Sep. 26, 2014

Elegy for the Giant Tortoises

by Margaret Atwood

Let others pray for the passenger pigeon
the dodo, the whooping crane, the eskimo:
everyone must specialize

I will confine myself to a meditation
upon the giant tortoises
withering finally on a remote island.

I concentrate in subway stations,
in parks, I can't quite see them,
they move to the peripheries of my eyes

but on the last day they will be there;
already the event
like a wave travelling shapes vision:

on the road where I stand they will materialize,
plodding past me in a straggling line
awkward without water

their small heads pondering
from side to side, their useless armour
sadder than tanks and history,

in their closed gaze ocean and sunlight paralysed,
lumbering up the steps, under the archways
toward the square glass altars

where the brittle gods are kept,
the relics of what we have destroyed,
our holy and obsolete symbols.

"Elegy for the Giant Tortoises" by Margaret Atwood, from Selected Poems. © Houghton Mifflin, 1976. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Thomas Stearns — better known as T.S. — Eliot (books by this author), born in St. Louis, Missouri (1888). The poet and essayist wrote a fan letter to Groucho Marx in 1961, and the two corresponded for three years before finally meeting for dinner at Eliot's London home in 1964. It was an unlikely pairing, since the dry and serious Eliot had written some notoriously anti-Semitic opinions in the 1930s, and the Jewish comedian's stock-in-trade was skewering stuffed shirts. They bantered back and forth in a friendly enough way, but there seemed to be an underlying tension between the lines. Eliot once wrote: "The picture of you in the newspapers saying that ... you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously I am now someone of importance." And Marx, after reminding the poet that his name was Tom, not T.S., wrote, "All male cats are named Tom — unless they have been fixed." The dinner party, which was only described in a letter from Groucho to his brother Gummo, was tense and awkward, and if Marx and Eliot ever corresponded again after that, the letters have been lost.

Today Eliot is best known for his poems "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915) and "The Waste Land" (1922). In his 1948 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature, T.S. Eliot said: "Partly through his influence on other poets, partly through translation ... partly through readers of his language who are not themselves poets, the poet can contribute toward understanding between peoples ... I stand before you, not on my own merits, but as a symbol, for a time, of the significance of poetry."

Today is the birthday of the novelist and essayist Jane Smiley (books by this author), born in Los Angeles, California (1949). Her parents divorced when she was young, and she went to live with her journalist mother on the outskirts of St. Louis, where she soaked up the stories of her extended Midwestern family. She eventually attended Vassar and began writing while teaching English at Iowa State University. In the last 30 years, she has written about everything from horse training and the Iraq War to motherhood and a distant relative obsessed with discrediting Einstein.

In 1992, Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Thousand Acres, which begins, "At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute." Her most recent book, Gee Whiz (2013), is a young adult novel narrated by a curious gray horse.

Smiley said: "Sometimes, a novel is like a train: the first chapter is a comfortable seat in an attractive carriage, and the narrative speeds up. But there are other sorts of trains, and other sorts of novels. They rush by in the dark; passengers framed in the lighted windows are smiling and enjoying themselves."

It's the birthday of composer George Gershwin, born Jacob Gershowitz, in Brooklyn, New York (1898). He was born to Russian immigrants and spent his childhood in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. As a young boy, he was more athletic and sociable than he was musical. But he went to work on Tin Pan Alley for the Jerome Remick Company handing out the publishers' newest sheet music to any potential customers who wandered by. He eventually began composing his own songs. At 19, he and a childhood friend, Irving Caesar, wrote a song together called "Swanee." Al Jolson made the song a huge hit, and Gershwin was on his way.

Gershwin wrote Concerto in F (1925), An American in Paris (1928), and the famous folk opera Porgy and Bess (1935). It was based on the book Porgy (1925), by DuBose Heyward. It's the story of black life in a ghetto of Charleston, South Carolina. Gershwin's music was influenced by black spirituals, Jewish chants, ragtime, and classical opera, and his songs include "Summertime," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," and "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'."

Gershwin said: "True music must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans and my time is today."

Today is the birthday of Carl Crow (books by this author), born in Highland, Missouri, in 1883. He was a newspaperman, an author, and an ad man. He also served at various times as a hostage negotiator, a farmer, a mapmaker, and a police sergeant. He first moved to China in 1911 to work as the night editor for the China Press, an American daily. One of the first stories he covered was the uprising that brought down the Qing Dynasty. After a brief absence, Crow returned to China during World War I, sent by the Committee on Public Information to spread pro-American propaganda. His job was to sell a collection of Woodrow Wilson's speeches to Chinese readers. The book became a best-seller.

Crow lived in Shanghai for 25 years, during which time he started the first Western-style advertising agency in China and founded the Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury. He also gathered material for 13 books, about such topics as Confucianism, Chinese culture, and doing business in China. His most popular of these is Four Hundred Million Customers (1937); it received a National Book Award as "Most Original Book of 1937" and prompted many American businessmen to venture into the Chinese market. Unlike a lot of other ex-pats, he didn't ignore or look down on the Chinese people; he admired them and their diligence. He once wrote, "If it is true the devil can only find work for idle hands, then China must be a place of limited satanic opportunities."

Crow, who had been outspokenly anti-Japanese, left Shanghai when the Japanese attacked the city in 1937. He left in much the same way as he had arrived: with only, he said, "the suit that I am wearing, a suitcase and an overcoat."

Here's an excerpt from Crow's book Four Hundred Million Customers, in which he describes elderly Chinese men and their ad-hoc market stalls in which they sell discarded bits and bobs:
"Every fine morning you can see these ancient playboy merchants trudging to their favourite corners carrying their precious cargo with them. There they assemble their stock, carefully separating rusty screws from crooked nails, and there they sit all day in the sun. [...] It is a pleasant life. They see the moving picture of the crowds on the street, pass the time of day with an acquaintance, chatter with competing merchants, and once in a long time they may actually make a sale. [...] But these old merchants do not have to worry about their customers or make any reports on sales volume. A son or a grandson provides them with bed and board and they keep shop for the fun of the thing, just as old gentlemen in other parts of the world play golf or pitch horse shoes or go to offices where they are no longer needed. [...] If that is the way they want to spend their time, their children see that they are allowed to do so, for in China the whims of babies and of old men are always gratified."

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




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