Aug. 20, 2014

The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor


First Song

by Joseph Stroud

That long-ago morning at Ruth's farm
when I hid in the wisteria
and watched hummingbirds. I thought
the ruby or gold that gleamed on their throats
was the honeyed blood of flowers.
They would stick their piercing beaks
into a crown of petals until their heads
disappeared. The blossoms blurred into wings,
and the breathing I heard
was the thin, moving stems of wisteria.
That night, my face pressed against the window,
I looked out into the dark
where the moon drowned in the willows
by the pond. My heart, bloodstone,
turned. That long night, the farm,
those jeweled birds, all these gone years.
The horses standing quiet and huge
in the moon-crossing blackness.

"First Song" by Joseph Stroud, from Of This World. © Copper Canyon Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1940 that Winston Churchill (books by this author) delivered a speech to the House of Commons with the famous line: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." The Battle of Britain was raging, and he was referring to the small group of the Royal Air Force who had successfully held off the much larger Luftwaffe, the German air force.

Churchill wrote all of his own speeches, and he was a gifted orator, but people thought that his vocabulary and style of speaking were old-fashioned. But after the beginning of World War II, Churchill's dramatic rhetoric fit the mood of the country.

His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, served in the Parliament and was a talented debater, famous for making spontaneous speeches. Winston, on the other hand, labored over every speech. He brainstormed, researched, planned out the speech in his head, then dictated it aloud to his secretary. From there, he revised it several times and typed it up in what he called "psalm form." His speeches looked like blank verse poetry on the page, so that the rhythm and pauses were laid out just how he wanted them. Before Churchill delivered a speech, he would practice over and over, sometimes in the bathtub.

It's the birthday of poet Heather McHugh (books by this author), born in San Diego, California (1948). She said: "I have always lived on waterfronts. If you live on the edge of an enormous mountain or an enormous body of water, it's harder to think of yourself as being so important. That seems useful to me, spiritually." She went to Harvard when she was 16 and sold her first poem to The New Yorker a year later. Her books of poetry include Dangers (1977), A World of Difference (1981), Hinge & Sign (1994), and Upgraded to Serious (2009).

It's the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft (books by this author), born Howard Phillips Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island (1890). He wrote science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a genre that during his life was called "weird fiction." He was an only child, and when he was three years old, his father had a nervous breakdown and spent five years in a hospital before he died; he probably had a psychotic disease caused by syphilis. So Lovecraft was raised by his mother, two aunts, and his grandfather, who all lived together.

Lovecraft wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, but they were scattered throughout various pulp magazines and publications. It was only after his death that some of the people he had corresponded with in letters were determined to share his work with the public, so they formed a press called Arkham House specifically as a way to publish Lovecraft's work. They issued The Outsider and Others in 1939, and his books are still widely available — books like The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories (1932). Fantasy and horror writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman consider Lovecraft one of their major influences, and Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story, "There Are More Things," in memory of Lovecraft.

Lovecraft said: "I never ask a man what his business is, for it never interests me. What I ask him about are his thoughts and dreams."

It's the birthday of novelist Jacqueline Susann (books by this author), born in Philadelphia (1918). She wanted to be an actress, so she moved to New York when she graduated from high school, but she never had much success. She did commercials, had bit parts in Broadway plays, and worked as a model. Susann's first book, Every Night, Josephine! (1963), was about her beloved poodle. It didn't get much attention. Her husband suggested that Susann write about her experience with the underbelly of show business. In 1966, she published Valley of the Dolls, about three ambitious young women who move to New York to try to make it big and end up destroying themselves. They are all addicted to drugs, including barbiturates, which they call "dolls."

The literary world hated Valley of the Dolls, and pretty much everyone agreed that it was trash. Gloria Steinem wrote: "For the reader who has put away comic books but isn't ready for editorials in The Daily News, Valley of the Dolls may bridge an awkward gap." Truman Capote particularly despised the book and its author, and said on The Tonight Show that Susann looked like "a truck driver in drag."

All of the negative publicity only increased the book's sales: 350,000 copies in hardcover and 8 million copies in paperback.

Susann said, "I don't think any novelist should be concerned with literature.

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


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