nucleus. He also came up with the revolutionary principle of complementarity: that things like light or electrons can have a dual nature — as a particle and a wave, for example — but we can only experience one aspect of their nature at a time.
It's the birthday of Australian author Thomas Keneally (books by this author), born in Sydney in 1935. When he finished school, he entered the seminary to become a priest, but after six years, he had second thoughts and left to become a writer. He said later, "I thought if I get published I can make up for the fact that I'm a mad, ruined monk and work my way into society — including the society of girls."
He's written several books of nonfiction and many novels; he's best known as the author of Schindler's Ark (1982), the book on which the Steven Spielberg film Schindler's List (1993) was based.
His latest book is Three Famines: Starvation and Politics (2011), about the role of government in the outcomes of three famous famines: the 19th-century Irish potato famine, the 1943 famine in Bengal, and the Ethiopian famines of the 1970s and '80s. In it, he describes the psychological effects of starvation: "The victim becomes a new person. The fastidious become slovenly; the kindly become aggressive; the moral are caught up in the great amorality of famine. Fraternity and love wither. Judgment vanishes, and a hyperactive anxiety seizes the mind."
It's the birthday of poet and author Diane Ackerman, born Diane Fink in Waukegan, Illinois (1948) (books by this author). She has a knack for blending science and literary art; she wrote her first book of poetry entirely about astronomy. It was called The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral, and it was published in 1976, while she was working on her doctorate at Cornell. Carl Sagan served as a technical advisor for the book, and he was also on her dissertation committee. Her most widely read book is 1990's A Natural History of the Senses, which inspired a five-part Nova miniseries, Mystery of the Senses, which she hosted. She even has a molecule named after her: dianeackerone.
In 1970, she married novelist and poet Paul West. They shared a playful obsession with words that was central to their expressions of love for each other. In 2005, Paul suffered a stroke and, as Ackerman wrote, "In the cruelest of ironies for a man whose life revolved around words, with one of the largest working English vocabularies on earth, he had suffered immense damage to the key language areas of his brain and could no longer process language in any form." His vast vocabulary was reduced to a single syllable: mem.
Even when he recovered the ability to speak, his brain kept substituting wrong words for the right ones, but she encouraged him not to fight his brain, but to just go with it, to say what it was giving him to say. As a result, the hundred little pet names he used to have for her before the stroke have been replaced with non-sequiturs like "my little spice owl," "my little bucket of hair," and "blithe sickness of Araby." Ackerman wrote about the stroke and Paul's journey back to language in her most recent memoir, One Hundred Words for Love (2011).
Diane Ackerman wrote, "It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between."
Allen Ginsberg read his poem "Howl" at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on this date in 1955 (books by this author). The reading was intended to promote the new gallery. The poet Kenneth Rexroth organized the reading, and in preparation, he introduced Gary Snyder to Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg introduced everyone to Jack Kerouac, and they became the core of the group of writers known as the Beats.
Ginsberg was the second to the last to read, and he started at about 11 p.m. He was 29 years old, and he had never participated in a poetry reading before. He started off in a quiet voice. But as he read, he found his rhythm, and he took a deep breath before each of the long lines in "Howl" and then said each line in one breath. Jack Kerouac chanted "Go, go, go" in rhythm while Ginsberg read, and the audience went wild.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®