Feb. 9, 2004

White Fields

by James Stephens

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Poem: "White Fields," by James Stephens, from Collected Poems (Macmillan).

White Fields


In the winter time we go
Walking in the fields of snow;

Where there is no grass at all;
Where the top of every wall,

Every fence, and every tree,
Is as white as white can be.


Pointing out the way we came,
--Every one of them the same--

All across the fields there be
Prints in silver filigree;

And our mothers always know,
By the footprints in the snow,

Where it is the children go.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who won the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature, J. M. Coetzee, born in Cape Town, South Africa. His breakthrough novel was Waiting for Barbarians, published in 1980. It's an allegory about an army that arrives in a frontier town and tries to wipe out the peaceful nomadic people who live there. His latest novel is Elizabeth Costello (2003), which consists largely of an aging novelist's lectures about vegetarianism.

In 1999, Coetzee became the first person to win two Booker Prizes, England's top literary award, the first for Life and Times of Michael K in 1983 and the second for Disgrace in 1999. Four years later he won the Nobel Prize. In his Nobel Prize banquet speech, he said, "Why must our mothers be ninety-nine and long in the grave before we can come running home with the prize that will make up for all the trouble we have been to them?"

Coetzee said writers "[make] a living out of ambivalence. Where would the art of fiction be if there were no double meanings? What would life itself be if there were only heads or tails and nothing in between?"

It's the birthday of writer Alice Walker, born in Eatonton, Georgia (1944). She's written poetry, essays, children's books, short stories and criticism, but she's best known for her 1983 novel The Color Purple. While she was a professor at Wellesley College, Walker suggested teaching a course made up entirely of literature by women, something that was nearly unheard of at the time. She read through dozens of neglected books by African-American women, and almost single-handedly brought the books of Zora Neale Hurston back into print.

It's the birthday of Irish playwright and novelist Brendan Behan, born in Dublin (1923). He grew up in one of the poorest sections of Dublin. He later said, "To get enough to eat was regarded as an achievement. To get drunk was a victory." His father took part in the Irish uprising against the British in the early 1920s, and when Brendan was born he was being held in a British prison. When Brendan was nine years old, he joined a youth organization that had ties to the IRA. He later called the group "the Republican Boy Scouts." He rose through the ranks of the IRA, and by the time he was fifteen he was being sent on missions to bomb British targets.

He spent most of the 1940s in prison. First he was thrown in jail for carrying a suitcase full of homemade explosives through the streets of Liverpool. After he got out, he was arrested for the attempted murder of two policemen. It was during his second stay in prison that he began to write. He wrote his first play, The Quare Fellow (1956), about the execution of a convict in a Dublin prison. When he got out of prison, it became a big hit in London and then New York. He followed that up with The Hostage (1958) and the memoir Borstal Boy (1958).

Behan was known for his public displays of humor and drunkenness. Sometimes, he would interrupt performances of his own plays to talk to the audience. He became a celebrity in Dublin, and spent much of the last part of his life in New York, which he called "my Lourdes, where I go for spiritual refreshment . . . a place where you're least likely to be bitten by a wild goat."

Brendan Behan said, "I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper, and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer."

It's the birthday of writer George Ade, born near Kentland, Indiana (1866). After college, Ade worked for many years as a journalist in Chicago. He wrote short, funny stories about ordinary Midwestern people and events. They eventually became so popular that they were collected in books such as Fables in Slang (1899) and People You Knew (1903). In one story about a writer, he wrote, "After being Turned Down by numerous Publishers, he had decided to write for Posterity."

In 1915 he moved back to a farm near his birthplace. He wrote the Hoosier Handbook and Guide for the Returning Exile, in which he wrote about Indiana, "Note the smiling faces, the added tinge of green to the luxuriant vegetation, the simple majesty of the buildings that decorate the broad sweeps of the Hoosier company and the peculiar turquoise blue of the sky--like Italy, only more so."

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