May 20, 2014
In a Country None of Us Called Home
I don't remember what city
we were in. Barbara and I ate
something in a restaurant
I can't name, sat at a table
near two women we'd never met,
then saw again later
at a play I don't recall.
I'm uncertain how it happened
we left the crowded theatre
beside them, the four of us bunched
on a corner fanning for a cab.
Then the one in a striped dress
put two fingers into her mouth
and shrilled a piercer, the kind
that cuts street lamps in two.
It turned out we wanted
the same hotel and shared the ride.
Barbara asked her to teach us
how to whistle. Knee to knee,
the way you sometimes wish everyone
in the world could sit, our mouths
wide open, we laughed like old friends,
chins and fingers wet with spit.
On this day in 1946, English-born poet W.H. Auden (books by this author) became a U.S. citizen. Auden began writing poetry in high school, studied at Oxford, and made friends with other writers, including Cecil Day-Lewis and Christopher Isherwood. He published Poems (1930), a collection of poetry that brought him renown as a writer.
He traveled widely during the following years, visiting Germany, Iceland, and China. He served in the Spanish Civil War, but was so disturbed by the destruction of Roman Catholic churches that he returned to England. He married Thomas Mann's daughter, Erika, in 1935 to help her escape Nazi Germany, though the two had never met. Much of his work during this time focused on political unrest and economic issues.
The central focus of Auden's work switched from politics to religion when he moved to the United States in 1939. It was also in the U.S. that he met his lover Chester Kallman. While their sexual relationship only lasted two years, they remained friends and occasional housemates for the rest of their lives. Auden dedicated two collections of poetry to Kallman.
Between 1940 and 1941, he shared a house in New York with other artists, including the writer Carson McCullers and the composer Benjamin Britten. He also began reading Soren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr and his interest in Christianity deepened. He joined the Episcopal Church in 1940, returning to a religious tradition he left behind as a young boy.
He volunteered to go back to England and serve in the army when war broke out, but was told that, at 32, he was too old. He taught English at the University of Michigan, was drafted into the U.S. Army but dismissed on medical grounds, received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1942-43 but didn't use it. He taught at Swarthmore between 1942 and 1945. He visited Germany after the war to study the effects of the Allied bombing on German morale. He returned to Manhattan, worked as a freelance writer, lectured at The New School, and taught occasionally at Bennington and Smith.
On this date in 1609, publisher Thomas Thorpe made an entry in the Stationer's Register that said: Entred for his copie under the handes of master Wilson and master Lownes Wardenes a booke called Shakespeares sonnettes, and soon after, Shakespeare's sonnets were published (books by this author). There were no copyright laws during Shakespeare's time, and these may have been published without Shakespeare's consent. The manuscript is full of errors and appears to be incomplete, so some scholars think that it may be an early draft. Thomas Thorpe himself had an unsavory reputation, and was rumored to hang around scriveners—people who could read and write and hired out their services—looking for the opportunity to steal manuscripts. Regardless of how this edition came to print, we're lucky that it did; had it not, it's likely that only two of Shakespeare's sonnets would survive today.
It's the birthday of the author who's been called "the Shakespeare of the novel": Honoré de Balzac (books by this author), born in Tours, France (1799). He studied law at his father's insistence, but he preferred to write or pursue a variety of get-rich-quick schemes. He was a printer's nightmare: he would continue to change and expand his novels, even after they had been typeset, so they would have to be redone at great expense to the author. He was deeply in debt much of the time, and wrote for 14 to 16 hours a day to keep ahead of his creditors. He often wore a white dressing gown, and downed cup after cup of strong, black coffee. In one three-year period, he produced more than 20 works.
The product of all that work was a vast series—more than 90 novels and novellas—that he called La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy). He considered himself "the secretary of French society," and was so thorough that Oscar Wilde once said, "The 19th century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac."
The Krakatoa volcano in the Sunda Strait of Indonesia began erupting on this date in 1883. A German ship, the Elizabeth, was sailing past the island and reported seeing a column of smoke and ash rising some seven miles into the sky above the mountain. The activity continued for the next few months; locals held festivals to celebrate the volcano's rumbling and spewing and occasional fiery bursts. But on August 26, a series of explosions blew the mountain—and the island—apart. Sea water had gotten into the magma chamber, and when it came into contact with the molten lava, it was like cold water hitting a red-hot skillet. The resulting explosion was heard in Sri Lanka, 4,500 miles away; the tsunami it caused rose to 130 feet and killed over 36,000 people.
Krakatoa spawned a volcanic offspring before it blew up. Anak Krakatau, "child of Krakatoa," began to rise out of the sea in 1927. Today, it's about half the size of the original volcano, but it's growing every day. It's been spewing smoke, lava, and molten ash for the last several years.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®