Jun. 11, 2003

The Difference Between Pepsi and Coke

by David Lehman

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Poem: "The Difference Between Pepsi and Coke," by David Lehman from An Alternative to Speech (Princeton University Press).

The Difference Between Pepsi and Coke

Can't swim; uses credit cards and pills to combat
    intolerable feelings of inadequacy;
Won't admit his dread of boredom, chief impulse behind
    numerous marital infidelities;
Looks fat in jeans, mouths clichés with confidence,
    breaks mother's plates in fights;
Buys when the market is too high, and panics during
    the inevitable descent;
Still, Pop can always tell the subtle difference
    between Pepsi and Coke,
Has defined the darkness of red at dawn, memorized
    the splash of poppies along
Deserted railway tracks, and opposed the war in Vietnam
    months before the students,
Years before the politicians and press; give him
    a minute with a road map
And he will solve the mystery of bloodshot eyes;
    transport him to mountaintop
And watch him calculate the heaviness and height
    of the local heavens;
Needs no prompting to give money to his kids; speaks
    French fluently, and tourists German;
Sings Schubert in the shower; plays pinball in Paris;
    knows the new maid steals, and forgives her.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of English poet and playwright Ben Jonson, born in London in 1572. His father wanted him to continue the family tradition of laying bricks for a living, but Jonson was bored by the trade and went off to become an actor. In 1592, he married a woman and she gave birth to a son whom Jonson called his "best piece of poetry." In 1598, he killed a fellow actor in a duel, and went to prison, narrowly escaping a death sentence. He got out after a couple of years and wrote two of his greatest plays, Volpone (1607) and The Alchemist (1610). In 1616, he was so popular that he could publish a complete edition of his works, something playwrights almost never did at that time. He wrote, "No man is so wise that he may not easily err if he takes no other counsel than his own. He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a master."

It's the birthday of American writer Irving Howe, born Irving Horenstein in New York City in 1920. His best-known work is World of Our Fathers (1976), about Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe at the start of the twentieth century.

It's the birthday of American novelist William Styron, born in Newport News, Virginia in 1925. After he returned from World War II, he went to work for a big publisher in New York City, but he was fired a few weeks after he started for throwing balloons out of his office window. He started writing and later said, "All I knew was that I burned to write a novel and I could not have cared less that my bank account was close to zero, with no replenishment in sight. I felt the exultancy of a man just released from slavery and ready to set the universe on fire." Four years later he published his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951), an enormous success. He is the author of other books, including The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice.

It's the birthday of South African playwright Athol Fugard, born in Middelburg, South Africa in 1932, famous for writing about apartheid and civil rights issues. He dropped out of college just before his final exams so he could hitchhike through Africa and sail around the world. After he came back to South Africa, he worked as a court clerk, where he saw firsthand the injustices of apartheid. He began writing and acting, and in 1961 wrote and produced his play Blood Knot, which so offended the South African authorities that they took away his passport for four years.

It's the birthday of novelist Allan Gurganus, born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina (1947), who has called himself a "true Southern gentleman." His books include Plays Well With Others (1997), about the AIDS epidemic among homosexual artists in New York in the early '80s, and Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989), which is told from the perspective of a 99-year-old woman who had married a 51-year-old Civil War veteran when she was fifteen years-old.

It's the birthday of American poet David Lehman, born in New York City in 1948. He's the author of the collections The Evening Sun (2002), Valentine Place (1996), and Operation Memory (1990). In January 1996, he began writing a poem nearly every day, including a streak of 140 consecutive days; the poems were later published in the collection The Daily Mirror in the year 2000.

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