Feb. 18, 2004

Walking to Work

by Ted Kooser

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Poem: "Walking to Work," by Ted Kooser, from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press).

Walking to Work

Today, it's the obsidian
ice on the sidewalk
with its milk white bubbles
popping under my shoes
that pleases me, and upon it
a lump of old snow
with a trail like a comet,
that somebody,
probably falling in love,
has kicked
all the way to the corner.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Toni Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio (1931). She's the author of Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987) and other novels. She grew up during the Depression in a steel town just west of Cleveland. She graduated from college with a degree in literature and got a job teaching English at Howard University.

She didn't start writing fiction until she was in her thirties. She wasn't happy with her marriage, and writing helped her escape her daily troubles. She later said, "It was as though I had nothing left but my imagination. . . . I wrote like someone with a dirty habit. Secretly. Compulsively. Slyly." She joined a small writing group, and one day she didn't have anything to bring to the group meeting, so she jotted down a story about a black girl who wants blue eyes. The story later became her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1969). She wrote most of it in the mornings and on weekends while she was working as an editor for Random House and raising her children on her own.

She continued to edit books for Random House after the publication of The Bluest Eye, but she was transferred from the textbook department to the trade department. She helped to get books by black authors published, including an autobiography by Muhammed Ali, and she wrote social commentary for mass-market publications.

Morrison's first big success was the 1977 novel Song of Solomon, about a rich black businessman who tries to hide his working class background. It was the first novel by a black author to be chosen for the Book-of-the-Month Club since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Morrison said, "[Writing] stretches you . . . [and] makes you stay in touch with yourself. . . . It's like going under water for me, the danger. Yet I'm certain I'm going to come up."

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, born in Heraklion on the island of Crete, Greece (1886). He's best known for his novels Zorba the Greek (1946) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). He got a degree in law in 1906, but instead of becoming a lawyer he went to Paris to study philosophy with the philosopher Henri Bergson. In 1919 he began his long career in public service, working in the Greek Ministry of Public Welfare. He was responsible for the rescue of about 150,000 Greeks from a war in the western Soviet Union. He also spent years traveling through Europe and Asia and working on his epic 33,333-line sequel to Homer's Odyssey.

He didn't make it big as a writer until he was sixty years old, with the publication of Zorba the Greek (1946). It's about an intellectual who travels to Crete with his uneducated friend Zorba to manage a group of mine workers. Kazantzakis wrote in Zorba the Greek: "How simple . . . a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. . . . All that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple . . . heart."

It's the birthday of novelist Wallace Stegner, born in Lake Mills, Iowa (1909). He wrote dozens of novels about the American West, including The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) and Angle of Repose (1973). As a child, his father was constantly moving the family from town to town. They went from North Dakota to Washington to Saskatchewan to Montana—where he and his friends used to ride boxcars up into the mountains to go hunting and fishing. After college, he ended up in California, where he founded the creative writing program at Stanford University.

He thought that most writing about the West relied too much on legend and myth. He was one of the first writers to write about people in the West without stereotyping them as tough cowboys and helpless women. His best known novel is Angle of Repose (1973), about an old, sick man who finally accepts his hardships after he learns about the hard lives of his grandparents. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

Wallace Stegner said, "It is something—it can be everything—to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below."

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




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