Aug. 15, 2003

First Song

by Galway Kinnell

(RealAudio) | How to listen

"First Song" by Galway Kinnell from A New Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).

First Song

Then it was dusk in Illinois, the small boy
After an afternoon of carting dung
Hung on the rail fence, a sapped thing
Weary to crying. Dark was growing tall
And he began to hear the pond frogs all
Calling on his ear with what seemed their joy.

Soon their sound was pleasant for a boy
Listening in the smoky dusk and the nightfall
Of Illinois, and from the fields two small
Boys came bearing cornstalk violins
And they rubbed the cornstalk bows with resins
And the three sat there scraping of their joy.

It was now fine music the frogs and the boys
Did in the towering Illinois twilight make
And into dark in spite of a shoulder's ache
A boy's hunched body loved out of a stalk
The first song of his happiness, and the song woke
His heart to the darkness and into the sadness of joy.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of Sir Walter Scott, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1771), one of the most influential novelists of all time. When he was young, he worked with his grandfather as a shepherd, and his grandfather told him all kinds of stories and legends about local heroes and villains. He studied law and became a sheriff-deputy. He began publishing poetry in 1796. For more than 10 years, he published many popular poems, including "The Lady of the Lake" (1810). He is responsible for many famous phrases, including "blood is thicker than water" and "O, what a tangled web we weave, / When first we practise to deceive!" He didn't handle money well, though. To pay off his debts, he decided to publish a novel. At the time, novels weren't seen as real literature. People thought novels were trashy and mostly read by women, and any real writer who wrote a novel was considered a sellout. To protect his reputation, Scott published his novel Waverley (1814) anonymously. It was a huge bestseller. He went on to write many popular historical novels about the end of the old Scotland. He is best known for his novels Rob Roy (1818) and Ivanhoe (1819). He didn't reveal his identity until 1826, more than 10 years after he published his first novel.

It's the birthday of essayist Thomas De Quincey, born in Manchester, England (1785). He published Confessions of an English Opium Eater anonymously in 1822, and it was a controversial bestseller. It was the first drug addiction memoir, and greatly influenced later generations of bohemian writers, from Charles Baudelaire to William S. Burroughs.

It's the birthday of novelist Edna Ferber, born in Kalamazoo, Michigan (1885). Her father was a general store manager, and he went blind when she was in high school. She took over the family store, and found that she was a natural businesswoman. By running the store, she supported her family, paid her father's doctor bills, and finally got her father's store out of debt. After her father died, she began to write short stories about the fictional character Emma McChesney, a traveling saleswoman, one of the first working women in American literature. These stories were later collected in books like Roast Beef Medium (1913) and Personality Plus (1914). She wrote many bestselling novels in her lifetime, but is best known for her novel Show Boat (1926), about a family that runs a theater on a boat. The novel was the basis for the musical with songs by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern. Edna Ferber said, "A woman can look both moral and exciting ... if she also looks as if it was quite a struggle."

It's the birthday of food writer Julia Child, born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, California (1912). During World War II, she got a job with the Office of Strategic Service and hoped to become a spy, but instead she worked as a file clerk. She got to know her future husband Paul Child in China, and they both became obsessed with Chinese cuisine. When they got back to the United States, they got married, and she started taking cooking lessons. She later said, "I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate." She studied at Cordon Bleu, the famous school of French cooking. While in France, she joined an elite gastronomic society of women called The Circle of Gourmets. She wrote her first cookbook with two members of the society. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961. It was called the best book about French cooking ever written in English. She appeared on a talk show program to talk about her book, and demonstrated how to make one of the recipes. A TV producer saw her, thought she was a madwoman, and gave her her own cooking show. Julia Child said, "Life itself is the proper binge.

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