Jul. 11, 2013

If I Were a Dog

by Richard Shelton

I would trot down this road sniffing
on one side and then the other
peeing a little here and there
wherever I felt the urge
having a good time what the hell
saving some because it's a long road

but since I'm not a dog
I walk straight down the road
trying to get home before dark

if I were a dog and I had a master
who beat me I would run away
and go hungry and sniff around
until I found a master who loved me
I could tell by his smell and I
would lick his face so he knew

or maybe it would be a woman
I would protect her we could go
everywhere together even down this
dark road and I wouldn't run from side
to side sniffing I would always
be protecting her and I would stop
to pee only once in awhile

sometimes in the afternoon we could
go to the park and she would throw
a stick I would bring it back to her

each time I put the stick at her feet
I would say this is my heart
and she would say I will make it fly
but you must bring it back to me
I would always bring it back to her
and to no other if I were a dog

"If I Were a Dog" by Richard Shelton, from The Last Person to Hear Your Voice. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the essayist and children's writer E.B. White (books by this author), born Elwin Brooks White in Mount Vernon, New York (1899). After college, he had a few gigs as a journalist, taking time in between to travel across the country with a friend in a Model T and to work on a cruise ship in Alaska. Then he moved back to New York, and he picked up The New Yorker the year it came out, liked it, and sent in some pieces. He was a regular contributor and a couple of years later became a staff member. He even married Katharine Angell, an editor at the magazine.

They moved to a farmhouse in rural Maine. White kept writing for The New Yorker, but he also wrote about his experience with rural life. He especially liked to write about the animals he kept on his farm.

E.B. White had 18 nephews and nieces, and they were always asking him to tell stories. He wasn't very good at thinking up stories on the spot, so he started writing a children's book so that he would always have a story on hand. He had gotten the idea years before — as he remembered it, "I took a train to Virginia, got out, walked up and down in the Shenandoah Valley in the beautiful springtime, then returned to New York by rail. While asleep in an upper berth, I dreamed of a small character who had the features of a mouse, was nicely dressed, courageous, and questing. When I woke up, being a journalist and thankful for small favors, I made a few notes about this mouse-child — the only fictional figure ever to have honored and disturbed my sleep." So he slowly collected more and more stories about the mouse-child, and after about 15 years he had a real manuscript, and his wife suggested that he send it to a publisher. He did, and that book was Stuart Little (1945), which begins: "When Mrs. Frederick C. Little's second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse."

After a young pig he was raising got sick and he failed to save its life, he wrote one of his most famous essays, "Death of a Pig." Then he wrote a children's novel in which the pig doesn't have to die: Charlotte's Web (1952). It's the story of a runt pig named Wilbur who is saved the first time by a little girl and the second time by a wise spider, and it was inspired by White's observations of the animals on his farm, including the spiders. It is one of the best-selling children's books of all time.

E.B. White said: "I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day."

It's the birthday of the literary critic Harold Bloom (books by this author), born in New York City (1930). His parents were Jewish immigrants, and his first language was Yiddish, but he fell in love with English poetry and read it before he had ever heard English spoken aloud. He started reading Walt Whitman and Hart Crane when he was eight years old. He went on to become one of the most influential literary critics in the country. He is one of the last critics who argues that great literature is a product of genius, and that we shouldn't read to understand history or politics or culture, but to understand the human condition.

Harold Bloom, who said: "In the finest critics one hears the full cry of the human. They tell one why it matters to read."

It's the birthday of the artist best known for a painting of his mother: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, born in Lowell, Massachusetts (1834). His most famous painting was titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), but it's more commonly known as "Whistler's Mother." It's a portrait of Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler in a black dress, seated in profile against a gray wall. When Whistler's scheduled model didn't show up for a sitting, he decided to paint his mother instead.

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