Feb. 5, 2004

Sonnet: Daffodils

by Gavin Ewart

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Poem: "Sonnet: Daffodils," by Gavin Ewart, from Or Where a Young Penguin Lies Screaming (Gollancz).

Sonnet: Daffodils

Wordsworth really loved daffodils. He said they were flashers.
Certainly they must be the most exhibitionistic flowers
                                                              there are.
trumpeting their presence in yellow—by far the most
                                                              visible colour.
I grant that after a long hard winter
it's warming to see snow-drops and crocuses in that iron earth
and the very first daffodils (what a cliché) seem a
something it even seems appropriate to make a fuss about.
They look so perfect, though a bit self-conscious.

After a week or two, however, when Spring is established,
and everywhere you look there are oceans of daffodils
as arrogant as pop stars, they begin to seem ordinary.
You take them for granted. Like a love affair fading
they shrivel and go crinkly, papery and tired.
The Spring too (teenagers witness) has its own kind of

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of playwright John Guare, born in New York City (1938). His first job after college was with MGM in Hollywood, but he hated it and joined the Air Force so he could travel around Europe. After a couple of years, he hitchhiked from Paris to the Sudan, filling dozens of pocket-sized notebooks with drafts of plays. It wasn't long after he got back that he had his first big hit, with House of Blue Leaves (1970). That was followed by a pop musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971), which started out being performed in public parks from the back of a truck, and ended up winning the Tony for Best Musical.

Guare's biggest success in recent years has been Six Degrees of Separation, which opened in 1990. It's about a rich white couple whose lives are changed by a young black man claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier. The title of Six Degrees of Separation refers to the claim that it takes only six steps to genetically link any two people on earth. A character in the play says: "I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. I find that A] tremendously comforting that we're so close and B] like Chinese water torture that we're so close. Because you have to find the right six people to make the connection."

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Naked Lunch (1959), William S(eward) Burroughs, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1914). After he got a degree in English from Harvard, he went to medical school, studied anthropology, served in the Army, and worked as private detective. Finally, he settled in New York City, where he met his future wife, Joan Vollmer.

One day in 1946, Vollmer introduced him to two young Columbia University students, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. It was the beginning of the Beat movement in literature. Kerouac said he found Burroughs "so interesting and intelligent and worldly wise that he seemed like some sort of intellectual spiritual man of distinction to us." The three men started meeting at Burroughs's apartment to talk about literature and philosophy. Burroughs was 35 years old and hadn't considered a career in writing, but Kerouac and Ginsberg were both trying to be writers, and they convinced Burroughs that he should write something too. His first book was an autobiography called Junky (1951), and Ginsberg used his connections to help get it published.

Burroughs was involved in the underworld of New York, and he eventually fled with his wife to Mexico. One night, at a party, his wife balanced a glass on her head and dared Burroughs to shoot it off like William Tell. Burroughs was drunk, and he accidentally shot his wife in the forehead. The authorities ruled her death an accident, and Burroughs went to live in Tangier, where he wrote most of his best-known works, including Naked Lunch.

Naked Lunch is a series of sketches about drugs, addiction, sex, politics and language. When Burroughs delivered the manuscript to his publisher, he plopped the sketches down in random order, deciding that it didn't matter how they were arranged. As a result, you can pick up Naked Lunch and start reading anywhere, and jump forward and backward whenever you want, without disrupting the flow of the novel. It was a national bestseller, and Burroughs went on to write many more novels, including The Soft Machine (1961) and The Western Lands (1987).

It's the birthday of priest, sociologist and novelist Andrew Greeley, born in Oak Park, Illinois (1928). He became a priest at the age of 26, and went on to get a degree in sociology from the University of Chicago. His first books were sociological studies of religion in America, with titles like Religion and Career (1963). Then, in 1981, he came out with his first novel, The Cardinal Sins, about the sordid underbelly of upper-class Catholic society in Chicago. He said he was inspired to write fiction by reading other Catholic authors like G.K. Chesterton and Evelyn Waugh. He's gone on to write many more controversial bestsellers about Catholicism in America, including Fall From Grace (1990) and September Song (2001).

It's the birthday of a French woman famous for writing letters, Marie de Sévigné, born in Paris (1626). When she was 18, she married a nobleman who had good connections but not much money. By the time he was killed in a duel, six years later, she had made a name for herself in Paris salons as a brilliant conversationalist and letter writer. She wrote thousands of letters to friends, family members, and social acquaintances. When her daughter moved away from her, she wrote her a letter almost every day for more than 25 years. By the end of her life, her letters were already beginning to be copied and circulated, and she wrote them with the knowledge that they would be seen by many people.

Her letters were learned, witty, long-winded, and full of gossip. One began: "I am about to tell you the most astonishing thing, the most surprising, the most marvelous, the most miraculous, the most triumphant, the most bewildering, the most unheard of, the most singular. ... I cannot bring myself to give it away. Guess."

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