Nov. 5, 2003


by Miller Williams

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Poem: "Listen | 014," by Miller Williams, from Some Jazz a While: Collected Poems (University of Illinois Press).

Listen | 014

I threw a snowball across the backyard.
My dog ran after it to bring it back.
It broke as it fell, scattering snow over snow.
She stood confused, seeing and smelling nothing.
She searched in widening circles until I called her.

She looked at me and said as clearly in silence
as if she had spoken,
I know it's here, I'll find it,
went back to the center and started the circles again.

I called her two more times before she came
slowly, stopping once to look back.

That was this morning. I'm sure that she's forgotten.
I've had some trouble putting it out of my mind.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1930, a Swedish newspaper reporter telephoned Sinclair Lewis to tell him that he was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, for his novel Main Street (1920). Lewis thought the caller was making a practical joke and began to imitate the man's accent. But it was not a joke: Lewis was, in fact, the first American to win the prize. Main Street is a satire of the false neighborliness in a small, Minnesota town much like the town where Lewis himself grew up, Sauk Centre. He said thousands of people "read the book with the same masochistic pleasure that one has in sucking an aching tooth."

It's the birthday of the Irish-American writer Tom Phelan, born in County Laois, Ireland (1940). He was a priest, a carpenter, and a professor before he emigrated to the United States and became a writer. His best-known novel, In the Season of the Daisies (1996), is about the murder of a small boy by a member of the Irish Republican Army, after the boy witnessed a political murder. Phelan has written two other books, Iscariot (1995) and Darrycloney (1999).

It's the birthday of professor and novelist Thomas Flanagan, born in Greenwich, Connecticut (1923). Flanagan was a high school friend of Truman Capote and worked with him on the school newspaper. He became a professor of English literature at Columbia, and then at Berkeley. His specialty was Irish literature, and he began a tradition of spending every summer in Ireland. On these trips he formed friendships with many Irish writers, including Seamus Heaney. Heaney said, "(Flanagan) was like a father to me and like a typical Irish son I felt closest at our times of greatest silence and remoteness." One day Flanagan was waiting for his wife to pick him up from his office and found himself staring at a blank piece of paper on his desk. He was suddenly struck by an image of a man walking down a road, and decided to write a novel. The image became the opening chapter of his first book, The Year of the French (1979), about the failed 1798 Irish uprising against British. He went on to write two more historical novels, The Tenants of Time (1988) and The End of the Hunt (1994).

It's the birthday of novelist and biographer Geoffrey Wolff, born in Los Angeles, California (1937). He's written biographies of the poet Harry Crosby, the writer John O'Hara, and his own father.

It's the birthday of actor and playwright Sam Shepard, born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois (1943). His father was an alcoholic who worked in the Air Force, and the family moved often during Shepard's childhood. The Shepards finally settled in California, where they lived on an avocado ranch. Shepard moved away from California to become an actor, and eventually settled in New York. He wrote a few short plays and supported himself as a bus boy. He lived with the son of jazz legend Charles Mingus. The younger Mingus said that when Shepard wasn't reading Samuel Beckett or working, he would go into his room with a ream of paper, close the door, and emerge some time later with the same box of paper, holding a new play. Shepard's early plays were innovative, influenced by early experiments as a rock musician. In 1979, he wrote Buried Child, which deals with the deterioration of the traditional American family. It won the Pulitzer Prize. One of his most recent plays, The Late Henry Moss (2000), is about conflict between two brothers and their dead father.

It's the birthday of writer and historian Will Durant, born in North Adams, Massachusetts (1885). He's best known for a huge, eleven-volume work called The Story of Civilization (1939-1975). In the book, which he wrote with his wife Ariel, he attempts to synthesize nearly all of human history, following artistic, scientific, religious, and political movements. It was an effort to create a world history for the ordinary person. Though the book was heavily criticized for being incomplete, it was important to many people who wanted to read and enjoy history.

It's the birthday of the "King of the Cowboys," Roy Rogers, born Leonard Franklin Slye in Cincinnati, Ohio (1911). When he was eighteen he moved with his mother and father to California, where he earned money by harvesting fruit and working as a cowhand. He started playing guitar and singing in small theaters and on the radio in the 1930s. He met Bob Nolan and Tim Spenser, and they started the band "Sons of the Pioneers." The band made appearances in several motion pictures. Rogers's first screen name was "Dick Weston." He changed it to Roy Rogers just before he got his first big break, replacing Gene Autry in the movie Under Western Stars (1938). The movie was a hit, and it launched Rogers's steady film career as a singing cowboy.

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




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