Nov. 3, 2012
The Fall Almost Nobody Sees
Everybody's gone away.
They think there's nothing left to see.
The garish colors' flashy show is over.
Now those of us who stay
hunker down in sweet silence,
blessed emptiness among
gold tamarack, a few
remaining pale yellow
sedge and fern in shades
from beige to darkening red
to brown to almost black,
and all this in front of, below,
among blue-green spruce and fir
and white pine,
all of it under gray skies,
chill air, all of us waiting
in the somber dank and rain,
waiting here in quiet, chill
waiting for the snow.
It's the birthday of William Cullen Bryant (books by this author), born in Cummington, Massachusetts (1794), who worked as a lawyer, hated it, wrote a history of world civilization in verse while still working as a lawyer in his 20s, quit his attorney job, became a journalist, and edited the New York Evening Post for 50 years, during which time he promoted unions, condemned slavery, and advocated for a Central Park in nascent New York City. Bryant Park next to the New York Public Library is named for him.
His most famous poem is "Thanatopsis," a poem about death — he wrote most of it when he was 17. He wrote:
[...] When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart; —
Go forth under the open sky, and list
To Nature's teachings, while from all around —
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air —
Comes a still voice [...]
The title is a fusion of the Greek words for "death" and "sight" and is often translated as "Meditation upon Death." It was first published in The North American Review when Bryant was in his 20s. Even then, it was so mature and well-crafted that the editor of the Review was incredulous about its authorship, saying to another editor: "No one, on this side of the Atlantic, is capable of writing such verses." Bryant later published "Thanatopsis" as the title poem in a collection (1821) that some critics consider the first major book of American poetry. He was a mentor to fellow New York resident Walt Whitman.
It's the birthday of the photographer Walker Evans, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1903). His father was a wealthy advertising executive, and Evans spent most of his childhood in boarding schools. He dropped out of college after one year and went off to Paris to become a writer. He spent a lot of his time at Sylvia Beach's bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, and one day he saw James Joyce there, but he was too shy to introduce himself. He didn't meet any other important writers, and his own writing didn't amount to much. He said, "I wanted so much to write that I couldn't write a word."
He went back to the United States, feeling like a failure, but one day he picked up a camera and started taking pictures. One of the first pictures he took in America was of the parade honoring Lindbergh's flight in 1927. Instead of focusing on the parade itself, he focused on the street the parade had just passed through, littered with crumpled handbills and confetti.
He had felt so reverential toward literature that it blocked him up, but with a camera he could point and capture anything he wanted. The popular photography of the day was highly stylized, so Evans decided to go in the opposite direction, to take pictures of ordinary, unpretentious things. He said, "If the thing is there, why, there it is."He photographed storefronts and signs with marquee lights, blurred views from speeding trains, old office furniture, and common tools. He took pictures of people in the New York City subways with a camera hidden in his winter coat.
Evans especially loved photographing bedrooms: farmers' bedrooms, bohemian bedrooms, middle-class bedrooms. He'd photograph what people had on their mantles, on their dressers, and in their dresser drawers. By the early 1930s, he was one of the most celebrated photographers in the United States. In 1933, he was given the first one-man photographic exhibition by the new Museum of Modern Art.
In the summer of 1936, he went down to Greensboro, Alabama, to photograph tenant farmers struggling through the Great Depression. He spent weeks there, with the journalist James Agee, photographing the Burroughs family, the Fieldses, and the Tingle family at work on their farms and in their ramshackle homes.
At first, he was uncomfortable with the idea of taking pictures of such desperate people, but James Agee persuaded him that their job was show how noble these people were despite their circumstances. When Evans and Agee said goodbye at the end of their work, the farmers wept. The photographs, with Agee's text, were published in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). They are among the most famous images of the Great Depression.
Walker Evans said, "Fine photography is literature, and it should be."
It's the birthday of the playwright Terrence McNally (books by this author), born in St. Petersburg, Florida (1939), who for a time supported himself working on radio shows. He said, "I guess it hadn't occurred to me that to be a playwright you had to write plays — I thought you could be a playwright and sulk."
Then, one day, someone recognized his voice and asked him if he was that guy on the radio. He realized that if he didn't keep writing plays, he'd be remembered as some radio personality. So he got back to work and produced Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1987), about a romance between a middle-aged waitress and a short-order cook who work at a café together. It became his first big hit and was made into a movie.
He said, "I like deadlines. I need deadlines. I'm not a compulsive writer — I don't write every day. I've learned not to go to the computer until I know what I want to write."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®