Oct. 21, 2014

I Think Constantly of Those Who Were Truly Great

by Michael Blumenthal

and, to be perfectly honest, it bums me out.
So many great ones! —libidinal heroes,
idealists, warrior-chieftains, revolutionaries,
fabulists of all sorts, even the great Irish pig farmers
and Armenian raisin growers —and who,
I ask myself, am I by comparison? Calmed
by Valium, urged on by Viagra, uplifted
by Prozac, I go about my daily rounds,
a quotidian member of the quotidian hierarchy,
a Perseus with neither a war nor a best friend,
and sink to the depths of despair
on the broken wings of my own mundanity.

If only some god had given me greatness,
I surely would have made something of it—
perhaps a loftier, more humble poem than this,
or some übermenschliche gesture that would reveal
my superiority to the ordinary beings and things
of this world. But here I am now, one of
the earth's mere Sancho Panzas, leading
those heroic others through the world on their
magnificent horses, merely turning the page, dreaming
my own small deeds into their magnificent arms.

"I Think Constantly of Those Who Were Truly Great" by Michael Blumenthal, from No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012. © Etruscan Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (books by this author), born in Ottery St. Mary, England (1772). He was the youngest of 14 children, precocious and introverted. He studied at Cambridge, but he struggled there, and dropped out to join the cavalry. He did as poorly as a soldier as he had as a student, and his brothers ended up getting him discharged by reason of insanity.

At Cambridge, Coleridge struck up an intense friendship with the poet Robert Southey, and the two men devised a plan to move to Pennsylvania and start a utopian community. Marriage was key to this utopia, so when Southey got engaged, Coleridge married the sister of Southey's fiancée, but they had a deeply unhappy marriage. Then Southey abandoned the utopia idea and decided to become a lawyer instead. Coleridge was devastated. He wrote to Southey: "You have left a large void in my heart — I know no man big enough to fill it." Shortly after that, Coleridge made a pilgrimage to visit the poet William Wordsworth. The Wordsworths were outside gardening, and they looked up to see an excited figure jump over their fence and literally run toward them through the vegetables. Coleridge and Wordsworth became close friends, and both families moved to the village of Grasmere to be near each other. The two men went for daily walks over the hills, discussing poetry, and together they wrote the book Lyrical Ballads (1798),which included Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" and Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Between the fall of 1797 and the spring of 1798, a period when he saw Wordsworth daily and smoked a lot of opium, Coleridge wrote his most famous poems: "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Kubla Khan," "Christabel," and "Frost at Midnight."

He said, "A great poet [...] must have the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the leaves that strew the forest, the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child."

And, "I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry: that is, Prose — words in their best order; Poetry — the best words in the best order."

It was on this date in 1520 that the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first entered the strait that would bear his name. He had set sail from Seville more than a year before, leading a fleet of five ships and 270 men. His goal was to accomplish what Columbus had failed to do 30 years earlier: find a navigable route from Europe to the Spice Islands that didn't involve a long detour around the southern tip of Africa. The spice trade made up a huge part of the world economy; cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and black pepper were highly sought after for seasoning and food preservation, but they didn't grow well in the European climate. Spain and Portugal were racing to gain mastery of the trade routes to the South Pacific, where the spices were plentiful. Up to this point, Europeans had reached the Spice Islands by sailing east, down around the Cape of Good Hope. Portugal dominated this route in the early 1500s. Magellan was Portuguese by birth, but he renounced his nationality and sailed under a Spanish flag after the Portuguese king repeatedly refused his services.

Magellan headed west from Seville, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, quelled a mutiny, and lost a ship. When he reached Brazil, he turned left, and headed south along the coast until he reached a deep-water strait that separated the continent of South America from Tierra del Fuego. He followed the waterway — which he named the Strait of All Saints — for 373 cold and treacherous miles, and emerged on the other side. He was the first European to enter the Mar Pacifico, as he dubbed it, from the east.

Magellan's fleet continued on to Guam and then the Philippines, where Magellan was killed during a skirmish between two of the islands. Two of his original five ships eventually reached the Spice Islands without him, and though the western route ended up being too dangerous to replace the original spice route, Europe gained a much greater knowledge of that part of the world. Even though Magellan is credited with being the first person to circumnavigate the globe, he did it in two separate ways — east from Europe to the Spice Islands, and then west from Europe to the Philippines — and didn't technically complete the voyage. It was actually Magellan's slave, Enrique, who was the first person to sail around the world in one direction. Enrique was born in the Philippines, sailed west to Europe, and continued west with Magellan 10 years later to return to the place of his birth.

Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was published on this day in 1940 (books by this author). It's about an American teacher, Robert Jordan, who volunteers to go fight in the Spanish Civil War and, after being wounded in battle, contemplates shooting himself to end the pain. But when the enemy comes into sight, Jordan delays their approach so that his own comrades can escape to safety. And then he dies.

It's the birthday of Ursula K. LeGuin (books by this author), born in Berkeley, California (1929). She grew up in an academic family, and married a professor. When she was in her early 30s, she was trying to make her way as a writer, working at night after her two young children were in bed. Her poems were accepted regularly, but her fiction was rejected over and over — editors found it hard to label. In 1962, she finally got two works of fiction published: one in a literary journal, which paid her in copies of the magazine, and the second in Fantastic, the pulp science fiction magazine, which paid her $30. She decided that if science fiction was what paid, it was what she would write.

During the next five years, she published three science fiction novels. Then she wrote a novel about a planet of androgynous beings, who choose a gender briefly once a month, and live in a society that has never engaged in war. She was unsure whether she would even be able to publish her new novel. She said: "Science fiction in 1968 wasn't about women. It was about men. It was a man's world. I felt I was taking a huge risk as it was, presenting a largely male readership with these weirdly re-gendered people. I thought the guys would hate it. I was wrong." The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) was a great success, winning both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, the two big awards for science fiction and fantasy.

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