Nov. 9, 2003


by Tony Hoagland

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Poem: "Disappointment," by Tony Hoagland, from What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf Press).


I was feeling pretty religious
standing on the bridge in my winter coat
looking down at the gray water:
the sharp little waves dusted with snow,
fish in their tin armor.

That's what I like about disappointment:
the way it slows you down,
when the querulous insistent chatter of desire
             goes dead calm

and the minor roadside flowers
pronounce their quiet colors,
and the red dirt of the hillside glows.

She played the flute, he played the fiddle
and the moon came up over the barn.
Then he didn't get the job, —
or her father died before she told him
             that one, most important thing—

and everything got still.

It was February or October
It was July
I remember it so clear
You don't have to pursue anything ever again
It's over
You're free
You're unemployed

You just have to stand there
looking out on the water
in your trench coat of solitude
with your scarf of resignation
             lifting in the wind.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Anne Sexton, born Anne Gray Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts (1928). Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother's literary ambitions were destroyed by her turbulent family life. Anne got married when she was nineteen, spent a few years as a model, and had a daughter when she was 25. She suffered from postpartum depression, had a mental breakdown, and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. In 1955, she gave birth to another daughter, had another breakdown, and was once again hospitalized. This time, she saw an analyst who told her she should write about what she was feeling and thinking and dreaming. She began writing poetry, often two or three sonnets a day, and many of the poems dealing with her psychiatric struggles were collected in To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960). She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for Live or Die, before committing suicide in 1974.

Anne Sexton said, "I wonder if the artist ever lives his life—he is so busy recreating it."

It's the birthday of American poet James Schuyler, born in Chicago in 1923. He was associated with the New York School of poetry that included poets like John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and Kenneth Koch. He's known for writing funny, conversational poems about everyday life. He had been writing poetry for twenty years before his first major collections of poems, Freely Espousing (1969), was published. That same year, he wrote a novel called A Nest of Ninnies with his friend John Ashbery. It's about two families in suburban New York whose lives are so boring that the book has almost no plot. Schuyler won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for his collection The Morning of the Poem.

It's the birthday of Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, born in Orel, Russia (1818), best known for his novel Fathers and Sons (1862). He was one of the three great nineteenth century Russian novelists, along with Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, who wrote about the changing society of nineteenth century Russia. He grew up near Moscow, where his mother was a wealthy landowner, but as a young man he went away to study in Berlin. The experience of leaving Russia changed his life. He said, "I threw myself head first into the 'German Sea,' in which I was . . . cleansed and reborn, and when I finally surfaced from its waves, I was a 'Westernist' and remained one forever." From a distance, he began to think of Russia as a barbarous place where serfs were kept as slaves and treated as animals. He would devote the rest of his life to exposing the inhumanity of serfdom.

Back in Russia, he wrote his first book of fiction, A Sportsman's Sketches (1852), about a hunter who travels through the Russian countryside, meeting peasants along the way. Turgenev portrayed the peasants as individual characters, rather than a faceless mass, which no Russian writer had ever done before. Soon after the book was published, Turgenev was arrested and imprisoned by Czar Nicholas I for criticizing the Russian government in a short obituary he'd written. He became famous for the scandal, and most people believed he had actually been imprisoned for suggesting that serfs were real people who deserved basic human rights. Intellectuals across the country read his book, and it helped build political pressure for the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.

Turgenev's masterpiece, Fathers and Sons, was published in 1862. It's about the conflict between two generations, the conservative elder generation and the radical youths who want to do away with tradition and create a new social order. Turgenev called these youths "nihilists," and defined the term for the first time: "A nihilist is a man who does not bow to any authorities, who does not take any principle on trust, no matter with what respect that principle is surrounded." The main character of Fathers and Sons, a young medical student, served as a model for many Russian revolutionaries at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Turgenev was friends with many of the leading writers in western Europe, and his works were translated into French, German and English only a few years after they had been printed in Russian. As a result, he was the first Russian writer to gain widespread appreciation in the West. He had a huge influence on writers like Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemingway.

Ivan Turgenev said, "What's terrible is that there's nothing terrible, that the very essence of life is petty, uninteresting, and degradingly trite." And he said, "We sit in the mud and reach for the stars."

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




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