Friday

Feb. 1, 2013

The Present

by Dana Gioia

The present that you gave me months ago
is still unopened by our bed,
sealed in its rich blue paper and bright bow.
I've even left the card unread
and kept the ribbon knotted tight.
Why needlessly unfold and bring to light
the elegant contrivances that hide
the costly secret waiting still inside?

"The Present" by Dana Gioia, from Pity the Beautiful. © Graywolf Press, 2012. Reprinted with the permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Galway Kinnell (books by this author), born in Providence, Rhode Island (1927). His roommate in college was the poet W.S. Merwin, who once woke him up in the middle of the night and read Yeats to him until dawn. After that night, Kinnell devoted himself to writing poetry in the style of Yeats. He eventually found his own voice as a poet, but he named all of his children after important figures in Yeats's work.

He has written many books of poetry, including Body Rags (1968), Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980), and Strong Is Your Hold (2006).

Kinnell said, "What troubles me is a sense that so many things lovely and precious in our world seem to be dying out. Perhaps poetry will be the canary in the mine-shaft warning us of what's to come."

And, "To me, poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment"

It's the birthday of the poet Langston Hughes (books by this author), born in Joplin, Missouri (1902). His parents got divorced when he was a baby and he was sent to live with his grandmother, Mary Leary Langston, in Lawrence, Kansas. His grandmother's first husband was Lewis Sheridan Leary, a harness maker and abolitionist. Leary joined John Brown in the raid on Harper's Ferry, and he was killed there. Mary kept Leary's bloodstained shawl, and when her grandson was a baby she wrapped him in it. After she died, he inherited the shawl. Many years later, his apartment in Harlem flooded, and the shawl was the only item that he salvaged.

Langston was fascinated by the streetcars in Lawrence, and he wanted to be a streetcar conductor when he grew up. But he also loved books. The Lawrence Public Library was one of the only integrated public buildings in the city, and he spent as much time there as possible. He said, "Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas."

In 1926, when he was 24 years old, he published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, and an essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," which thrust him into the national spotlight. And over the next 40 years, Hughes wrote 16 books of poetry, more than 20 plays, 10 collections of short stories, a couple of novels, children's books, essays, radio scripts, and even song lyrics. He died in 1967, from complications of prostate cancer.

It was on this day in 1884 that the first part of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. It covered from "A" to "Ant."

The Philological Society of London had conceived the idea for a new dictionary almost 30 years earlier, back in 1857, and then in 1879 they worked out an agreement with Oxford University Press to publish their ambitious project. The Society felt that the English dictionaries that existed at the time were "incomplete and deficient," and they wished to write a new dictionary that would take into account the way the English language had developed from Anglo-Saxon times.

The dictionary, they proposed, would take 10 years to complete, fill four volumes, and amount to 6,400 pages. They were halfway (five years) into the project when they published the first volume on this day in 1884, and they'd only completed from "A" to "Ant." In the end, the dictionary took 70 years (not 10) to complete, and it filled 10 volumes (not four) and it was 15,490 pages, more than twice as long as they'd originally estimated to their publisher. The last volume of the first edition of the dictionary was published in 1928. It defined more than 400,000 word forms, and it used 1,861,200 quotations to help illustrate these definitions.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a Supplement to the OED was published in four volumes. And then, in 1989, a big Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. It's the one you're most likely to find in a library today. Its 21,730 pages fill up 20 volumes, and it weighs nearly 140 pounds. There are more than 615,000 definitions for words in this edition, which also contains 2,436,600 quotations.

The longest entry in the 1989 edition is the word "set" in its verb form: There are more than 430 listed ways the verb "set" is used. The entry for the verb "set" is 60,000 words long, the equivalent of a modestly sized novel. The Bible is quoted more than any other work in the Oxford English Dictionary, and Shakespeare is quoted more than any other single author. Of Shakespeare's works, Hamlet is quoted the most — there about 1,600 quotations from Hamlet alone in the OED.

In 1992, a CD-ROM version of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. Now the dictionary is online, where it's constantly under revision.

It's the birthday of novelist Muriel Spark (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1918). When she was growing up, she wrote love letters to herself, signed them with men's names, and hid them in the sofa cushions in the hope of shocking her mother.

She was a prolific novelist. She's best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). Her last novel, The Finishing School (2004), was published when she was 86 years old. She died in 2006.

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

 









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