Oct. 30, 2003

Before Dawn in October

by Julia Kasdorf

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Poem: "Before Dawn in October," by Julia Kasdorf, from Eve's Striptease (University of Pittsburgh Press).

Before Dawn in October

The window frame catches a draft
that smells of dead leaves and wet street,
and I wrap arms around my knees,
look down on these small breasts,
so my spine forms a curve as perfect
as the rim of the moon. I want to tell
the man sleeping curled as a child beside me
that this futon is a raft. The moon
and tiny star we call sun are the parents
who at last approve of us. For once,
we haven't borrowed more than we can return.
Stars above our cement backyard are as sharp
as those that shine far from Brooklyn,
and we are not bound for anything worse
than we can imagine, as long as we turn
on the kitchen lamp and light a flame
under the pot, as long as we sip coffee
from beautiful China-blue cups and love
the steam of the shower and thrusting
our feet into trousers. As long as we walk
down our street in sun that ignites
red leaves on the maple, we will see
faces on the subway and know we may take
our places somewhere among them.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of American poet Ezra Pound, born in Hailey, Idaho (1885). Early in his life he resolved to "know more about poetry than any man living." He went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, where he met one of the many writers he would befriend and help in his life, William Carlos Williams. He settled in London in 1908, where he began to explore the poetry of Greece, China, America, and contemporary England. Pound was set on supporting innovations in all kinds of literature. He critically and financially supported writers like James Joyce, Robert Frost, and T.S. Eliot. He said he had "to keep alive a certain group of advancing poets, to set the arts in their rightful place as the acknowledged guide and lamp of civilization." The poet whom Pound helped the most was T.S. Eliot. In 1914, he convinced a publisher to print Eliot's poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Seven years later, he edited Eliot's work, "The Waste Land" (1922), considered one of the twentieth century's best poems. Eliot dedicated the book to Pound, whom he called "il miglior fabbro," or the better craftsman. Pound wrote to Eliot, "You let me throw the bricks through the front window. You go in at the back and take the swag."

One of Pound's most direct contributions to poetry was the founding of the Imagist movement. Imagist poetry is based on close observation of one image, using dialect instead of poetic diction, and using, in Pound's words, "the sequence of the musical phrase, not the sequence of a metronome." One of Pound's most famous Imagist poems is "In a Station of the Metro," published in Poetry magazine in 1913:

The apparition     of these faces     in the crowd     :
Petals     on a wet, black     bough      .

In 1917 Pound wrote, in a letter to James Joyce, "I have begun an endless poem, of no known category . . . all about everything." The collection of poems that resulted, The Cantos, occupied him nearly the rest of his life, and became his most famous work. The Cantos are appreciated and criticized for being obscure and very difficult to read. Pound intended the poems to create an epic, to dramatize "the acquisition of cultural knowledge."

During World War II, Pound moved to Italy, where he began doing radio broadcasts for the Italian government under Mussolini. He seemed to endorse fascism, and many of his comments were anti-Semitic. For these reasons, Pound was arrested by the United States army for treason. He was kept in a small, outdoor cage in an army base outside of Pisa, Italy, where he suffered mental and physical exhaustion. But he managed to write a few more poems for his Cantos, and in 1949 Pound won the prestigious Bollingen Award, to much controversy. Pound was taken to America, and was declared mentally unfit to stand trial. He moved to a mental institution in Washington D.C., where he lived until 1958. He said, "I can get along with the crazy people, it's only the fools I can't stand." Many people never believed he was insane, and his friends and admirers came to visit him often. He told them, "I guess the definition of a lunatic is a man surrounded by them." When he was released, he moved to his beloved Italy, where he fell into despair over much of the work he'd done. He told Allen Ginsberg, "the worst mistake I made was the stupid, suburban prejudice of Anti-Semitism." He died in 1977.

It's the anniversary of Orson Welles's broadcast of "The War of the Worlds " in 1938. Welles wrote an adaptation of an H.G. Wells novel in which Martians invade Earth, and presented it as if it were really happening on the Halloween broadcast of a show called "Mercury Theater on the Air." It began, "Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, strange beings who landed in New Jersey tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from Mars." Thousands of listeners missed the first part of the show and didn't know it was Welles's "The War of the Worlds." People clogged the switchboards trying to get more information about the landing. A few people reported seeing the aliens.

It's the birthday of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, born near Dublin, Ireland (1751). His mother and father were both playwrights, and his father was also a scholar of English who had written a dictionary. His grandfather, Thomas Sheridan, was a close friend of the great Irish writer Jonathan Swift. Sheridan's most famous play, The Rivals, was produced in 1775, when he was just 23 years old. The play is a romantic comedy known for its witty dialogue. Sheridan wrote and produced two more successes, The School for Scandal (1777) and St. Patrick's Day (1775), which boosted the popularity of his theater. On his 28th birthday, Sheridan's final comedy, The Critic (1779), premiered. After that he became a member of parliament. He became known as an outgoing, adventurous, and witty orator.

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