Mar. 15, 2013

Prayer in My Boot

by Naomi Shihab Nye

For the wind no one expected

For the boy who does not know the answer

For the graceful handle I found in a field
attached to nothing
pray it is universally applicable

For our tracks which disappear
the moment we leave them

For the face peering through the cafe window
as we sip our soup

For cheerful American classrooms sparkling
with crisp colored alphabets
happy cat posters
the cage of the guinea pig
the dog with division flying out of his tail
and the classrooms of our cousins
on the other side of the earth
how solemn they are
how gray or green or plain
how there is nothing dangling
nothing striped or polka-dotted or cheery
no self-portraits or visions of cupids
and in these rooms the students raise their hands
and learn the stories of the world

For library books in alphabetical order
and family businesses that failed
and the house with the boarded windows
and the gap in the middle of a sentence
and the envelope we keep mailing ourselves

For every hopeful morning given and given
and every future rough edge
and every afternoon
turning over in its sleep

"Prayer in My Boot" by Naomi Shihab Nye, from 19 Varieties of Gazelle. © Greenwillow Books, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (books by this author), the soothsayer was referring to today when she said, "Beware the Ides of March." The word "Ides" was just a shorthand way of saying "15th," at least in March.

And it was on this day, the Ides of March in 44 B.C., that Caesar was assassinated by a group of about 60 conspirators who called themselves "the liberators." They wanted to return Rome to a model republic, and they were unhappy with how Caesar had consolidated power in his name, and that he encouraged people to consider him divine. One of the leaders was Marcus Brutus, whose mother had been one of Caesar's lovers and whom Caesar helped establish in government.

It's the birthday of novelist Ben Okri (books by this author), born in Minna, Nigeria (1959). His many novels include The Famished Road (1991), which won the Booker Prize, Dangerous Love (1996), Starbook (2007) and Tales of Freedom (2009).

He said: "I realized you cannot evoke a place truly till you find a tone, a narrative, in tune with the dimensions of that place. You can't use Jane Austen to tell stories about Africa."

It was on this day in 1956 that the musical My Fair Lady opened on Broadway, starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. The musical was based on the play Pygmalion by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. Pygmalion is the story of Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics living in London. He makes a bet with a friend that he can take a random cockney-speaking flower seller named Eliza Doolittle and pass her off as a perfect lady by teaching her how to speak well. Shaw got the title from the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who makes a statue of a woman who is so beautiful that he falls in love with her.

Pygmalion ends with Eliza furious with Higgins, who teaches her to be a lady but then treats her badly once his project is over and he wins his bet. She tells him that he is a tyrant and a bully and that she will marry a young man who adores her. Higgins is too self-absorbed to believe she will leave him, ordering her to buy him a tie and order a ham, but she walks out on him. Shaw was adamant that the play end that way. He wrote an afterword explaining why Eliza would have married the young man, not Henry Higgins, despite the romantic tension between them. Shaw wrote the afterword after he learned that his leading man was softening the ending of the play by having Henry toss a bouquet of flowers to Eliza at the last moment, suggesting to the audience that maybe they had a future together after all. Shaw fought for his ending over and over, but ultimately he lost.

He agreed to let the Hungarian film producer and director Gabriel Pascal make some of his plays into films, but he insisted that no one would turn Pygmalion into a musical — he had been horrified at the operetta based on his play Arms and the Man. So Pascal produced a nonmusical film of Pygmalion (1938), and Shaw collaborated on it as a writer. The film was a success and won an Oscar for best screenplay.

Shaw died in 1950, and Pascal suggested to lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe that they adapt Pygmalion into a musical now that the playwright wasn't around to be disgusted. Pascal died soon after, and Lerner and Loewe didn't think it would make a good musical, because there was no love story. So they did what others had done before — ended the musical with the implication that Eliza and Henry would end up together. They wrote a lot of Shaw's witty dialogue straight into their songs, and they found an unknown actress in her first play, Julie Andrews, and convinced her to audition for the role of Eliza. She starred with Rex Harrison, and the Broadway musical ran for more than 2,700 performances, which at the time was the longest run of any Broadway show. My Fair Lady was made into a film in 1964.

It's the birthday of biographer Richard Ellmann (books by this author), born in Highland Park, Michigan (1918). He got into Yale and studied literature there, then went to graduate school and started to write his dissertation on W.B. Yeats, who had died in 1939 — there wasn't much scholarly work on him.

While Ellmann was working on his dissertation, World War II broke out, and he enlisted. He worked for the Office of Strategic Services in London, and he took a leave to go visit Dublin. He wrote a letter to George Yeats, the poet's widow, totally unaware that she was famous for refusing to answer letters or grant visits. But for some reason, she changed her mind when Ellmann's letter came along, and she wrote back inviting him to visit her at 46 Palmerston Road in Rathmines, a suburb of Dublin. She told him stories about Yeats and showed him her late husband's study.

After Ellmann was discharged from the Navy in 1946, he got a Rockefeller scholarship to go to Ireland and continue his work on Yeats. He went back to visit George Yeats, who gave Ellmann access to more or less all of her late husband's documents, about 50,000 of them — diaries, letters, notes, poems. Ellmann said, "It is hard to know how revolutionary my ideas are, but I do feel that I shall produce the definitive book on Yeats for many years to come." And so he put together the first comprehensive work on W.B. Yeats. He published it as a critical biography called Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1948).

He followed up his first book with The Identity of Yeats (1954). He considered himself a Yeats scholar, and when he was looking for a new angle on the poet, he remembered the unpublished preface Yeats had written about his meeting with James Joyce. Ellmann said he was struck by "Joyce's impudence with his distinguished and much older contemporary." So he decided to write an article about the relationship between Yeats and Joyce. From there, he found himself fascinated by Joyce, and decided to attempt a biography of him. In 1959, he published James Joyce. It won the National Book Award, and Anthony Burgess called it "the greatest literary biography of the century."

Ellmann published many more studies of Yeats, Joyce, and other Modernists. After 20 years of research, Ellmann finished his last great biography, Oscar Wilde (1987), just before he died. It was published posthumously and won a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Ellmann wrote about Wilde: " Of all writers, Wilde was perhaps the best company. Always endangered, he laughs at his plight, and on his way to the loss of everything jollies society for being so much harsher than he is, so much less graceful, so much less attractive."

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