Thursday

Sep. 19, 2013

Child on Top of a Greenhouse

by Theodore Roethke

The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!

"Child on Top of a Greenhouse" by Theodore Roethke, from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke © Anchor Books, 1974. Reprinted by permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1796, President George Washington's farewell address was printed in the Daily American Advertiser as an open letter to American citizens. The most famous of all his "speeches," it was never actually spoken; a week after its publication in this Philadelphia newspaper, it was reprinted in papers all over the country.

The address was a collaborative effort that took Washington months to finalize, incorporating the notes that James Madison had prepared four years prior when Washington intended to retire after his first term, as well as numerous edits from Alexander Hamilton and a critique from John Jay. Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were accustomed to writing collectively; together they had published the Federalist Papers, 85 newspaper articles published throughout the 13 states to introduce and explain their proposal for a Constitution.

Now only eight years old, the Constitution was in danger, Washington feared, of falling prey to the whims of popular sentiment. In 6,086 words, his address seeks to encourage the nation to respect and maintain the Constitution, warning that a party system — not yet the governmental standard operating procedure — would reduce the nation to infighting. He urged Americans to relinquish their personal or geographical interests for the good of the national interest, warning that "designing men" would try to distract them from their larger common views by highlighting their smaller, local differences. "You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection," he wrote.

Washington also feared interference by foreign governments, and as such extolled the benefits of a stable public credit to be used sparingly, recommending avoiding debt by "cultivating peace" and "by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned." Although he conceded that "the execution of these maxims" — or, in layman's terms, balancing the budget — was the responsibility of the government, Washington wagged a finger at individual citizens too, reminding them that "it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant ..."

It's the birthday of William Golding (books by this author), born in St. Columb Minor, Cornwall (1911). He went to Oxford, published a book of poems, and became a teacher. Then he joined the navy and served as a lieutenant on a rocket launcher. He was faced with a huge ethical decision when he learned that he would have to take the ship across a minefield in order to be on time for the D-Day operations. He couldn't decide whether to risk the lives of his men or the lives of all those participating in D-Day who needed their help. Finally, he risked it and made it in time. Later, he learned that the minefield wasn't real — it was put on a map to fool the Germans. That experience made Golding think about how moral decisions could rest on things that didn't even exist. He thought a lot about ethical dilemmas, and about the horror of war, and he wrote a novel about a group of good English schoolboys whose plane crashes on a desert island, and who descend into the extremes of savage behavior. For the title of the novel, he translated the word "Beelzebub" from Hebrew into English: "Lord of the Flies." The novel was rejected more than a dozen times, but when Lord of the Flies finally came out in 1954, it became a classic.

It was on this day in 1819 that 24-year-old John Keats (books by this author) wrote the ode "To Autumn." It is one of the most anthologized poems in the English language. He wrote to his friend: "Somehow a stubble plain looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm — this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it."

Keats was despairing about that year of his poetic life. In November, he wrote to his brother, "Nothing could have in all its circumstances fallen out worse for me than the last year has done, or could be more damping to my poetical talent."

But these days, Keats scholars call 1819 the "Living Year," the "Great Year," or the "Fertile Year." Keats had written almost all his great poetry during that year, including a series of odes during that spring and summer, among them "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode to a Grecian Urn," and "Ode to Psyche." "To Autumn" was the last of these odes. Keats died from tuberculosis less than two years later, at age 25.

"To Autumn," which the critic Harold Bloom called "as close to perfect as any shorter poem in the English Language," begins:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core

It is the birthday of essayist and editor Roger Angell (books by this author), born in New York City in 1920. His parents — Katharine Sergeant and Ernest Angell — were two very strong personalities, and their marriage was doomed from its early days. Angell later wrote, "What a marriage that must have been, stuffed with sex and brilliance and psychic murder, and imparting a lasting unease."

He grew up with The New Yorker: when he was five years old, his mother became the magazine's very first fiction editor, and when she eventually left her husband and children a few years later, it was to marry the magazine's now legendary essayist, E. B. White.

Angell stayed with his father, Ernest, a lawyer who later became head of the American Civil Liberties Union, but the boy followed the literary, rather than the legal, path. At the age of 12 or 13, he had memorized every cartoon caption The New Yorker had published to date: eight years' worth. He published some stories and some personal narrative essays, and went to work for The New Yorker himself: first as a contributing writer in 1944 and later as fiction editor (1956). He's still a senior editor at the magazine, and over the course of his career, he has edited the stories of John Updike, Donald Barthelme, and Vladimir Nabokov. He also contributes essays from time to time.

In 1962, he told editor William Shawn about baseball spring training; Shawn had never heard of it. He sent Angell to Florida on assignment, and Angell wrote about the young players on the field and the old folks in the stands. He said, "I wasn't sure enough of myself to go into the press box or talk to the players." It was the first time Angell wrote about baseball in a professional capacity, and it was the start of a lifelong association with the sport. "Sports writers weren't supposed to be fans," Angell later said. "I would write in the first person, about my own emotions, which you were not supposed to do." But that suited Shawn just fine. Angell told New York Magazine: "People used to laugh at me because my World Series pieces came so late, sometimes after Thanksgiving. Shawn didn't have a sense of deadline ... Shawn thought, Everybody knows what the news is; now tell us something else about it."

He loves the sport, but he's not idealistic or sentimental about it. "I've been accused once in a while of being a poet laureate [of baseball], which has always sort of pissed me off," Angell told Salon in 2000. "That's not what I was trying to do. I think people who said that really haven't read me, because what I've been doing a lot of times is reporting. It's not exactly like everybody else's reporting. I'm reporting about myself, as a fan as well as a baseball writer.

"And I am a baseball writer now. I really have learned a lot about the game after all this time. I don't know everything. But I know a few things. I know what to look for. It's a great game for writers because it's just the right pace. You can watch the game and keep score and look around and take notes. Now and then you even have time to have an idea, which in many sports you don't have room for."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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