Tuesday

Nov. 19, 2013

Historic Shirt

by Mark Halliday

Ran into Alyssa and Todd and Alyssa said "I like your shirt"
and I laughed because it's obviously very old and she said
"But it looks so soft and comfortable" and I agreed
and Alyssa said "And that little heart is so sweet"
referring to the red velvet heart sewn on the left shoulder
so I said "There's a lot of history in that" and then had to explain
that my first wife sewed the heart on this shirt
for her boyfriend before me—and Alyssa said
"Wow, that seems symbolic of something!" and Todd laughed
and I said "It probably means that I refuse to let go of
any trace of the past" and Alyssa said "Or maybe it means
you refuse to be oppressed by the past" and I said
"That sounds good" and Todd sort of half smiled and Alyssa said
"You accept the past so it can't then turn around and bite you"
and for a half second this idea sparkled alarmingly in the air
and then we all smiled in order to let the scene end

and Alyssa walked away arm in arm with her new husband
to go on making the life that would be their past together.

"Historic Shirt" by Mark Halliday, from Thresherphobe. © The University of Chicago Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of best-selling poet Sharon Olds (books by this author), born in San Francisco on this day in 1942. Her collections include Satan Says (1980), The Dead and the Living (1984), The Gold Cell (1987), The Matter of This World (1987), The Sign of Saturn (1991), The Father (1992), The Wellspring (1996), Blood, Tin, Straw (1999), The Unswept Room (2002), Strike Sparks (2004), and One Secret Thing (2008). Since she began publishing in the 1980s, her poems have appeared in more than 100 poetry anthologies.

She grew up in Berkeley, California, where she was brought up as a "hellfire Calvinist," she said. Though a nonbeliever from a young age, she said that she was greatly influenced by the "great literary art and bad literary art" of her church. Psalms were great art, she said, and hymns were not. She said, "The four-beat was something that was part of my consciousness before I was born."

She went across the Bay to Stanford for college, where she studied a bunch of different languages, including French, German, Greek, Italian, and Middle English. And then she moved to New York City to do a Ph.D. in literature at Columbia. She wrote her own poems, but she wasn't happy with them. She felt as though she were imitating the poets she studied for grad school. She was 30 years old, desperately wanting to find her own voice, and had what she calls a "religious experience" wherein she made a deal with the devil on the steps of Columbia's library. She once described it like this:

"I said to free will or the pagan god of making things, or whoever, let me write my own stuff. I'll give up everything I've learned, anything, if you'll let me write my poems. They don't have to be any good, but just mine." It was in the syntax of her prayer that came an epiphany. She explained: "What happened was enjambment. Writing over the end of the line and having a noun starting each line — it had some psychological meaning to me, like I was protecting things by hiding them. Poems started pouring out of me and Satan was in a lot of them. Also, toilets."

She started going to writing workshops at the local YMCA, and eventually she published her first collection of poems, called Satan Says (1980). She later realized that she wrote in the structure of the hymns of her youth, which is what felt comfortable to her, but that she "had to ride over the end of the line" to craft her poems.

When her first book was published, she was a few years shy of 40. Within a decade, she'd released several highly acclaimed, best-selling collections, and she'd also become the director of the Graduate Writing Program at NYU. She was so busy that she decided for one year she would not watch TV, read a newspaper or book, or go hear music, just so that she'd have enough time to do her job and keep writing poetry.

She was poet laureate of New York from 1998 to 2000. She still teaches creative writing at NYU, and she writes poems from her apartment on the Upper West Side, in a rocking chair with a view of the Hudson River. She uses different colored ballpoint pens to compose poems, and sometimes puts stickers on the pages of her drafts, which remind her of the stained glass windows of her religious youth. She said that she loves "odd" or "strange" words. She said: "By the time I see that it's a poem, it's almost written in my head somewhere. It's as if there's someone inside of me who perceives order and beauty — and disorder. And who wants to make little copies. Who wants to put together something that will bear some relationship to the vision or memory or experience or story or idea or dream or whatever."

She once described poetry as coming from her lungs, and said that to her, "Poetry is so physical, the music of it and the movement of thought." She said that over the years, she has noticed that ideas for poems will come to her when she's dancing or running, and that these ideas seem to come to mind with the act of breathing deeply, with the intake of oxygen. She said, "Suddenly you're remembering something that you haven't thought of for years."

Her advice to young poets is this: "Take your vitamins. Exercise. Just work to love yourself as much as you can — not more than the people around you but not so much less."

She once said: "I'm not asking a poem to carry a lot of rocks in its pockets. Just being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion."

On this date in 1863, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was four and a half months after the devastating battle, and it was a foggy, cold morning. Lincoln arrived about 10 a.m. Around noon, the sun came out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. A military band played, a local preacher offered a long prayer, and the headlining orator, Edward Everett, spoke for more than two hours. Everett described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once. When Everett finished, Lincoln spoke.

Now considered one of the greatest speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address ran for just over two minutes, fewer than 300 words, and only 10 sentences. It was so brief, in fact, that many of the 15,000 people that attended the ceremony didn't even realize that the president had spoken, because a photographer setting up his camera had momentarily distracted them. The next day, Everett told Lincoln, "I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."

There are several versions of the speech, and five different manuscript copies; they're all slightly different, so there's some argument about which is the "authentic" version. Lincoln gave copies to both of his private secretaries, and the other three versions were re-written by the president some time after he made the speech. The Bliss Copy, named for Colonel Alexander Bliss, is the only copy that was signed and dated by Lincoln, and it's generally accepted as the official version for that reason. The Bliss text, below, is inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

"But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

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

 









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