Feb. 7, 2004

The Remorse for Time

by Howard Nemerov

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Poem: "The Remorse for Time," by Howard Nemerov, from New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press).

The Remorse for Time

When I was a boy, I used to go to bed
By daylight, in the summer, and lie awake
Between the cool, white, reconciling sheets,
Hearing the talk of birds, watching the light
Diminish through the shimmering planes of leaf
Outside the window, until sleep came down
When darkness did, eyes closing as the light
Faded out of them, silencing the birds.

Sometimes still, in the sleepless dark hours
Tormented most by the remorse for time,
Only for time, the mind speaks of that boy
(he did no wrong, then why had he to die?)
Falling asleep on the current of the stars
Which even then washed him away past pardon.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder, born Laura Ingalls near Pepin, Wisconsin (1867). When she was 63 years old she started writing about her pioneer childhood in books such as Little House in the Big Woods (1932) and Little House on the Prairie (1935).

It's the birthday of the poet David Ignatow, born in Brooklyn, New York (1914). His parents were Russian immigrants, and he was inspired to become a writer by his father's love of literature. He said, "My father would sit relaxed in his soft chair under a floor lamp and reminisce of his readings in Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov in their original language. The reverence with which he spoke of them as men and writers impressed itself upon me indelibly." But when the stock market crashed in 1929, his father forced David to work in the family bindery company. He eventually became the president of the company.

While working at the bindery, he wrote poetry whenever he got the chance, and published several collections about the daily lives of urban workers. When his first collection, Poems, was published in 1948, William Carlos Williams wrote a review of it that said, "These are poems for the millions, in the cities and out of them, [for] those who would read . . poems such as these, if only they could get to them; manna in the wilderness." Ignatow went on to write many more collections of poetry, including Rescue the Dead (1968) and I Have a Name (1996).

It's the birthday of novelist (Harry) Sinclair Lewis, born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (1885). His mother died when he was six years old, and he never got along with his father. Growing up in Sauk Centre, he was a gawky kid, uncoordinated and odd looking, and his only talent seemed to be imitating the voices of local teachers and priests. He never felt comfortable in his hometown and tried to run away to fight in the Spanish American War when he was thirteen.

As soon as he graduated from high school, he moved away to the East Coast for college and then almost never stopped moving for the rest of his life. As a young man, he traveled to Europe on a cattle boat, tried to get a job working on the Panama canal, lived on a socialist commune, and traveled all over the United States working as a journalist.

He published short stories in popular magazines and produced five novels, none of which got any attention. He said, "I lacked sense enough to see that, after five failures, I was foolish to continue writing." He took a trip back home to Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and while he was there, he felt as though everyone was judging him and gossiping about him. The experience gave him the idea for a novel about a rebellious woman named Carol Kennicott who moves to a small town called Gopher Prairie and tries to bring it culturally up to date, only to fail miserably. That novel was Main Street (1920), and it was a literary sensation. No one had ever written such a fierce attack on small town American life. It was published at a time when Americans were moving in huge numbers from small towns to big cities, and it captured the way most young Americans felt about the small towns they'd grown up in.

Lewis described the people in his fictional Gopher Prairie as "A savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world."

The town of Sauk Centre, which Lewis hated so much when he was growing up, now holds a festival every summer called Sinclair Lewis Days. The town also has a museum called the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center, and a street called Sinclair Lewis Avenue.

It's the birthday of Charles Dickens, born in Portsmouth, England (1812). He's the author of many classic novels, including David Copperfield (1850) and Great Expectations (1861). When he was eleven years old, his father was thrown into debtor's prison, and young Charles was forced to spend several months working in a factory. He never forgot the experience, and decided that for the rest of his life he would do whatever it took to be successful so that he'd never have to work a factory job again.

When he was a young man, he supported himself as a freelance journalist, writing short essays about the cabdrivers, beggars and clowns he met in lower-class areas of London. He eventually collected these essays and published them in the book Sketches by Boz (1836). The book got him some attention, and a publisher offered Dickens a job writing for a kind of serial comic book, with pictures provided by the famous artist Robert Seymour. Dickens and Seymour argued constantly about the storyline, but then Seymour committed suicide after the first issue, so Dickens took over. The first issue sold 500 copies, and the final installment sold 40,000. The chapters were bound together and published as Dickens' first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837).

Dickens went on to publish all his novels in serial form. He published each chapter as soon as he finished it, which allowed him to shape the story based on his readers' reactions. When readers didn't like his novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), he abruptly sent the main character to the United States. He often found himself struggling to meet his deadlines. Once, he ran out of writing supplies and had to rush to the stationery store to buy more paper. He overheard a woman at the store inquiring about the next installment of his novel, which he was at that moment buying the paper to write.

Dickens was the most popular novelist of his time. Unlike Jane Austen or Sir Walter Scott, he didn't use a pseudonym, and so he became one of the first literary celebrities. One of the reasons his novels were so addictive and popular was that they had such elaborate plots and sub-plots. Some people have argued that by pioneering the serial novel, he also created the prototype for the soap opera. He gave his fictional characters some of the most peculiar and memorable names of English literature, including Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Wackford Squeers, Martin Chuzzlewit, Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heep, Inspector Bucket, Volumnia Dedlock, Abel Magwitch, Miss Havisham, and Edwin Drood.

He was also a master prose stylist. His novel Bleak House (1853) begins: "Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill."

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