Jul. 14, 2003

Northern Pike

by James Wright

MONDAY, 14 JULY 2003
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Poem: "Northern Pike," by James Wright from Above the River: The Complete Poems (The Noonday Press).

Northern Pike

All right. Try this,
Then. Every body
I know and care for,
And every body
Else is going
To die in a loneliness
I can't imagine and a pain
I don't know. We had
To go on living. We
Untangled the net, we slit
The body of this fish
Open from the hinge of the tail
To a place beneath the chin
I wish I could sing of.
I would just as soon we let
The living go on living.
An old poet whom we believe in
Said the same thing, and so
We paused among the dark cattails and prayed
For the muskrats,
For the ripples below their tails,
For the little movements that we knew the crawdads were making
        under water,
For the right-hand wrist of my cousin who is a policeman.
We prayed for the game warden's blindness.
We prayed for the road home.
We ate the fish.
There must be something very beautiful in my body,
I am so happy.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Owen Wister, born in Germantown, Pennsylvania (1860). He attended Harvard and scored top grades, and in his senior year he wrote both music and libretto for the Hasty Pudding Club's comic opera Dido and Aeneas, which toured professionally in New York and beyond. He went to study music in Paris, came back to be a lawyer in Philadelphia, but he became very ill and decided to rest for the summer out in Wyoming. He learned all about the ways of the Old West, keeping diaries on his many trips west of Wyoming. He used his knowledge of life on the frontier to write The Virginian (1902), which became a major success. It made the cowboy into an American folk hero, and set the standard for all Western-themed books and films to come. It also made famous the line, "When you call me that, smile."

It's the birthday of Isaac Bashevis Singer, born in Leoncin, Poland (1904). He wrote novels and stories about the imps and goblins of Jewish folklore, about childhood in pre-holocaust Warsaw, and about American immigrants. He was the son of a Hasidic rabbi in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw, where he grew up in a cramped second-floor apartment. His curls of fiery red hair would hang out from under a round velvet cap, which he wore with a long satin coat. He was picked on by boys in the street, who called him "Little Rabbi." In seminary, Isaac's father had refused to learn enough Russian to pass the rabbinical exam, so he was banished to low-paying posts. The apartment had one room for sleeping, and one for his father's meetings with townspeople, where he listened to their problems and gave them religious counseling. He was always suspicious of his father's blind and total faith in God. His mother and brother felt the same way. When Isaac was ten, his older brother gave him his first non-religious book, a copy of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866) translated into Yiddish. His father had forbidden books that weren't about religion, but Isaac and his brother read all sorts of folktales and satires by Yiddish, Russian, and French writers in secret. Later, Isaac left the seminary to work as a proofreader for his brother at a Yiddish literary magazine in Warsaw. He thought most of the stories were boring and poorly written. He decided he could do better. Soon his first story, called "In Old Age," was printed in the magazine. He took the name Isaac Bashevis as the pen name for his second story, called "Women." Bashevis means son of Bathsheba, the name of his mother. At age thirty-one, Isaac moved to America to rejoin his brother, who had become a successful writer in New York. But Isaac could only write in Yiddish, so he had to depend on selling his work to the Jewish Daily Forward on a free-lance basis. The first collection of his stories to be translated into English, Gimpel the Fool, was published in 1957. Since then, he has worked with many translators, including the Nobel Prize winning author Saul Bellow. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. Isaac Bashevis Singer said, "God gave us so many emotions, and so many strong ones. Every human being, even if he is an idiot, is a millionaire in emotions."

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