Apr. 24, 2013

Pretty Halcyon Days

by Ogden Nash

How pleasant to sit on the beach,
On the beach, on the sand, in the sun,
With ocean galore within reach,
And nothing at all to be done!
No letters to answer,
No bills to be burned,
No work to be shirked,
No cash to be earned.
It is pleasant to sit on the beach
With nothing at all to be done.

How pleasant to look at the ocean,
Democratic and damp; indiscriminate;
It fills me with noble emotion
To think I am able to swim in it.
To lave in the wave,
Majestic and chilly,
Tomorrow I crave;
But today it is silly.
It is pleasant to look at the ocean;
Tomorrow, perhaps, I shall swim in it.

How pleasant to gaze at the sailors,
As their sailboats they manfully sail
With the vigor of vikings and whalers
In the days of the viking and whale.
They sport on the brink
Of the shad and the shark;
If it's windy they sink;
If it isn't, they park.
It is pleasant to gaze at the sailors,
To gaze without having to sail.

How pleasant the salt anaesthetic
Of the air and the sand and the sun;
Leave the earth to the strong and athletic,
And the sea to adventure upon.
But the sun and the sand
No contractor can copy;
We lie in the land
Of the lotus and poppy;
We vegetate, calm and aesthetic,
On the beach, on the sand, in the sun.

"Pretty Halcyon Days" by Ogden Nash, from I Wouldn't Have Missed It. © Little Brown, 1975. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of mystery novelist Sue Grafton (books by this author), born in Louisville, Kentucky (1940). Grafton went to college at the University of Louisville. She thought about becoming a lawyer, but her father was an attorney, and he told her not to go to law school — that it was too boring. She was married at age 18, divorced, and married again a few years later. She started her career by writing screenplays, until her agent told her that she was good at writing character but not at plot. So she decided to focus all her energy on writing plots, and mystery novels seemed like a good outlet for that.

One day, she was reading through Edward Gorey's illustrated book The Gashlycrumb Tinies, about children dying in bizarre ways. It begins: "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears. C is for Clara who wasted away. D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh." Grafton decided that this was her hook, and in 1982 she published "A" is for Alibi. She followed it up with "B" is for Burglar (1985), "C" is for Corpse (1986), "D" is for Deadbeat (1987), and on down the line. The star of her novels is a tough-talking private investigator named Kinsey Millhone, who loves fast food, always carries a gun, and distrusts intimate relationships. Grafton said, "I am Kinsey Millhone. But she is my unlived life. I got married for the first time when I was 18 [...] so, she is the adventures I've never had." Her most recent Kinsey Millhone mystery is "V" is for Vengeance (2011).

It's the birthday of novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren (books by this author), born in Guthrie, Kentucky (1905). His parents' house was full of books, and so was his grandfather's run-down tobacco farm, where young Warren spent his summers. His grandfather quoted classical poetry while he tended his vegetable and flower gardens. He sat with his grandson under a cedar tree on the farm and told him stories of fighting in the Confederate army, and drew pictures of the battles in the dirt.

Warren was just 16 years old when he enrolled in Vanderbilt University, where his roommate was the poet Allen Tate. Warren and Tate, along with one of their professors, John Crowe Ransom, and a handful of other writers, became known as the Fugitives. Warren said: "That group was my education. I knew individual writers, poems, and books through them. I was exposed to the liveliness and range of the talk and the wrangle of argument. I heard the talk about techniques, but techniques regarded as means of expression. But most of all I got the feeling that poetry was a vital activity, that it related to ideas and to life. I came into the group rather late. I was timid and reverential, I guess. And I damned well should have been."

In 1934, 29-year-old Warren accepted a teaching position at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. A year later, Louisiana's populist governor Huey P. Long was assassinated. Long had been a popular and effective governor who ran on the slogan "Every Man a King," but many people felt that he was a dictator who would do anything to make sure he got his way. The year after Long's assassination, Warren began working on a play in verse called Proud Flesh, whose main character was a corrupt and charismatic Southern politician named Willie Talos — he got the name from Talus, the violent and unstoppable "iron man" in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen. Warren rewrote his play as a novel, and 10 years later he published All the King's Men (1946). It was a best-seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In the novel, the politician's name is changed to Willie Stark. Warren said: "For better or worse, Willie Stark was not Huey Long. Willie was only himself, whatever that self turned out to be, a shadowy wraith or a blundering human being. [...] The book was never intended to be a book about politics. Politics merely provided the framework story in which the deeper concerns, whatever their final significance, might work themselves out."

Warren continued to write poetry and novels, including World Enough and Time (1950), Wilderness (1961), and Promises: Poems 1954-1956 (1957). He went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1958 and 1979, and he was the nation's first poet laureate.
He said, "Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake."

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