Jan. 23, 2013

Their Lonely Betters

by W. H. Auden

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

Their Lonely Betters" by W.H. Auden Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd. Copyright © 1950 All Rights reserved. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the French writer Stendhal (books by this author), born Marie-Henri Beyle in Grenoble (1783). He had a difficult childhood — he adored his mother, but she died when he was seven, and he didn't like his father or the Jesuit priest who taught him at home. But it probably wasn't all their fault — he also characterized his childhood self as "a little monster."

Beyle used more than 100 pseudonyms, but he is most famous as Stendhal, and it was as Stendhal that he wrote the two novels for which he is most famous: Le rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black, 1830) and La chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma, 1839).

It's the birthday of the Irish novelist J.G. Farrell (books by this author), James Gordon Farrell, born in Liverpool, England (1935). His parents moved back to Ireland at the start of World War II. He went to college, taught for a year, and then moved to the Canadian Arctic to be a fireman for a construction company. Then he went to England to attend Oxford University, where he contracted polio, and he had to spend a long time in an iron lung in order to breathe. This formed the basis of his second novel, The Lung (1965), a black comedy whose hero, stricken by polio, has a craving for alcohol and a slightly milder craving for women.

J.G. Farrell is best known for a trilogy of novels about the waning British Empire. The first one, Troubles (1970), is about an English army officer who goes to a seaside resort in Ireland in 1919 to be with the woman he plans to marry. He watches from a distance as Ireland fights for its independence and the British Empire begins to crumble on all fronts. The second novel was The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), a historical reconstruction of an Indian rebellion in 1857. Farrell spent a long time in India researching the novel. The Siege of Krishnapur won the 1973 Booker Prize, and at the awards ceremony, Farrell gave a speech in which he condemned the business activities of the sponsors of the prize he had just won. The final book of his trilogy, The Singapore Grip (1978), is about the British surrender of the colony of Singapore.

Farrell was 50,000 words into another historical novel about the British Empire when he drowned in 1979, at the age of 44, while fishing off the west coast of Ireland.

It's the birthday of poet John (Burton) Logan (books by this author), born in Red Oak, Iowa (1923). Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, his poems appeared regularly in The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, New Republic, and other major literary publications, but he never achieved widespread fame. He wrote more than a dozen books of poems, including A Cycle for Mother Cabrini (1955), Ghosts of the Heart (1960), Spring of the Thief (1963), The Zig Zag Walk (1969), Song on the Dread of a Chill Spring (1970), The Anonymous Lover (1973) and Only the Dreamer Can Change the Dream (1975).

He was a great lyrical poet. He often called poetry "ballet for the ear." He was known for the melodic way that he read his poems aloud. His son said that "it was like going to a concert to hear him read."

A trip to the "Believe It or Not Museum" inspired his poem "Believe It," in which he wrote:
"There is a strawberry that grew
out of a carrot plant, a blade
of grass that lanced through a thick rock,
a cornstalk nineteen-feet-two-inches tall grown by George
Osborne of Silome, Arkansas.
There is something grotesque growing in me I cannot tell.
It has been waxing, burgeoning, for a long time."

And John Logan wrote, "Well, I am still a traveler and I don't know where / I live. If my home is here, inside my breast, / light it up! And I will invite you in as my first guest."

It's the birthday of Caribbean poet and playwright Derek Walcott (books by this author), born in Castries, Saint Lucia (1930). He grew up reading British poets like William Wordsworth, John Milton, and Andrew Marvell. Walcott got a scholarship to study in Jamaica. From there, he studied theater in the United States, and then went back to the Caribbean and founded the Trinidad Theater Workshop. He taught at Boston University, and became good friends with Robert Lowell, whom he had first met when Lowell and his family visited Trinidad. In 1990 Walcott published his epic poem Omeros, a re-telling of Homer's Odyssey set on St. Lucia.

In 1992, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. His most recent book of poetry is White Egrets (2010).

He said: "I come from a place that likes grandeur; it likes large gestures; it is not inhibited by flourish; it is a society of physical performance; it is a society of style. [...] I grew up in a place in which if you learned poetry, you shouted it out. Boys would scream it out and perform it and flourish it. If you wanted to approximate that thunder or that power of speech, it couldn't be done by a little modest voice in which you muttered something to someone else. I come out of that society of the huge gesture. And literature is like that."

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




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