Jul. 11, 2003

A Birthday

by W. S. Merwin

FRIDAY, 11 JULY 2003
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"A Birthday," by W. S. Merwin from Flower & Hand (Copper Canyon Press).

A Birthday

Something continues and     I don't know what to call it
though the language is full of suggestions
in the way of language
                but they are all anonymous
and it's almost your birthday     music next to my bones

these nights we hear the horses     running in the rain
it stops and the moon comes out     and we are still here
the leaks in the roof go on dripping     after the rain has passed
smell of ginger flowers     slips through the dark house
down near the sea     the slow heart of the beacon flashes

the long way to you is still tied to me     but it brought me to you
I keep wanting to give you     what is already yours
it is the morning     of the mornings together
breath of summer     oh my found one
the sleep in the same current     and each waking to you

when I open my eyes     you are what I wanted to see.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Susan Bogert Warner, born in New York City (1819). Her novel The Wide, Wide World (1851), was the first book by an American author to sell one million copies. Her sister Anna was also a writer, and Anna's book Gardening by Myself (1872) was the first American book to urge women to do their own gardening.

It's the birthday of E(lwyn) B(rooks) White, born in Mount Vernon, New York (1899). He never liked the name "Elwyn." He was the sixth child in his family, and he said his mother just hung the name on him because she had run out of better ones. After he graduated from Cornell he went out west and got a job with the Seattle Times, but as a reporter he "was almost useless." He worked as a mess boy on a ship bound for Alaska. Soon he moved back to New York, but he had no confidence in himself as a writer until he started submitting short pieces to a magazine, which was just a few months old, called The New Yorker. They hired him, and he helped shape their style and make the magazine a success. He had a hand in everything: he wrote poems, sketches, the "Talk of the Town" section, and the "Newsbreak" fillers at the end of columns, with titles like "Go Climb a Tree Department," and "Funny Coincidence Department." He even painted a cover. He met his friend and fellow writer James Thurber at The New Yorker. 1929 was a big year for White. The stock market was crashing, but he published his first two books, The Lady Is Cold and Is Sex Necessary? (with James Thurber), and he used the royalties to marry his wife Katharine, whom he also met at The New Yorker. They moved to an old farmhouse in Maine. One day, when White went out to feed the pig in the barn, he started feeling sorry for the pig because, like most pigs, it was doomed to die. He started to think of how a pig's life might be saved. He had been watching a big, gray spider weaving her web in the corner of his cellar, and in a small gray boathouse he wrote the book that would become a classic of children's literature: Charlotte's Web (1952), about a pig named Wilbur who is saved from slaughter by his friend, a spider named Charlotte, who weaves the words "Some Pig" into a web above Wilbur's pen and makes him a star. He said: "We should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry."

It's the birthday of the critic Harold Bloom, born in New York City (1930), one of the best-known literary critics in America, and one of the most controversial. He's the author of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), How to Read and Why (2000), and his most recent book, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (2002), his twenty-eighth book, 800 pages long. His ideas are often unpopular with his fellow critics, but his books regularly make the best-seller list. He grew up in the Bronx. His first language was Yiddish and he taught himself to read it at age three. He taught himself Hebrew at four, and he learned to read English at age five, before he had ever heard it spoken, by memorizing the poems of Hart Crane and William Blake when his sisters took him to the library. Bloom is famous for his memory. Once, as an undergraduate, he recited Hart Crane's long poem "The Bridge" backward, word by word, while drunk.

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