May 9, 2003

Lives of the Poets

by Mona Van Duyn

FRIDAY, 9 MAY 2003
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"Lives Of The Poets," by Mona Van Duyn from If If Be Not I, Collected Poems 1959-1982 (Knopf).

Lives Of The Poets

I was fortunate enough to have
a mother who on one occasion
encouraged me by commissioning
a poem. Newly married, I
was tackling my first teaching job
when a letter came which said, in part:
"As writing is so easy for you
I want you to write a poem about
the San Benito Ladies Auxiliary
that I belong to. Our club has twenty
members and we bake cute cookies
and serve them with coffee and do our sewing
at the meeting. We make stuffed animals
to give poor Texas kids at Xmas.
We meet on every other Wednesday.
Tell all that in the poem. Write
the poem to be sung to the tune
of Silent Night Holy Night
as that is the only song I have learned
to play so far on my accordion.
I want to play and sing it at
the club meeting. I could do it myself
of course but writing makes me nervous.
I'm sure you will do this for me because
it is so easy for you and I know
you wouldn't want me to get nervous.
I have to have it this week so I
can get it down pat for the next meeting."

In the midst of grading a hundred or so
freshman themes, trying to master
A Vision so I could teach Yeats, and reading
the output of my creative writing
class, I wrote the poem for her.
(Some of the rhymes were hard.) I'm only
sorry that I didn't keep
a copy, and that I missed the performance.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Mona Van Duyn born in Waterloo, Iowa (1921), who now lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Growing up, she read voraciously in the town library and wrote poems secretly in her notebooks from her grade school years through high school. Her book Near Changes (1990), won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1991.

It's the birthday of the fantasy novelist Richard Adams, born in Berkshire, England (1920). He made his name as a writer with the bestseller Watership Down (1972), an epic tale of a community of rabbits.

On this night in 1671, Captain (Thomas) Blood tried to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. Disguised as a priest, he managed to convince the Jewel House keeper to hand over his pistols. One of Captain Blood's accomplices shoved the Royal Orb down his breeches. Blood flattened the crown with a mallet and tried to run off with it, but they were caught in the act. King Charles was so impressed with Blood's audacity that he pardoned him, restored his estates in Ireland, and gave him an annual pension of five hundred pounds. Captain Blood became a colorful celebrity all across the kingdom, and when he died in 1680 his body had to be exhumed in order to persuade the public that he was actually dead.

It's the birthday of the man who created Peter Pan, playwright and novelist James M. Barrie, born in Kirrimuir, Scotland (1860). He introduced Peter Pan in the story The Little White Bird (1902), and then in the play Peter Pan (1904). When he was six years old, his fourteen-year-old brother, David, died in a skating accident. Barrie realized that David would forever be remembered as a young boy and later created the character of Peter Pan. When Barrie was an adult, he knew a little girl named Margaret who called Barrie her "friendy." But she couldn't pronounce her "r"s so it came out "Fwendy". She died when she was six. Barrie put her in the story, and called her Wendy.

It's the birthday of poet Charles Simic, born in Belgrade, in the former Yugoslavia (1938). He grew up to the sound of bomb strikes from both the Nazis and the Allies. He moved to the United States when he was a teenager and went with his father to Oak Park, Illinois, where he finished high school. His first poems were published when he was just 21; his first full-length collection was called What the Grass Says (1967). Since then he has published more than 60 books, including The World Doesn't End: Prose Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990. A Fly in the Soup (2001), is a memoir of his earliest childhood and young adulthood.

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