Oct. 27, 2013

Neighbors in October

by David Baker

All afternoon his tractor pulls a flat wagon
with bales to the barn, then back to the waiting
chopped field. It trails a feather of smoke.
Down the block we bend with the season:
shoes to polish for a big game,
storm windows to batten or patch.
And how like a field is the whole sky now
that the maples have shed their leaves, too.
It makes us believers—stationed in groups,
leaning on rakes, looking into space. We rub blisters
over billows of leaf smoke. Or stand alone,
bagging gold for the cold days to come.

"Neighbors in October" by David Baker, from The Truth About Small Towns. © University of Arkansas Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Dylan Thomas (books by this author), born in Swansea, Wales (1914). His father was a failed poet who worked as a schoolmaster, and Dylan grew up terrified of his violent mood swings. The only time he seemed to calm down, and the only time Thomas enjoyed his company, was when he was reading Shakespeare aloud. After graduation, Thomas got a job at a newspaper, but he was an awful reporter. He spent all his time at pool halls and cafés, and when he did turn in stories, the facts were all wrong. One of his co-workers said, "[He was] a bombastic adolescent provincial Bohemian with a thick-knotted artist's tie made out of his sister's scarf ... a gabbing, ambitious, mock-tough, pretentious young man."

Thomas became known as a rowdy drinker and late-night storyteller, and eventually quit his newspaper job. He lived in friends' apartments, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, surviving day to day by drinking beer and eating cake. He spent much of World War II in London, where he witnessed the bombing raids, and began to feel as though the world of his childhood in rural Wales had been lost forever. After the war was over, he published the collection Deaths and Entrances (1946), which contained one of his first great poems about lost childhood, "Fern Hill."

At the beginning of the 1950s, Thomas gave a series of readings in the United States. He told people, "[I have come to America] to continue my lifelong search for naked women in wet mackintoshes." Despite his notorious reputation as a raving drunk, he won everyone over with his compelling readings of his own poetry and deep sonorous voice. In the last years of his life, Thomas worked on the verse play Under Milk Wood (1954), but he spent most of his time writing letters to ask friends for money and to apologize for being so irresponsible. In one letter, he wrote, "After all sorts of upheavals, evasions, promises, procrastinations, I write, very fondly, and fawning slightly, a short inaccurate summary of those events which caused my never writing a word." From 1946 to 1953, he wrote only nine poems, but he filled his letters to friends with poetry. In one letter, he wrote: "The heat! It comes round corners at you like an animal with windmill arms. As I enter my bedroom, it stuns, thuds, throttles, spins me round by my soaking hair, lays me flat as a mat and bat-blind on my boiled and steaming bed. We keep oozing from the ice-cream counters to the chemist's. Cold beer is bottled God."

In an effort to support his family, he went on a fourth reading tour of the United States in 1953, but he was hospitalized with alcohol poisoning just as the tour began. He told his doctor, "I've had 18 straight whiskeys. I think that's the record." He died a few days later. One of the last poems he wrote before his death was a poem about his dying father, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" (1952). It begins, "Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day, / Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

It's the birthday of the poet Sylvia Plath (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1932). She was a straight-A student, got into Smith on a scholarship, and won all the prizes for writing contests. She wrote cheerful letters home to her mother about all her successes. But while she was in college, she began to suffer from bipolar disorder, and she started keeping a journal about her growing mood swings. She wrote, "It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative — whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it."

She went to England on a Fulbright scholarship, and it was there that she met her future husband, the poet Ted Hughes. She spent the years of their marriage helping support his career — typing his manuscripts and writing letters to editors for him. He encouraged her to write her own poetry, but she didn't have much time after caring for the children and working part time as a teacher. When she published her first book of poems, The Colossus (1960), it got mixed reviews, and she fell into despair at the idea that she would never amount to anything.

Plath's marriage with Hughes broke up in 1962. Living alone with her two children, she began to wake up every morning at 4:00 a.m. and write until the children woke up. She'd always been a slow, painstaking writer, but in the fall of 1962 she developed a kind of nursery rhyme style, finishing one or two poems every day.

At the end of October, during which she had finished 30 new poems, she wrote to her mother, "I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name." But when Plath sent her new poems out for publication, the editors of various magazines rejected them as too strange and disturbing.

That winter in England was one of the coldest on record, and Plath spent the coldest days cooped up in the house with her children, suffering from a fever. On the morning of February 11, she committed suicide.

Many people learned about Plath only after her death, reading her poems in obituaries and news stories. In the next couple of years, her poems appeared regularly in magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. In 1965, a collection of poems called Ariel was published posthumously and received major reviews in all the big papers and magazines. In Britain, Ariel sold 15,000 copies in its first 10 months, and Plath's popularity continued to rise. The Bell Jar was finally published in the United States and stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for six months.

Sylvia Plath wrote: "Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."

It's the birthday of novelist and memoirist Maxine Hong Kingston (books by this author), born Maxine Hong in Stockton, California (1940). Her parents were Chinese immigrants who started a laundromat when they came to America. As a little girl, Kingston worked long hours helping wash the clothes with the rest of the family. Her first language was Chinese, and when she started school, she flunked out of kindergarten because she refused to speak.

Growing up, she loved listening to her parents tell stories about her ancestors, and she noticed that the stories changed with each telling, because they were part truth and part fiction. After studying at the University of California at Berkeley, she decided that she wanted to write a book about her family, and she used the same mix of fact and imagination, telling the same stories from multiple angles.

That book was Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976), which helped inspire a whole generation of Asian-American writers. It begins, "'You must not tell anyone,' my mother said, 'what I am about to tell you.'"

Her latest book is called I Love a Broad Margin to My Life (2011).

Today is the birthday of the 26th president of the United States: Theodore Roosevelt Jr., born in New York City on this date in 1858. He was born into privilege, but he was a sickly child and suffered from asthma, so he spent much of his time indoors. When his doctors discovered he had a weak heart, they advised him to live a quiet life and take some kind of a desk job that wouldn't prove too strenuous or stressful. But he dreamed of becoming a naturalist and an adventurer, and by the time he was a teenager, he had developed a program of rigorous exercise, including boxing and lifting weights.

He worked hard at Harvard and went on to study law at Columbia, but he grew impatient and left his studies in favor of politics, where he enjoyed many early successes. But on Valentine's Day, 1884, both his mother and his wife, Alice, died. Devastated, Roosevelt left behind the world of politics — and his baby daughter — to become a cattle rancher in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory. It would be two years before he returned to the New York political scene.

His political bent was progressive: he fought monopolies, reformed the workplace, regulated industry, and championed immigrants and the middle class. He supported desegregation and women's suffrage. He was serving as vice president under William McKinley when McKinley was assassinated in 1901. At age 42, Roosevelt was the youngest man ever to become president of the United States. And the sickly child had grown up into a man who championed "a life of strenuous endeavor," demanding that everyone around him adopt his now robust and active outdoor lifestyle. He served two terms — from 1901 to 1909 — and then after a few years away, returned to politics, feeling "fit as a bull moose," as he said. His quote gave rise to his Progressive Party's nickname, the "Bull Moose Party." He felt so fit that when he was shot in the chest during an assassination attempt, he continued campaigning for over an hour before seeking help, and he recovered quickly. Although he received the largest number of votes for a third-party candidate in U.S. history, he lost the election.

One of Roosevelt's lasting legacies is the conservation movement. As a young man, he had witnessed the near-eradication of the buffalo in the Dakota Territory, and he realized that action was necessary to preserve the country's natural resources and open spaces. During his presidency, he provided protection for almost 230 million acres of land, creating 150 national forests and five national parks. In 1908, he gave a speech at the Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources, saying: "We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams [...] It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and wisely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children."

Roosevelt's literary inclinations aren't as widely known as his national parks or his reputation as a hale and hearty outdoorsman, but they're unmatched by any other American president. He read voraciously, and quickly; it's said he read an entire book every day before breakfast. He loved poetry; Robert Frost once said, "He was our kind. He quoted poetry to me. He knew poetry."

Roosevelt wrote some three dozen books himself; his first, History of the Naval War of 1812 (1882) was published not long after he graduated from Harvard. In it, he boldly took on — and refuted — many of the accepted interpretations of the war, and he earned respect as a historian at the age of 23. Within two years, the book had sold three editions and was being used as a textbook in some college classrooms. Within five years, it was required reading in the U.S. Navy.

His work spanned a wide array of genres: history, political essay, biography, autobiography, natural science, foreign policy, and philosophy. He began writing when he was nine years old: a paper titled "The Natural History of Insects," which was based on hours of field research conducted by Roosevelt and his young cousins. And his last book, published just after his death in 1919, was a bound collection of warm and witty fatherly advice in the form of 20 years' worth of letters to his children.

He wrote, of his time in the Badlands: "My home ranch-house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking-chairs (what true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?), book in hand — though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and fro, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset."

That weak heart that the doctors discovered in his childhood caught up with him in the end. He died in his sleep, of a coronary embolism, at the age of 60. His son Archie cabled the news: "The old lion is dead."

It was on this day in 1904 that the first rapid transit subway opened in New York City. A hundred thousand New Yorkers spent a nickel on their very first ride. The opening ceremony began with a morning of oratory at City Hall. Then, at precisely 2:35 p.m., the first subway train emerged from City Hall station with Mayor McClellan at the controls. He said, "Now I, as Mayor, in the name of the people, declare the subway open!" The inaugural express took 26 minutes to then arrive at its destination at 145th Street. It opened to the general public at 7 p.m. By the end of the evening, the system had tunneled over 150,000 passengers around the city.

It's still the largest subway system in North America, with 699 miles of main line track. Average daily ridership on the subway is 5.4 million. A total of 1.7 billion people ride the subway every year. Times Square is the busiest station, with 600,000 passing through each day.

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