May 28, 2013
Treetops are not so high
Nor I so low
That I don't instinctively know
How it would be to fly
Through gaps that the wind makes, when
The leaves arouse
And there is a lifting of boughs
That settle and lift again.
Whatever my kind may be,
It is not absurd
To confuse myself with a bird
For the space of a reverie:
My species never flew,
But I somehow know
It is something that long ago
I almost adapted to.
It's the birthday of author Ian Fleming (books by this author), born in London in 1908. His family enjoyed wealth and social standing; his father, Valentine, was a Member of Parliament, and when he died in World War I, Winston Churchill wrote his obituary. All doors were open to young Ian, and he worked as a foreign journalist, a banker, a stockbroker, a high-ranking officer and assistant to the director of British naval intelligence, and foreign manager of London's Sunday Times before he took up the career, and the character, that would make him famous. Casino Royale (1953) was the first of his many "James Bond" novels, which featured the playboy spy — code name "007" — and a host of fast cars, nifty gadgets, and hot women.
Fleming also wrote a children's book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1964). In it, his character Commander Pott gave some advice that Bond might have heartily endorsed: "Never say 'no' to adventures. Always say 'yes,' otherwise you'll lead a very dull life."
It's the birthday of poet May Swenson (books by this author), born in Logan, Utah (1913). Her parents were Swedish immigrants who came to the United States as converts to Mormonism. She was the first of ten children, and she became the black sheep of the family when she started questioning the Mormon faith at the age of thirteen.
She began keeping a diary and composing poems, later saying that writing was the one place she felt free to express herself: "I'm two eyes looking out of a suit of armor. I write because I can't talk."
She moved to New York City in her 20s and had a string of low-paying jobs. At one low point, she shoplifted a dress so she'd look respectable when she went to seek help in the welfare office. Humiliated, she wrote her father: "If I ever find a way, acceptable to myself, to solve the bread-and-butter question, I will be a writer." And although she did not later wish her writing to be categorized by her sexuality, it's likely that she saw New York as her only chance to live her life as a lesbian.
Swenson's reputation and success grew slowly; by the time her first book, Another Animal, was accepted for publication in 1954, she was 41 and had been in New York for nearly 20 years. With the help of her editor, Swenson won a two-month residency at Yaddo, where she met the poet Elizabeth Bishop. The two became friends, possibly lovers, and although Bishop lived in Brazil, they exchanged 260 letters over the next 29 years. She once wrote to Bishop: "Not to need illusion—to dare to see and say how things really are, is the emancipation I would like to attain."
Her collections include Dear Elizabeth: Five Poems and Three Letters to Elizabeth Bishop (2000), and The Complete Love Poems of May Swenson (2003).
It's the birthday of Southern writer Walker Percy (books by this author), born in Birmingham, Alabama (1916). Percy's early life was marked by tragedy: his grandfather and father both committed suicide with shotguns, and his mother drowned when her car ran off the road into a stream. When his uncle in Greenville, Mississippi, adopted Percy and his little brothers, things took a turn for the better; it was there that he met his lifelong best friend, the neighbor boy Shelby Foote. As teenagers they took a trip to Oxford to meet their hero, William Faulkner — Percy was so overwhelmed that he stayed in the car as Foote and Faulkner talked on the porch.
Percy went off to college in Chapel Hill, and later to New York for medical school. He contracted tuberculosis and spent the next two years at a sanitarium. It was, he later said, "the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me a chance to quit medicine. I had a respectable excuse."
Instead, Percy decided to be a full-time writer. He finished two novels—one was based on his experience at the sanitarium—neither of which he could get published. But he kept at it, and his novel The Moviegoer (1961) came out when he was 45. A year later it won the National Book Award. Percy published five more novels and many essays.
In 1976 Percy was a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans when a woman called him, asking him to read her son's manuscript. He felt guilty turning her down—the woman's son had committed suicide in part because of his despair over not being able to find a publisher for his novel—so Percy agreed, and was so impressed that he conspired to get it published. The Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, went on to win a Pulitzer.
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