Nov. 15, 2014

Saturday at the Canal

by Gary Soto

I was hoping to be happy by seventeen.
School was a sharp check mark in the roll book,
An obnoxious tuba playing at noon because our team
Was going to win at night. The teachers were
Too close to dying to understand. The hallways
Stank of poor grades and unwashed hair. Thus,
A friend and I sat watching the water on Saturday,
Neither of us talking much, just warming ourselves
By hurling large rocks at the dusty ground
And feeling awful because San Francisco was a postcard
On a bedroom wall. We wanted to go there,
Hitchhike under the last migrating birds
And be with people who knew more than three chords
On a guitar. We didn't drink or smoke,
But our hair was shoulder length, wild when
The wind picked up and the shadows of
This loneliness gripped loose dirt. By bus or car,
By the sway of train over a long bridge,
We wanted to get out. The years froze
As we sat on the bank. Our eyes followed the water,
White -tipped but dark underneath, racing out of town.

"Saturday at the Canal" by Gary Soto from Home Course in Religion. © Chronicle Books, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (1887). She's particularly well known for her giant paintings of flowers, though she once said, "I only paint them because they're cheaper than models and they don't move." On a trip to Taos, New Mexico, O'Keeffe grew to love the desert, which she called "the faraway." She felt that the thin, dry air enabled her to see farther, and she was awed by the seemingly infinite space that surrounded her. She would devote much of the rest of her career to painting desert scenery.

O'Keeffe said: "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life — and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

It's the birthday of columnist Franklin Pierce Adams (books by this author), born Franklin Leopold Adams in Chicago in 1881. He started his newspaper career in 1903, at the Chicago Journal. He wrote a weather column and, later, a humor column called "A Little about Everything." His column "The Conning Tower," syndicated in several New York papers beginning in 1914, and signed with his initials "F.P.A." made him one of the most-quoted columnists during its long run. He occasionally featured the work of other writers in his column, including Edna St. Vincent Millay, Groucho Marx, and Robert Benchley. "The Conning Tower" is credited with launching the careers of Dorothy Parker and James Thurber after Adams featured their verse. Parker dedicated Not So Deep as a Well, her 1936 poetry collection, to F.P.A. and said, "He raised me from a couplet."

Adams wrote: "Years ago we discovered the exact point, the dead center of middle age. It occurs when you are too young to take up golf and too old to rush up to the net."

It's the birthday of American poet Ted Berrigan (books by this author), born in Providence, Rhode Island (1934). He was part of the second-generation New York School of Poets, which included Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, and Jim Carroll. He earned his master's degree at the University of Tulsa in 1962, but he returned his diploma as soon as he got it, explaining that he was the "master of no art." He returned the diploma as part of a road trip he took from New York to New Orleans with Dick Gallup, Joe Brainard, and Ron Padgett.

Berrigan had several "errands" to run on this road trip, of which returning his diploma was only one. He also stopped by the Library of Congress to see if they had a copy of his first collection, A Lily for My Love (1959). They did — and Berrigan stole it and destroyed it, because he was embarrassed by his earlier work. As a result, The Sonnets, which he published in 1964, is officially his first book, and it's the book that made his reputation as a poet.

It was on this same trip that he met 19-year-old Sandra Alper. They were married six days later and, in an attempt to have the marriage annulled, Alper's parents committed her to a mental institution. Berrigan went back to New York, but he wrote her letters almost every day, and two months later, he helped her escape the asylum. "I think that all the choirs of heaven and all the saints rejoiced," he wrote to her, "when we made our marriage vows in the park in New Orleans when you first looked at me seriously, and I first touched your arm. Your father and mother have forgotten that kind of truth. All the people around you have forgotten it." The marriage didn't last the decade, but the letters are collected in a book called Dear Sandy, Hello (2010).

Berrigan married again in 1972, to the poet Alice Notley, and the two of them were active members of the poetry scene in Chicago and New York City. Ted Berrigan died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1983; Notley and their sons, Anselm and Edmund, collected all his poems — published and unpublished — into a single volume in 2005.

On this date in 1959, four members of the Clutter family were murdered in the little town of Holcomb, Kansas. The patriarch, Herb Clutter, was a well-respected and upstanding member of the community, and his family — clean-cut and wholesome — seemed to embody the American ideal; the crime was so shocking that it warranted a mention in The New York Times. The 300-word article caught the eye of Truman Capote, who saw in it the seed of what he called a "nonfiction novel." He traveled to Holcomb with fellow author Nelle Harper Lee to investigate the crime. The locals didn't know quite what to make of the cosmopolitan and flamboyantly gay Capote; as Lee later described it, "Those people had never seen anything like Truman — he was like someone coming off the moon." She quietly went about the business of gaining the townspeople's trust, and the two authors conducted thousands of pages of interviews; once the killers were caught, Capote spent years talking to them as well. The resulting book, In Cold Blood (1965), was first published as a four-part serial in The New Yorker, and it became a landmark in the true crime genre. It also became an early example of what came to be called "New Journalism" in the 1960s and '70s: a combination of in-depth reportage with literary techniques borrowed from fiction.

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