Jun. 28, 2003

A Farewell, Age Ten

by William Stafford

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Poem: "A Farewell, Age Ten," by William Stafford from The Way It Is, New and Selected Poems (Graywolf).

A Farewell, Age Ten

While its owner looks away I touch the rabbit.
Its long soft ears fold back under my hand.
Miles of yellow wheat bend; their leaves
rustle away and wait for the sun and wind.

This day belongs to my uncle. This is his farm.
We have stopped on our journey; when my father says to
we will go on, leaving this paradise, leaving
the family place. We have my father's job.

Like him, I will be strong all of my life.
We are men. If we squint our eyes in the sun
we will see far. I'm ready. It's good, this resolve.
But I will never pet the rabbit again.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of author and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, born in Geneva, Switzerland (1712), whose writing inspired the leaders of the French Revolution. He wrote Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750), The Social Contract (1762), and novels, including The New Eloise (1761). He coined the phrase, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," and wrote: "Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains."

It's the birthday of the "father of the modern spy novel," Eric Ambler, born in London (1909), author of thrillers including Background to Danger (1937), Cause for Alarm (1938), and Journey into Fear (1940). Graham Greene called him, "the greatest living writer of suspense." He was the first author to write stories about international espionage that were based on real life. He started writing thrillers because all of the ones he read were full of ridiculous superheroes and villains. He wanted to write about exciting events that could actually happen. He said, "Thrillers are acceptable now. . . . A hundred years from now, if they last, these books may offer some clues to what was going on in our world." Topkapi (1964) was a movie based on his novel The Light of Day (1962). After seeing the movie, the famous thief Jack "Murf the Surf" Murphy was inspired to steal the world's largest sapphire, the Star of India, from the Museum of Natural History in New York.

It's the birthday of fiction writer Mark Helprin, born in New York City (1947). His novels include Winter's Tale (1983), Memoir from Antproof Case (1995), and A Soldier of the Great War (1991). He's known for writing big, old-fashioned, ambitious stories and novels. His father was in the film industry and his mother starred in Broadway plays. He became serious about writing when he was seventeen years old. He sent short stories to the New Yorker while he was still at college, and they finally published two of them his senior year. He was 22 years old and soon came out with a collection of stories, A Dove of the East and Other Stories (1975). He said, "I have no agony or resentments. Boredom and alienation don't mean a thing to me."

It's the birthday of half of the Rodgers and Hammerstein songwriting team, Richard Rodgers, born in New York City (1902). He wrote the music for the musicals Oklahoma! (1944), South Pacific (1950), The King and I (1951), The Sound of Music (1959), and dozens of others. They included songs like "Funny Valentine," "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "Getting to Know You," and "My Favorite Things." He collaborated with the lyricist Lorenz Hart for over twenty years. When Hart died in 1943, Rodgers asked his friend Oscar Hammerstein II to write a musical with him. He agreed, and they wrote Oklahoma!, one of Broadway's biggest hits. His melodies were easy to sing and dance to, and he could compose them at the drop of a hat. He wrote complete songs during breakfast.

It's the birthday of comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks, born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, New York (1926). He's known for off-the-wall comedies like Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974). When he was fourteen years old he played the drums in a band that performed in summer lodges of the Catskill Mountains. One night, a comedian called in sick and the young Mel Brooks volunteered to fill in for him. The audience liked him so much that he gave up the drums and became a full-time comedian, working for 25 dollars a week. He came out with his first movie in 1968, The Producers. And he said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

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