Feb. 7, 2002

For John Berryman

by David Ignatow

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Poem: "For John Berryman," by David Ignatow from New and Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press).

For John Berryman

You're dead, what can I do for you?
I am not unsympathetic;
I thought about you often enough
though we never spoke together
but once when I shied away,
feeling something that I fought
in me too-and came out with this
manner of living, by living.

It is depressing to live
but to kill myself in protest
is to assume there is something
to life withheld from me, yet
who withholds it? Think about it.
What is the answer?

But suicide is not so wrong
for one who thought and prayed
his way toward it. I wish, though,
I had known sooner, to have
helped you go on living,
as I do, half a suicide;
the need defended by the other half
that thinks to live in that knowledge
is praiseworthy.

It's the birthday of poet David Ignatow, born in Brooklyn, New York (1914). He once said: "My avocation is to stay alive; my vocation is to write about it."

It's the birthday of novelist Sinclair Lewis, born in Sauk Center, Minnesota. His most famous novels were all written in the 1920s: Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), and Elmer Gantry (1927).

It's the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder, born in Pepin, Wisconsin (1867). During her childhood, her family moved constantly by covered wagon in search of land and better farming-from the Big Woods around Pepin; to Minnesota and Kansas; to the prairies around DeSmet, South Dakota. The family worked hard to make a life on the frontier, breaking the land, building their own houses, making their own clothes. Many of the details of that pioneer life went into her popular books, the first of which, Little House in the Big Woods (1932), was published when she was sixty-five years old. She said: "I believe we would be happier to have a personal revolution in our individual lives and go back to simpler living and more direct thinking. It is the simple things of life that make living worth while, the sweet fundamental things such as love and duty, work and rest and living close to nature."

It's the birthday of Charles Dickens, born in Portsea, England (1812). His father was an easy-going, rather improvident clerk in the Navy Pay Office, who aspired to be a gentleman. His father eventually landed in Marshalsea debtors' prison, and young Charles was sent to work pasting labels on bottles in a warehouse, forced to support himself on six shillings a week. The traumatic experience found its way in to his seventh novel, David Copperfield (1850), which he referred to as his "favorite child" because it came so close to an autobiography. In that novel, Mr. Micawber is a thinly-disguised portrait of Dickens' own father. After his father was released from prison, Dickens resumed school, and ended up working as a journalist. In 1836, he gathered together some of his magazine pieces in a book called Sketches by Boz, which launched his career as a successful author. His first novel was The Pickwick Papers (1837), which brought him fame. He followed it up with a string of classic novels which earned him a place as one of the greatest and best-loved novelists of the nineteenth century. In the last decade of his life, he went on grueling reading tours of England and the United States, where his wrenching rendition of the murder of Nancy, from Oliver Twist, caused women to faint in the audience. When he ended his tour in London in March 1870, his health was nearly ruined. He died of a stroke in June 1870, and was mourned throughout the English-speaking world.

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