Dec. 8, 2003

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

by James Wright

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Poem: "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota," by James Wright, from Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press).

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, better known as Horace, born in Apulia, Italy (65 B.C.). He's best known today for his Odes, poems about ordinary events like drinking wine or saying goodbye to a friend. He wrote, "Think to yourself that every day is your last; the hour to which you do not look forward will come as a welcome surprise." And he wrote, "Mix a little foolishness with your serious plans: it's lovely to be silly at the right moment."

It's the birthday of American poet, essayist, and fiction writer Delmore Schwartz, born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (1913). He went to college at New York University. The summer after his junior year, he moved from his mother's apartment to a shabby apartment in Greenwich Village. He was determined to become a writer, and locked himself in his room for twelve hours a day, writing stories and poems. By the time the summer was over, he had finished his first great work, a short story called "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." It was published in 1937 in the left-wing journal The Partisan Review, and a year later Schwartz came out with a book of short stories with the same name. It was a big success, and people like T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Vladimir Nabokov loved it. Schwartz was 25 years old and already a big-name writer.

He wrote poetry, essays and stories, and was known as one of the best writers of his generation. He published the poetry collections Shenandoah (1941) and Genesis: Book I (1943), and the short story collection The World is a Wedding (1948). But when he quit his job teaching at Harvard in 1948, he was almost penniless. He married a writer named Elizabeth Pollet, and they went off to live in an old farmhouse in rural New Jersey. He wrote furiously, held several jobs, and got hooked on alcohol and amphetamines. His wife left him and he moved back to New York City, where he continued to drink heavily and write poetry and criticism. He wrote in a letter, "The years pass and the years pass and the years pass, & still I see only as in a glass darkly and vaguely." He died in 1966 at the age of 52.

Schwartz said, "I find life superior to anything I could invent."

It's the birthday of American novelist Mary Gordon, born in Far Rockaway, Long Island, New York (1949). She's the author of the novels The Company of Women (1981), The Other Side (1989), and Men and Angels (1985), among others. She grew up in a family that was devoutly Catholic. Her father had converted from Judaism and founded several right-wing Catholic magazines. Mary later said Catholic mass was "an excellent training ground for an aspiring novelist," because it was full of beautiful rituals and evocative language. As a child, she wanted to become a nun. But she fell in love with literature and went to college at Barnard at a time when civil rights activism and Vietnam War protests were at their height. She left the Catholic Church, joined the women's movement, and wrote poetry and fiction.

After college, Gordon moved to London, where she researched Virginia Woolf and worked on her first novel. One day, she was feeling lonely and saw the novelist Margaret Drabble on TV. Gordon wrote her a letter describing her day, and Drabble called Gordon up and invited her to dinner. Drabble read the manuscript of Gordon's first novel and introduced her to an agent who helped find a publisher for Final Payments in 1978. It's about a Catholic woman who lives at home until she's 30 years old, taking care of her ailing father. After his death, she goes out into the world on her own for the first time, but she's weighed down by feelings of guilt and self-torment. Final Payments sold over a million copies, and critics compared Gordon to Jane Austen and Flannery O'Connor. Almost overnight, Gordon went from making $11,000 a year teaching community college to being featured in People magazine.

She lives in Manhattan with her husband, and says she never wants to leave. She said, "If I'm ever sad, I go to Broadway. What I think is so wonderful about living in this city is remembering how many other ways there are to live besides your own. I find that endlessly hopeful and endlessly interesting."

It's the birthday of American writer James Thurber, born in Columbus, Ohio (1894). He's known as the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain. In 1927, Thurber met the writer E.B. White, who introduced him to Harold Ross, the editor of a new magazine called The New Yorker. Ross hired Thurber as an editor, and Thurber went on to write articles and draw cartoons for The New Yorker for years. He wrote almost constantly-at parties, at the dinner table, in bed. E.B. White said, "His mind was never at rest, and his pencil was connected to his mind by the best conductive tissue I have ever seen in action." Between 1930 and 1961, Thurber published almost thirty books. He's one of the few major American authors who wrote almost exclusively short pieces. His best-known stories are "The Catbird Seat" and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," about a man who fantasizes compulsively.

Thurber often claimed he didn't care much about politics. He said that when Harding and Cox, who were both from Ohio, ran for president in 1920, he couldn't decide who to vote for. So he flipped a coin, didn't bother to see how it landed, and left without voting. He made fun of leftist intellectuals in the 1930s, saying, "I don't think the revolution is here or anywhere near here." But in the '40s and '50s, he became an outspoken critic of McCarthyism, after it began threatening writers' freedom. He said, "The end of American comedy is in sight and the theater's gone to hell. . . . Who can write where everybody's scared? . . . I'm not letting any Congressman scare me to death." He wrote diatribes against the House Un-American Activities Committee and spoke out against it in newspapers and magazines. In 1952 he wrote, "I have to write what I have to write, and I don't give a damn what anybody says about it. I wanted to be on the New Yorker, and I wanted to make money, and I wanted to sell books. . . . The raising of my voice now, at 57, is in defense of my livelihood rather than my profession."

Thurber said, "Let us not look back to the past with anger, nor towards the future with fear, but look around with awareness."

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




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