Feb. 20, 2004

Beer Bottle

by Ted Kooser

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

Beer Bottle

In the burned-
out highway
ditch the throw-

away beer
bottle lands
standing up

like a cat
thrown off

of a roof
to kill it,
landing hard

and dazzled
in the sun
right side up;

sort of a

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of singer-songwriter Kurt Cobain, born in Hoquiam, Washington (1967). His parents got divorced when he was eight years old, and he spent the next several years shuttling back and forth between the homes of his parents, his grandparents, and three sets of aunts and uncles. He started playing guitar and writing songs in high school, but when he was seventeen, his father forced him to sell the guitar and sign up for the Navy. He only decided not to enlist at the last minute. He got a job as a school janitor and started playing in local rock bands, living at various friends' houses and on the street, occasionally sleeping under a bridge. He and his bandmates saved up six hundred dollars to record their first album, Bleach (1989), under the name Nirvana. The album was received well enough that they began to play live venues in nearby cities like Olympia and Seattle. They signed to a major label for their next album, Nevermind (1991), and Cobain was shocked when it sold more than 10 million copies.

He became internationally famous almost overnight. The way he dressed—in torn jeans, flannel shirts, and striped sweaters—began to influence clothing designers. His abrasive music was played at high school dances and sporting events, and it changed the kind of music that got played on the radio. But Cobain hated being famous. He developed a heroin addiction that got worse and worse, and on April 5th of 1994, he committed suicide at his home in Seattle.

It's the birthday of filmmaker Robert Altman, born in Kansas City, Missouri (1925). His father was a successful insurance salesman, and a compulsive gambler. Altman said, "I learned a lot about losing from [my father]. That losing is an identity; that you can be a good loser and a bad winner; that none of it—gambling, money, winning or losing—has any real value."

Altman served during World War II as a bomber pilot, and then got a job making industrial films for various corporations. He started working on television shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Bonanza, but the television executives didn't like him. He always wanted important characters on his TV shows to die unexpectedly, because he thought that was more realistic. He didn't think there was enough realism in television.

His first success as a Hollywood filmmaker came when he chose to direct a movie that had been passed over by fourteen other directors. The movie was M*A*S*H (1970), about a group of military surgeons who joke around to keep themselves sane during the Korean War. It was the first major studio film to use extreme profanity and to mock the belief in God. The studio almost didn't release it because they thought the surgical scenes were too bloody and morbid. It came out at the height of the Vietnam War, and became the highest grossing movie of the year.

Altman has since become known for movies using large casts of characters and overlapping, improvised dialogue, including McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), about a whore house in the old west; Nashville (1975), about the country music industry; The Player (1992), about Hollywood; and Short Cuts (1993), loosely based on a series of short stories by Raymond Carver. His most recent film is The Company (2003) about a group of ballet dancers in New York City.

Altman said, "To play it safe is not to play."

It's the birthday of short story writer and novelist Ellen Gilchrist, born in Vicksburg, Mississippi (1935). After her marriage broke up, she tried to write poetry in her free time, but she didn't think of it as anything serious. Then, in her late thirties, she read a book of poetry by Anne Sexton, and she suddenly felt that she was wasting her life. She said, "I began to have this recurrent dream of being in my house in New Orleans and opening a door to find all these rooms that I didn't know were there, full of chests with the drawers full of treasures. Nothing had been touched in a long, long time, and I had this feeling that I wanted to get other people in the house and show them these rooms. So I began to write." She published her first book of short stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, in 1981, and she has gone on to publish many more books of short stories and novels, including Drunk with Love (1986), I Cannot Get You Close Enough (1990), and Rhoda: A Life in Stories (1995).

It's the birthday of spy novelist Alan Furst, born in New York City (1941). In 1983, he got an assignment to write about the Soviet Union. He happened to arrive on the day the Soviet Union had shot down a Korean Airlines plane, and the country was in a state of panic. People in the streets were terrified that the United States might use the incident as an excuse to attack. He was shocked by the number of policemen on the streets, and the sense that the people were as afraid of their own government as they were of the United States. He realized that he wanted to write a novel that captured the experience of Soviet totalitarianism. He moved to Paris and sold all his nonessential possessions, and started researching and writing the novel that would become Night Soldiers (1988), about an ordinary man who is forced to become a spy for the Soviets. The book was a big success, in part because it was such a realistic spy novel, with close attention paid to precise historical details. Furst has gone on to write many novels about World War II era Europe, including The World at Night (1996), Red Gold (1999), and Kingdom of Shadows (2001).

It's the birthday of poet Hugo Williams, born in Windsor, England (1942). One of the most popular living poets in England, he's the author of many collections, including Symptoms of Loss (1965), Sugar Daddy (1970), and Some Sweet Day (1975).

It's the birthday of photographer and conservationist Ansel Adams, born in San Francisco, California (1902). When he was thirteen, his father took him to Yosemite National Park, and it was there that he took his first photographs with a Kodak Box Brownie camera. He couldn't wait to get the pictures back from the developer, but when he did, he was horrified at how they turned out. He thought they hadn't captured the beauty he'd seen at all. He persuaded the owner of a San Francisco photo-finishing plant to take him on as an apprentice in the darkroom, and he began traveling to Yosemite every summer, working on improving his photographic technique.

He started out taking pictures in soft focus, imitating impressionist paintings, but he slowly became obsessed with clarity. After one of his first trips to the Sierra Nevada, he wrote, "The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor." He wanted to capture that quality in his photographs, and he dedicated himself to rendering every blade of grass and particle of sand in perfect focus. He spent so much time trying to perfect his photographs in the darkroom that he only produced about twelve new images every year that he felt satisfied with.

Adams also used his own photographs to campaign for environmental protection. He joined the Sierra Club in 1919 and served on the board of directors for more than forty years. He allowed his photographs to be reprinted in numerous calendars and books, in the hopes that they would persuade people to feel about nature the way that he did, and in the process he became the most famous landscape photographer of the twentieth century. In 1984, shortly after his death, Congress approved the Ansel Adams Wilderness, which added several thousand acres of land to Yosemite National Park. A year later, a peak in the High Sierra was named Mount Ansel Adams.

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