Jul. 3, 2003

Girl Help

by Janet Lewis

(RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Girl Help," by Janet Lewis from Poems Old and New (Ohio University Press).

Girl Help

Mild and slow and young,
She moves about the room,
And stirs the summer dust
With her wide broom.

In the warm, lofted air,
Soft lips together pressed,
Soft wispy hair,
She stops to rest,

And stops to breathe,
Amid the summer hum,
The great while lilac bloom
Scented with days to come.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of humorist DaveBarry, born in Armonk, New York (1947). He's a columnist for the Miami Herald, and his column has been syndicated in more than 150 newspapers nationwide since 1986. He's the author of many books, including Dave Barry Is Not Taking This Sitting Down! (2000) and Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway (2003). He said, "I always wanted to write when I was a kid; it just never occurred to me that you could have a job that didn't involve any actual work. . . . I felt it would be fun to have a job like that where you could make stuff up and be irresponsible and get paid for it."

It's the birthday of playwright Tom Stoppard, born Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia (1937). He's the author of many plays, including his recent trilogy The Coast of Utopia (2003). His first big success was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), a comic retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet from the point of view of Hamlet's two friends. It won all kinds of awards in England. When it premiered in New York a journalist asked Stoppard what it was about. He said, "It's about to make me rich."

It's the birthday of Franz Kafka, born in Prague (1883). Many of his novels and short stories are about strange and terrible things happening to innocent people. The Trial (1925) begins, "Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning." And The Metamorphosis (1915) begins, "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." Kafka had a difficult relationship with his father. When he was a young boy, he once shouted for a glass of water in the middle of the night, and his father pulled him out of bed, put him on the courtyard balcony, and locked him out of the house. He later wrote, "For years thereafter, I kept being haunted by fantasies of this giant of a man, my father, the ultimate judge, coming to get me in the middle of the night." There are lots of fathers in Kafka's fiction. In his story "The Judgement" (1916) a young man is ordered by his father to commit suicide, and he throws himself off a bridge.

Kafka thought that a mindless bureaucratic job would be the perfect way to support his writing, but the job he took at an insurance company exhausted him. He had to work sixty hours a week on endless boring tasks. His health began to suffer, and for the rest of his life he was in and out of sanatoriums. The first love of his life was a woman named Felice Bauer. After he met her, he spent ten days writing her a letter to re-introduce himself, and then sent her a letter almost every day for the next five years. They got engaged, but Kafka started to wonder if he should get married. He was worried it would ruin the privacy that he needed to be a writer. He started having an affair with his fiancée's best friend, and got her pregnant, but broke off the relationship with both of them. He had other affairs and proposed to other women, but he never got married. Kafka's best friend was a sickly, hunch-backed man named Max Brod, who worshiped the ground he walked on. He and Brod hung out at cafes, went to brothels, and attended séances together. Even before anyone had heard of Kafka, Brod wrote articles about him for literary journals, saying that he was a genius and the greatest writer of all time. Brod kept copies of all of Kafka's writings that he could get his hands on. Near the end of his life, Kafka asked Brod to burn all of his unpublished work. Brod refused to do so, and we have him to thank for preserving Kafka's novels. Kafka's last novel The Castle (1926) is about a man named K. who tries and tries to reach a castle, but never gets there.

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