Oct. 25, 2003

Windy Evening

by Charles Simic

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Poem: "Windy Evening," by Charles Simic, from The Book of Gods and Devils (Harcourt Brace & Co.).

Windy Evening

This old world needs propping up
When it gets this cold and windy.
The cleverly painted sets,
Oh, they're shaking badly!
They're about to come down.

There'll be nothing but infinite space then.
The silence supreme. Almighty silence.
Egyptian sky. Stars like torches
Of grave robbers entering the crypts of the kings.
Even the wind pausing, waiting to see.

Better grab hold of that tree, Lucille.
Its shape crazed, terror-stricken.
I'll hold the barn.
The chickens in it uneasy.
Smart chickens, rickety world.

Literary and Historical Notes:

No one knows when the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, was born, but he died on this day in 1400. He was buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey in London, where he was a tenant and a member of the parish. Chaucer's fame increased after his death. He was called the "father of English poetry," and many other British poets began to be buried in the south transept of the abbey, which is now known as Poets' Corner. Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, and Rudyard Kipling are all buried here; and William Wordsworth, John Keats, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare all have memorials.

Chaucer was born in the middle of the fourteenth century, to a wealthy merchant family. He joined the king's army, and took part in a large-scale invasion of France in 1359. He came back to England, got married, and became a high-ranking royal official. He ran errands for King Edward III in France and Italy, where he read the classic literature of those countries. He began writing poetry and became a favorite of the king's, who in 1374 granted Chaucer a gallon pitcher of wine each day for the rest of his life. Not much poetry was being written in English during Chaucer's time, but almost everything he wrote was in his mother tongue. His most famous work is The Canterbury Tales , a series of stories told by an assortment of English men and women on their way to a pilgrimage site.

The Canterbury Tales begins:

"Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So Priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages . . ."

It's the birthday of John Berryman, born John Allyn Smith, Jr. in McAlester, Oklahoma (1914). When he was twelve years old, his father shot himself. A new man married his mother and made her sons change their names. This plunged the young Berryman into a depression that he never quite got out of. He was compulsive about work, alcohol, sex, and cigarettes, and eventually killed himself at age 58.

Berryman won the 1964 Pulitzer for his collection 77 Dream Songs , a sequence of sonnet-like poems about the alter-egos Henry and Mr. Bones. He taught at Harvard and then Princeton, where he became famous for his lectures on Shakespeare. Teaching didn't come naturally to him—his hands shook and he sweated profusely during his lectures. He'd be wiped out for days afterwards. But his lectures on the Bard became famous quickly. They started getting quoted in the papers, and more than 200 people would show up for his talks. There were parties for him every week. Other professors would dismiss their students so they could go see Berryman speak. After Princeton, he taught at the University of Minnesota for 17 years until his suicide. He threw himself off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis on a freezing cold January morning, in front of University of Minnesota students walking to class. Berryman said, "The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he's in business."

It's the birthday of fiction writer Anne Tyler, born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1941). She grew up in North Carolina, the daughter of an industrial chemist and a social worker. Her family lived for a while in a Quaker community in the mountains of North Carolina, where they built their own house, raised livestock, and learned organic farming techniques. The children got lessons in carpentry and folk-art and cooking. They listened to classical music and read books that were delivered by the Bookmobile. She went to Duke, and Columbia, and then got married to an Iranian physician. When his visa ran out they moved to Montreal and had two children. Tyler couldn't find a good job there and ended up focusing a lot of time on her fiction. She wrote The Accidental Tourist (1985), about a man who writes travel guides for businessmen who hate to travel. His son is murdered, his wife leaves him, and he falls in love with a dog trainer. She then wrote Breathing Lesson s (1988), Saint Maybe (1992) and Back When We Were Grownups (2002). Anne Tyler said, "I expect that any day now, I will have said all I have to say; I'll have used up all my characters, and then I'll be free to get on with my real life."

It's the birthday of Pablo Picasso, born in Malaga, on Spain's south coast (1881). He didn't like school when he was a boy, except for art class. He painted his first oil painting when he was nine years old. It was a picture of a bull ring, inspired by the bullfights he often attended with his dad. Picasso went to art school in Barcelona and Madrid and eventually settled in Paris. He met people in the art world who supported him for a time until he made a name for himself with his "blue paintings," a series of blue-hued paintings depicting dying clowns and acrobats. He did sculpture and drawings and lithographs, water color, ceramics, mosaics, etchings, and oils. He did still-lifes and landscapes and nudes. Along with Georges Braque, he invented the style of painting called Cubism, which broke up objects into fragments represented from different perspectives. Some say Picasso invented collage when he attached a real piece of imitation chair caning to a still life. André Malraux called Picasso "the archwizard of modern art." He painted more than 6,000 pictures in his lifetime. He became very famous and rich, partly because he was a good bargainer and smart with money. He knew not to flood the market with his paintings, so he only released about 40 a year, and hoarded the rest in private studios and his various homes. He also gave several paintings to charity, and to old friends and lovers.

Picasso had trouble getting out of bed in the morning, and usually spent the afternoon conversing with friends. It was at night that he did most of his work, usually in the dark, except for two spotlights shining directly on his canvas. He didn't use a palette—he just had the cans of paint sitting on the floor, and he would dip the brushes right in and then wipe the excess off on newspapers. He stood up while he painted, often for three or four hours at a time. Then once in awhile he'd take an hour off to go sit on the other end of the room in a wicker armchair and stare at his painting, analyzing his work.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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