Mar. 5, 2013

String Quartet

by Carl Dennis

Art and life, I wouldn't want to confuse them.
But it's hard to hear this quartet
Without comparing it to a conversation
Of the quiet kind, where no one tries to outtalk
The other participants, where each is eager instead
To share in the task of moving the theme along
From the opening statement to the final bar.

A conversation that isn't likely to flourish
When sales technicians come trolling for customers,
Office-holders for votes, preachers for converts.
Many good people among such talkers,
But none engaged like the voices of the quartet
In resisting the plots time hatches to make them unequal,
To set them at odds, to pull them asunder.

I love the movement where the cello is occupied
With repeating a single phrase while the others
Strike out on their own, three separate journeys
That seem to suggest each prefers, after all,
The pain and pleasure of playing solo. But no.
Each near the end swerves back to the path
Their friend has been plodding, and he receives them
As if he never once suspected their loyalty.

Would I be moved if I thought the music
Belonged to a world remote from this one,
If it didn't seem instead to be making the point
That conversation like this is available
At moments sufficiently free and self-forgetful?

And at other moments, maybe there's still a chance
To participate in the silence of listeners
Who are glad for what they manage to bring to the music
And for what they manage to take away.

"String Quartet" by Carl Dennis, from Unknown Friends. © Penguin, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of a playwright and folklorist who was also W.B. Yeats's early patron, long-term and most loyal friend, a woman G.B. Shaw called "the greatest Irishwoman." Lady Gregory (books by this author) was born Isabella Augusta Persse on this day in 1852 (some sources say March 15) in Roxborough, County Tipperary, Ireland. She helped lead the Irish Literary Revival in the early 20th century and she co-founded, along with Yeats, the Abbey Theatre.

At age 28, she married a man who was 35 years her elder — he was 63, well-educated with a large library and art collection, a former member of the Irish parliament, and once the governor of British-controlled Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He'd also been knighted by the British Empire. So when they got married, she took the title "Lady" along with his last name, Gregory.

She moved into his estate at Coole in County Galway and spent a lot of time exploring her new shared library. During their marriage, she sat and worked on a memoir and wrote some short stories and poems, but she published almost none of them. They had a house in London too, and they spent a lot of time there entertaining in their living room poets Robert Browning and Lord Tennyson and writer Henry James. But then her husband died just 12 years into their marriage, around her 40th birthday, and she was grief-stricken. She returned to their Coole Park home in Galway and spent the next year editing the autobiography he'd written, getting it ready for publication.

She started Irish classes, and she began collecting tales and folklore from along the countryside; she was especially interested in what she called "Kiltartanese," English spoken with a Gaelic syntax, and prevalent in Kiltartan, an area of Galway. She would end up publishing several volumes of this folk material, including A Book of Saints and Wonders (1906), The Kiltartan History Book (1909), and The Kiltartan Wonder Book (1910).

It was through a neighbor of hers at Coole that she met W.B. Yeats, and began a friendship that would last for nearly 40 years, for the rest of her life. Yeats was also very interested in folklore of the Irish peasantry, and like Lady Gregory he hailed from a landed Protestant family. They decided to start an official movement dedicated to reviving Irish folklore. It first took shape as the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 and a several years later morphed into the Abbey Theatre. The first play to have its premier at the Abbey was one that Lady Gregory herself had written, Spreading the News. She wrote about 20 plays of her own, and she did so much working and rewriting of some of Yeats's plays for the Abbey Theatre — coming up with peasant dialogue, and such — that some scholars suggest she essentially co-authored some of Yeats's early plays for the Abbey, including The Countess Cathleen.

Irish historian R.F. Foster has said that W.B. Yeats's friendship with Lady Gregory was "the great enabling relationship of his life." In his early years, she was his patron, and even after he'd become rich and famous, he continued to spend summers at her Coole estate in western Ireland. Her place provided inspiration for a number of his poems, including "The Wild Swans at Coole," "I walked among the seven woods of Coole," "In the Seven Woods," "Coole Park, 1929," and "Coole Park and Ballylee."

"The Wild Swans at Coole" begins:
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

It was on this day in 1975 that the Homebrew Computer Club first met in a garage near Menlo Park in the Silicon Valley. It turned out to be an enormously influential hobby club: its existence made possible the personal computer.

At the time, computers were not for personal use or owned by individuals. For one thing, they were gigantic in size — a computer easily took up an entire room. And they were very expensive, costing about a million dollars each. Not even computer engineers or programmers who made a living working on computers had access to their own personal computers.

But many of these tech-minded people wanted to build personal computers for fun, to use at home. And they decided to start a hobbyist club to trade circuit-boards and information and share enthusiasm.

Among the early members: high school friends Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who designed the Apple I and II to bring down to the club to show it off, as well as Lee Felsentein and Adam Osborne, who would later create the first mass-produced portable computer, the Osborne 1. Other legendary figures in the computer world, including Bob Marsh, George Morrow, Jerry Lawson, and John Draper, were Homebrew members.

It's the birthday of novelist Leslie Marmon Silko (books by this author), born in Albuquerque, New Mexico (1948). She grew up on the Laguna Pueblo reservation, went to law school, but she quit after reading Charles Dickens' Bleak House, concluding that "The law has nothing to do with justice, and injustice can't be left unchallenged. So I decided to be a writer. Writing can't change the world overnight, but writing may have an enormous effect over time, over the long haul."

She is best known for her novel Ceremony (1977), the story of a Laguna man named Tayo who comes home to the reservation after surviving the Bataan Death March in World War II. The story of Tayo begins: "Tayo didn't sleep well that night. He tossed in the old iron bed, and the coiled springs kept squeaking even after he lay still again, calling up humid dreams of black night and loud voices rolling him over and over again like debris caught in a flood. Tonight the singing had come first, squeaking out of the iron bed, a man singing in Spanish, the melody of a familiar love song, two words again and again, 'Y volveré.'"

Her other books include Almanac of the Dead (1991), Gardens in the Dunes (1999), and most recently, The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir (2010).

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