Sep. 25, 2003

Living on the Plains

by William Stafford

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Poem: "Living on the Plains," by William Stafford, from The Way it Is: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press).

Living on the Plains

That winter when this thought came-how the river
held still every midnight and flowed
backward a minute-we studied algebra
late in our room fixed up in the barn,
and I would feel the curved relation,
the rafters upside down, and the cows in their life
holding the earth round and ready
to meet itself again when morning came.

At breakfast while my mother stirred the cereal
she said, "You're studying too hard,"
and I would include her face and hands in my glance
and then look past my father's gaze as
he told again our great race through the stars
and how the world can't keep up with our dreams.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of Francine du Plessix-Gray, born in Warsaw, Poland (1930). She got a late start writing fiction. She was married with two children, she kept a journal, and it kept getting bigger. She said that one day when she was 33, after she cooked and entertained a group of weekend guests, she "felt an immense void ... the deepest loneliness I'd ever known." She wept for hours, took out a notebook, and started rewriting one of the three stories that had won her a prize when she was in college. Twelve years later, it had become the first chapter of Lovers and Tyrants (1976), her first novel.

It's the birthday of sportswriter Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith, born in Green Bay, Wisconsin (1905). He said, "The people we're writing about in professional sports, they're suffering and living and dying and loving and trying to make their way through life just as the brick layers and politicians are."

It's the birthday of Shel Silverstein, born in Chicago (1932). He's the author of some of the best-selling children's books of all time, including Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974), A Light in the Attic (1981), and Falling Up (1996), books of whimsical black-and-white drawings and poems with lines such as:

There's a polar bear
In our Frigidaire—
He likes it 'cause it's cold in there.
With his seat in the meat
And his face in the fish
And his big hairy paws
In the buttery dish.

It's the birthday of William (Cuthbert) Faulkner (born Falkner) in New Albany, Mississippi (1897). He liked to get up early, eat a breakfast of eggs and broiled steak and lots of coffee, and then take his tobacco and pipe and go to his study. He took off the doorknob and carried it inside with him, where he wrote his novels by hand on large sheets of paper, and then typed them out with two fingers on an old Underwood portable. He was prolific this way-in a four-year span he published some of his best novels: Sartoris (1929), The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), and Light in August (1932). In 1949 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

He grew up in Oxford, Mississippi. When he was twenty-four he went north when a friend got him a job at the Doubleday bookstore in New York. His uncle, a judge in Oxford, said, "He ain't ever going to amount to a damn—not a damn." At first Faulkner was a good salesman, but pretty soon he started telling his customers not to read the "trash" they wanted to buy. He went back to Oxford and took a position as a fourth-class postmaster at the University of Mississippi, but he was forced to resign because he kept magazines until he'd read them, let holiday hams spoil before he delivered them, and closed down early to drive out to the golf course in his yellow Model T Ford. He went to New Orleans, where he met the writer Sherwood Anderson. In college, Faulkner had written poetry, but Anderson said, "You've got too much talent. You can do it too easy, in too many different ways. If you're not careful, you'll never write anything." Anderson encouraged him to try fiction, and Faulkner moved into his apartment and wrote his first novel, Soldiers' Pay (1926). At Oxford, he ran up so many bills that they called him "Count No Count." When shop owners sent people to his house to collect, he'd dress up in overalls and a straw hat and sweep his driveway, posing as hired help. When they asked where Faulkner was, he'd keep his head down and say, "Ain't seen 'im. Been here sweepin' all day an' I ain't seen 'im a-tall."

Faulkner's family history had its share of violence. His great-grandfather, Colonel William Clark Falkner, was a Civil War hero and published a popular novel called The White Rose of Memphis. In 1849, Colonel Falkner was attacked by a man named Robert Hindman, who was denied membership in the local chapter of the Knights of Temperance. Hindman blamed the colonel and pulled a revolver on him, but the revolver misfired, and Colonel Falkner killed Hindman with a bowie knife. Two years later the colonel was confronted by a friend of Hindman's, and he killed him too. Falkner was acquitted both times, but 40 years later, when he stopped at the window of a disgruntled business partner and put his hand in his pocket, the disgruntled partner shot him through the window at point blank range. William Faulkner's father, Murray, was shot too, as a young man, over an argument between two girls. While he was sitting on a stool at a drugstore fountain one girl's brother, Elias Walker, emptied a twelve-gauge shotgun into Murray's back, and then shot Murray in the mouth with a pistol while he was on the floor. Somehow, he lived. Murray's father-William Faulkner's grandfather-found Walker hiding in the hardware store, and he pushed his revolver into Walker's stomach and fired six times, but the gun misfired every time and Walker pulled out his own gun and shot Faulkner's grandfather in the hand.

William Faulkner's most violent book was probably Sanctuary (1931), which he first wrote as a potboiler. He wanted it to shock people. He said he wrote it after having "made a thorough and methodical study of everything on the list of best-sellers. When I thought I knew what the public wanted, I decided to give them a little more than they had been getting." There are nine murders mentioned in the story, and a college student is raped with a corncob by a gangster. When Faulkner's publisher read it, he said, "Good God, I can't publish this. We'd both be in jail." But Sanctuary was published, and it sold more copies in three weeks than The Sound and the Fury sold in two years. The book didn't make Faulkner a household name, but it got people talking about him in the publishing industry and in Hollywood, where he eventually went to work. Sanctuary was the talk of Oxford, but the few people in town who bought copies sent their servants down to the drugstore to get them, or had them wrapped in plain paper before they left the store. When his wife read it, she said, "It's horrible." Faulkner said, "It's meant to be."

William Faulkner said, "The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. ... If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies."

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