Oct. 2, 2003

Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children

by John Updike

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Poem: "Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children," by John Updike, from Americana and Other Poems (Knopf).

Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children

They will not be the same next time. The sayings
so cute, just slightly off, will be corrected.
Their eyes will be more skeptical, plugged in
the more securely to the worldly buzz
of television, alphabet, and street talk,
culture polluting their gazes' dawn blue.
It makes you see at last the value of
those boring aunts and neighbors (their smells
of summer sweat and cigarettes, their faces
like shapes of sky between shade-giving leaves)
who knew you from the start, when you were zero,
cooing their nothings before you could be bored
or knew a name, not even you own, or how
this world brave with hellos turns all goodbye.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of comedian Groucho Marx, born in New York City (1890). In 1908 he began acting with his brothers Harpo and Chico, and they became famous as the Marx Brothers. He was known as the most talkative Marx brother, and he's famous for his snappy insults. He said, "Marriage is a wonderful institution. That is, if you like living in an institution." And, "I have nothing but confidence in you, and very little of that."

It's the birthday of poet Wallace Stevens, born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1879). His father was a lawyer with a strong interest in literature. Wallace went to Harvard and then got a law degree from New York University. His first book of poems, Harmonium, was published in 1923. Although he wrote highly imaginative poems, he led a simple, uneventful life as an executive at a Hartford, Connecticut insurance company. Stevens kept his life as a poet separate from his life as an executive. He would wake up at six o'clock to read for two hours before going to work, and he wrote many of his poems while walking home from the office in the evening. He wrote some of his best poetry after he reached the age of sixty, including the collections Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942), The Auroras of Autumn (1947), and An Ordinary Evening in New Haven (1950).

One time he was at a party in Florida, and he made a disparaging comment about Ernest Hemingway to a friend. Hemingway's sister overheard the comment, left the party in tears, and immediately told her brother. Hemingway got to the party just as Stevens was saying that if Hemingway were there, he would flatten him in a single blow. Stevens then saw Hemingway and tried to do exactly that, but his punch missed. Hemingway knocked Stevens down several times, and when Stevens finally landed a punch, he broke his hand on Hemingway's jaw. The two literary greats later reconciled because Stevens did not want the story to get back to his coworkers at the insurance company.

Wallace Stevens said, "To be young is all there is in the world. They talk so beautifully about work and having a family and a home (and I do, too, sometimes) — but it's all worry and headaches and respectable poverty and forced gushing. Telling people how nice it is, when, in reality, you would give all of your last thirty years for one of your first thirty. Old people are tremendous frauds."

It's the birthday of writer Graham Greene, born in Hertfordshire, England (1904). He was the son a school headmaster, and was a very shy child who often tried to run away from home. After several suicide attempts in his teens, his therapist encouraged him to start writing and introduced him to several of his literary friends. Greene got a job as a journalist for the Times in London. He met his future wife when she wrote in to correct a mistake in one of his articles. He worked for the secret intelligence service in Sierra Leone during World War II, and drew on his experience to write his book The Heart of the Matter (1948). He traveled extensively all over the world and associated with people such as Fidel Castro, Manuel Noriega, and Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos. His relationship with Torrijos led him to write Getting to Know the General (1948). Greene spent a good part of his life in Vietnam, and that experience gave him the material for one of his most well known books, The Quiet American (1955), which tells the story of an American, Fowler, who has an affair with a Vietnamese girl. When professor Norman Sherry started writing Greene's biography, Greene gave him a map of the world, and marked all of the places he had traveled. Sherry decided to go to all of the spots Greene had visited, and it took him twenty years to complete the book. Greene limited himself to writing just five hundred words per day, and would even stop writing in the middle of a sentence, but he ended up publishing over thirty books.

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