Jun. 27, 2013

Autobiographia Literaria

by Frank O'Hara

When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.

I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
flew away.

If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out "I am
an orphan."

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!

"Autobiographia Literaria" by Frank O'Hara, from The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara. © Vintage Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Lucille Clifton (books by this author), born in Depew, New York (1936). Her family descended from slaves; her father was a steelworker and her mother worked in a laundry. Her mother, though uneducated, was also a poet. She was once offered the chance to publish her poems, but her husband refused to let her. Clifton wrote about this in her poem "fury":

                 for mama
remember this.
she is standing by
the furnace.
the coals
glisten like rubies.
her hand is crying.
her hand is clutching
a sheaf of papers.
she gives them up.
they burn
jewels into jewels.
her eyes are animals.
each hank of her hair
is a serpent's obedient
she will never recover.
remember. there is nothing
you will not bear
for this woman's sake.

She went to college at Howard and then Fredonia State Teachers College. Her six young children inspired her first volume of poetry, Good Times (1969); the poems also depict urban African-American life. Her second book, Good News About the Earth: New Poems (1972), was a response to the social and political upheavals of the 1960s, and her third, An Ordinary Woman (1974), turned inward to consider her dual role as poet and woman. She also wrote several children's books aimed at raising awareness of black history and culture.

Clifton said, "Poetry is a matter of life, not just a matter of language."

And: "Cleverness gets in the way of creativity. Cleverness is often the easy way, the expected in your work, and I try very hard not to take the easy way out."

It's the birthday of poet Frank O'Hara (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1925). While a student at Harvard, he met the poets John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch and got into writing poetry. They all moved to New York and became vanguards of the New York School, influenced by abstract art and modernism.

O'Hara believed that poems should be improvisational, like action paintings, full of random references to movies and taxies and paintings and garbage. He said: "I don't believe in rhythm, assonance, [any] of that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife, you just run, you don't turn around and shout, 'Give it up! I was a track star.'"

In books such as Oranges (1953), Second Avenue (1960), and Lunch Poems (1964), he wrote about taking walks, hanging out with painters, reading newspapers, and Billie Holiday. He said: "What is happening to me goes into my poems. I don't think my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for anyone else, they are just there in whatever form I can find them."

At the height of his career, he wrote constantly and stuffed his poems into his desk drawers, often forgetting about them. He wrote one of his most famous poems, "Lana Turner Has Collapsed!" while riding the Staten Island ferry to a poetry reading, and he read it that night, an hour after finishing it. Some of his poems only survive because friends copied them down and sent the copies to each other in letters. O'Hara's Collected Poems was brought back into print in 1995.

Frank O'Hara wrote, "oh god it's wonderful/ to get out of bed/ and drink too much coffee/ and smoke too many cigarettes/ and love you so much."

It's the birthday of author and educator Helen Keller (books by this author), born in Tuscumbia, Alabama (1880). She lost her sight and her hearing due to scarlet fever or meningitis when she was 20 months old. After she recovered, she was not only blind and deaf, she'd also become extremely angry. She flew into tantrums at the slightest provocation, kicking, screaming, and biting her family members.

But in spite of her disabilities, her parents could tell she was extremely intelligent. She invented her own simple system of sign language. She could fold laundry and could pick out her favorite outfits. And when she learned how to use a key, she managed to lock her mother in a closet, on purpose.

Helen Keller's parents read about the work that inventor Alexander Graham Bell had recently been doing, teaching deaf people how to speak. He came and met young Helen, and he advised the family to hire a teacher from the Perkins Institution for children with disabilities. The teacher who eventually came to tutor Helen was a woman named Anne Sullivan. The day that Helen Keller met Anne Sullivan for the first time, she knocked out one of Sullivan's front teeth.

But Anne Sullivan stuck with the job. Helen Keller learned to read letters that Anne Sullivan spelled out on her palm, but at first, Helen could only mimic the letters that Sullivan taught her. Then, one day, Anne Sullivan spelled the word "water" on Keller's palm while Keller held her hand in the water from the well. Keller later wrote: "I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me." Within the next few hours, Helen learned 30 new words, and by the end of the month, she'd stopped her temper tantrums.

Within a year of Keller's breakthrough, newspapers all over the United States and Europe were writing about her achievements. When she was eight years old, she met President Cleveland at the White House. She went on to college at Radcliffe, where she wrote her autobiography, The Story of My Life, which came out in 1903.

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  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
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  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
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  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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